What we do is divide
A call-out to child authors (ages 8-12) from the Pacific

Semantic tricks: Never believe what you read or hear

If words don't add upPHIL FITZPATRICK

‘SEMANTICS’ is an interesting word.  So are ‘rhetoric’ and ‘obfuscation’.

Semantics is related to the interpretation of words.  If someone is being semantic they are insisting upon the exact meaning of a word or phrase.

Fundamentalist religious groups are often pre-occupied with semantics and the interpretations of the texts of their religion, like the bible and the koran. 

The fundamentalist groups in the middle-east are using this device to justify their barbarity, just like the Christians did during the inquisitions in Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries. 

The legal system and the interpretation of legislation today is largely a matter of semantics.

At a more personal level we all indulge in semantics on a daily basis.  We might refer to someone as bad or dishonest.  If we are particularly enthusiastic we will not allow for any measurement of degree in our assessments.

Yet the fact is most people have elements of bad and good mixed into their characters.  Given the right circumstances you can lead ‘good’ people to do terrible things.  Equally, ‘bad’ people often do good things.

I was reminded of this fact while reading the comments following upon an article about Belden Namah’s birthday.

Namah, to my mind, is a classic case of the conflicted nature of the human character. In all likelihood he acquired his wealth through unscrupulous means, ipso facto he must be a bad man.

Yet during the Sandline Affair he acted honourably with PNG’s future close to his heart.  More recently he is credited with keeping the government on their toes from the opposition benches in parliament.

Namah’s current arch foe, Peter O’Neill, is another example of a conflicted character. On the one hand he is allegedly doing shonky deals with lawyers and on the other he is trying to introduce effective health and educational reforms.

How should these people be regarded?  Are they good or bad or a bit of both?  If the latter is the case how can they be trusted?

On a much larger scale how does semantics relate to Papua New Guinea?  Some people are saying it is already a ‘failed’ state.  If you are into semantics it is either failed or not failed, it can’t be both.  Yet we all know it can. 

A keen observer will be able to tell you which bits are failed and which bits are still working reasonably well.  PNG is, after all, only human.

This is where ‘rhetoric’ and ‘obfuscation’ come into play.  Rhetoric is language designed to impress and is usually overblown and ultimately meaningless.  Rhetoric is used to disguise or obscure the real situation or make something sound better or worse that it really is. 

In the political arena ‘jargon’ and ‘slogans’ are handy tools for the rhetorician.  Don Watson, an Australian writer, refers to them as ‘weasel’ words.

Public servants are good at it, too. They invent whole new languages for the purpose. 

Papua New Guinean public servants are especially good at it and so are the consultants they employ or have thrust upon them by aid agencies.  They are particularly adept at making the improbable sound possible.

A friend of mine was telling me about a meeting he recently attended run by the Coffee Marketing Board in PNG.  The powerpoint presentations were running hot with statistics and projections for the coming couple of years.  It was all good, the prices were up and exports were set to multiply.

The only problem was that the figures were based on things that were not actually happening and which were highly unlikely to happen. 

No one is planting new coffee trees and even if they were a coffee bush takes three years to come to maturity, well beyond the projections being presented.  In reality the growers are still harvesting trees planted fifty years ago and have no intention of doing otherwise.

No matter, the statistics were impressive and everyone was patting themselves on the back.  It was all rhetoric however, overblown and meaningless.

Yet so many things in PNG (and Australia) are run this way.

Are the diligent consultants who produce and presumably believe this stuff bad people for misleading everyone?  I guess the answer to that is probably.  But they are probably also good people who go home and kiss their loving wife and play with their adorable kids.

There is an old adage: all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing (or words to that effect).  Engaging in semantics, rhetoric and obfuscation is, I believe, tantamount to doing nothing and the people who do it know exactly what they are doing.

You decide.


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Robin Lillicrapp

Dear Mr Fitzpatrick, perhaps you have laboured too long at pro bono rates, and your lament is thus: Phil-loss-of-fees.

Lindsay F Bond

Whither one’s lore, undue to teach
in paled sleight?
Whence mores
for haled state
will laud of hopes, lest laws wither?

Writing of one segment of PNG population, John Barker offers note of some utility in discernment. He says that those folk have made use categorisation such as ‘government, mission and village’, and for instance, adopted utility in assigning of single cohort, persons who visited them as missionaries, anthropologists and environmentalists.

When Australian and other voters act upon their franchise, what proportion applies (as Kaupa) skill and knowledge in inquiry and analyses, more rigorously than in the Barker example?

William of the name Shakespeare, with words entranced audiences reached, readerships and perhaps rhetoricians, and unto this day. Our language so enriched, the pun is obvious and may set tongues a-wagging, even spears a-waging, or more worrisome, if so boldly put, as
once more unto the reach, seer friends, once more…

Robin Lillicrapp

When the large, robust er rotund lady sings, Phil - after all the pradies are dug and delivered.

Paul Oates

I dunno Phil. A certain Ms Gillard previously confronted the issue head on by calling it 'Hyper Bole'?

I maintain the real problem is that we get the politicians we deserve. Unless and until enough people take a real interest in who they elect we can't expect anything better than what we end up with.

The second issue is the sensationalistic driven media who are bent on reducing any real news to 'blood and sex' items and seem convinced we need to know only what they or their editors want us to know.

See what you've now started? 'Phil oso free' thinking! Next thing you'll be trying to convince us we need to give up altogether unless our current leaders are replaced by genuine achievers?

Olaman! Husat imauswara nau iya?

Phil Fitzpatrick

PNG is a nation of whingers and fence-sitters Paul.

And now you tell me that the Finance Minister wants to do away with "Papuan Time" and introduce all the stresses that that entails.

And all Lillicrapp can do is send me photos of his potato crop.

Keith gave me a licence to indulge my cracked Phil-osphies about a month ago but I think I'm going round in circles.

And now Campbell Newman has called an election.

Where will it all stop?

Paul Oates

Another thoughtful piece Phil. Are you starting a course in Phil-osophy?

Politics in Australia has become a fight for the middle ground where both main political parties try to seduce the swinging voters with promises that they may not be able to keep if they get elected.

Traditionally the swinging voters were about 10% with each side having a rough balance of 45%. These days, the swinging vote is anything up to 25 - 30% and growing.

The general populace has become so disenchanted that the possibility are future governments elected is like a swinging door when it depends on who holds the balance of power due to those minor parties offering who offer a fleeting glance of a better outcome only to let their 'impulse' supporters down every time.

At least PNG has some genuine basis for tribal leadership and not simply one manufactured by colour coded sports uniforms, jingoism and media promoted regional enmity.

Look on the bright side. Be positive. It can only get worse.

What is urgently required in Australia and PNG is genuine leadership and clearly visible results.

What is also urgently required are ordinary voters who will take an interest and active involvement in helping ethical leaders into positions of power.

Trouble is, where are those voters? Most are too self interested to make a difference until it directly affects them. After an election and then when its all too late, they only whinge instead of preparing for the future.

John Kaupa Kamasua

Phil, great article, and I agree with you mostly on the comments below.

Yes there are bright spots for optimism, challenge is to connect the dots even more clearly...this is where I think individuals need to stand apart from the crowd and be counted.

The current culture is simply accepting mediocre and business as usual.

Phil Fitzpatrick

I think PNG is a special case in this regard, simply because there is no real counteracting force to what comes out of politician's mouths (and other orifices).

The strategy for PNG politicians seems to be to do what they like, usually in their own best interests, knowing that the public will tire of complaining and eventually forget about it. They don't even bother hiring spin doctors, preferring simply to shovel the bullshit out of the front door of the Haus Tambaran themselves.

In that sense democracy is not at work, what you have is essentially a form of autocracy.

Social media is helping but it doesn't get out to the great unwashed in the rural areas, where it matters a lot.

Expatriates I know who either live or work in PNG seem to have accepted the inevitable and are expecting things to get much worse.

At this point in time what PNG desperately needs is an effective opposition in parliament. But who wants to do that, you just lose your electoral development funds and get marginalised.

I think at the moment my enthusiasm for PNG is at its lowest ebb. The only shining lights are the people involved in the Crocodile Prize. They are still worth the effort, but for how long?

Geoff Hancock

Bad people do good things to enable them to continue to get away with doing bad things.

Corney Korokan Alone

Great article Phil, for introspection too :)

Late last year, I watched jaw-dropped seeing the semantics and rhetoric employed by Texas Senator Ted Cruz of the United States on the Net (Internet) Neutrality debate - which drove many right wingnuts astray as always.

How simple policy debates gets cluttered with partisan and lobbyists' interest is really a wonder to behold.

This happens everywhere though.

Chris Overland

In his marvellous book "Weasel Words", Don Watson described such words as being stripped of their original meaning and left mere husks, devoid of substance and only used to deceive or obfuscate.

As a former practitioner of the dark arts of both drafting and interpreting speeches, letters and policy statements for Ministers, I know all too well how language can be used to create an alternative reality.

Unhappily, it turns out that many people are unduly credulous and actually believe what politicians say, witness the surprise and anger at both the former and current Australian government's many broken promises and "surprise" policy decisions.

Phineas T Barnum, co founder of Barnum and Bailey's Circus, had a deep insight into human nature.

Barnum coined two famous aphorisms (which I call Barnum's Laws) that are indispensable when trying to understand how the world works.

His First Law says that no-one ever went broke under estimating the intelligence of the public. His Second Law is the natural corollary of the first: there is a sucker born every minute.

A great deal of behaviour that seems inexplicable is easily understood once you have grasped Barnum's Laws.

Peter Kranz

Phil - despite the cutting of substantive positions in the public service pretty much across the board (as well as major NGO's like the CSIRO which has lost 1,000 positions) the Abbott Government is increasing the number of 'communications consultants' (aka spin doctors) working for them.

They do such important tasks as vetting and writing speeches for Cabinet members, checking social media and media outlets everyday, and carefully crafting and planning strategic media releases, timing them for the greatest or weakest impact, depending on the content.

There are now 1,900 such consultants in Government, with 99 of these working for the Immigration department alone (Canberra Times).

Maybe this is part of the problem. MPs can't speak for themselves but are treated like kids in kindergarten that need constant watching.

Robin Lillicrapp

Good stuff, Phil.

I was viewing an article this morning describing the plight of homeless people on the streets sleeping-rough. 1 in 10 were returned soldiers with readjustment problems and issues.

In essence, they are folk drawn from civvy street and "re-engineered" to perform heroic deeds beyond the ken of mere mortals. Is it any wonder they implode upon their return to civvy street after such a fantastic ( by standards of civilian normality) experience on the fields of conflict.

I'm guessing the structure of politics is not unlike the degrees of manipulative contrivance employed to reach desired ends in a military sense although accommodating the scene of civil governance.

Such speaks to degrees of suasion and directing as in the case of a producer or director involved in theatre etc. I think we saw elements of this uncovered during the lengthy discussion on Outcomes Based Education.

Presumably, it is of great benefit to discover and be aware of such realities in order to begin effectively combating the undesired outcomes.

Alan Watt explores aspects of the ease with which humanity is often easily led in the link following:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FDpg7PpVzM8
Alan Watt: Shock And Awe - The Manipulation Of The Human Psyche.

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