Policy Scrabble:  Words that reveal; Words that bind, Dr. Robert Zuber

8 Jan

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” — Mark Twain

The UN has had a quiet week.  Perhaps the most notable event was the formal transition to a new leadership team headed by SG Guterres and, in the Security Council, a bit of relief that the Kabila government in the troubled DR Congo has seen the wisdom (or at least uttered the words) of agreeing to a political transition including (relatively) expedited presidential and parliamentary elections in that country.

In a Presidential Statement issued in the Council by Sweden’s Amb. Skoog, DR Congo leaders are urged to continue on the path “to organize peaceful, credible, inclusive and timely presidential, national and provincial legislative elections no later than December 2017, leading to a peaceful transfer of power.”  President Kabila might well pursue this request.  He may also find new “reasons” to stall.  To that latter end, he might even invent a security crisis (beyond the many we already know about) or make some “trumped up” (pun intended) claim about the unreliability of MONUSCO and other UN partners to honor their own security or development promises.

In the gaps between declaration and intention lies a conundrum for the Security Council, indeed for the entire UN system. We are an institution of words — we make statements, give speeches, make presentations, write reports and resolutions.  Words and more words, statements made year after year, at times where little but the page heading has changed, words that bear little resemblance to circumstances on the ground, and which are rarely challenged by those who might well know better. Part of the muted skepticism of diplomats which is not uncommon across the UN, stems from so many discernible disconnects between the words we utter and the actions (if any) we eventually and collectively take.

It is frustrating, in and out of the UN, to see what has become of words.  Political cultures in the UN and in many member states seem to have lost their moorings when it comes to straight talk, not only the validity of the “facts” we cite, but in the contexts we provide for the judgments we make.  In this, “truth” (for all its contemporary imprecision) is more than simply disregarded; indeed in some political circles it is actually ridiculed as “old school” in a manner not unlike the social approbation cast on users of flip phones or cassette players.   The “truth,”, as we note often and with increasing urgency, is now simply what you can convince others is true.  And a “lie” is simply something someone is not prepared to hear, especially if it is about themselves and/or their policy choices.  Shrinking standards.  Flimsy evidence.  Thin Skin.  Ignoring the people paid to know about facts and contexts essential to finding the “right words.”

To the persuasive go the spoils.

As we wish we never had to write again, we have lost the discursive dimension of words, that is, the deployment of words to reveal and relate.  Words for us have become like what we used to call “sweet talk” a way to get someone to part with something you want rather than a means for establishing and building connection.  We are often content now, it seems, to be merely sellers and buyers, looking for a good deal – in business or politics – but having fewer and fewer convictions of a world we want to live in beyond the material plane, and even fewer notions of whose lives are impacted by the convictions we hold (or don’t).  Indeed, “convictions” themselves are becoming just another means to massage an audience into believing that someone “cares” even in those (thankfully still) uncommon instances when there is not a drop of evidence to support the presence of a caring impulse.

This phenomenon is neither new nor confined to the current spate of populist currents grabbing headlines around the world.  We in the more elite centers of influence actually cashed in many of our linguistic chips a while ago.  We made bold promises to people from our lofty perches and then smirked at those same people when they fell for our pitch.  We created and advertised technology that promises connection but is actually closer to a full-on selling machine.  We now often text people instead of calling them in part because the brevity of texting lends itself to the making of demands and the establishing of preferences.  On the phone (admittedly not my favorite device), people can hesitate or even object to our plans and strategies.  Negotiations might be needed.  We might have to explain ourselves.   Nope.  Not happening.

When we speak, too often it is to manipulate outcomes.  We also speak to be accounted for, which we often see in Security Council as protocol demands that all 15 members insist on weighing in on a particular security issue when perhaps half offer real substance to contribute to policy going forward.   Less and less do we speak to reveal, to tear away the shroud of politics and let people – even high-end diplomats – glimpse the mistakes that we lament, the circumstances of threat that keep us awake at night, the worries we have that maybe – just maybe – we’re in over our collective heads this time.

President Kabila, egged on by advisers and UN officials, might be sincere in his desire to effect a peaceful political transition for DR Congo.  From what we know about corruption and spoilers in that country, as well as cross-country tensions of a political and ethnic nature, the challenges of transition will be formidable even if the hopefulness of Kabila’s words is to be matched by the sincerity of his transition strategies.

But what if that isn’t the case?  What if this promise of transition turns out to be just another smokescreen, just another delaying tactic, just another bait and switch to throw political opponents and the international community off their respective games?  How will we know, and do we have what it takes to discern what would be yet another gross political insincerity in a manner timely enough to divert its course?

The fear of my office is that at some level, perhaps unconsciously, we have become so accustomed to empty phrases and broken promises that we have forgotten that there is another way, another objective for the words which currently fill our world to brimming, another path to contribute to holding others –even our leaders, even our inner circles – accountable to rhetorical commitments.

The populist movements flaring up around the world are not merely skeptical of “truth” in some self-authorizing and self-defeating fashion; some abandon “truth” in large measure because it was first abandoned around them – democracies bought and sold; media filling the airwaves with escapist nonsense and then telling only (the easy) half of any story; educators cultivating youth with skills for non-existent jobs but not for their very-much-existent lives; an economic system that aggressively disrespects the needs of workers so that the super-rich can continue their own shrouded competitions.

Is it any wonder that so many people have stepped away from civic life, preferring rooting interests and reality television to investments of themselves in still-grand civic projects?    I think not.  Indeed, if we are serious about addressing this malaise in our civic culture we must first avoid the temptation to do in political and diplomatic life what the Wall Street crowd did after the 2008 collapse – keep our heads down for a time and then go back to the familiar, insulated and, in the case of the mega-investors, lucrative business at hand:  with “sweet” words to match, of course.

This won’t work for us.   Not this time.  If people are to come to believe again in we who deign to manage institutions of culture, governance and economy, we must adopt softer, less judgmental and more straightforward communications, even about our greatest policy concerns and hardest policy challenges. We must insist on honoring the promises embedded in the rhetoric of all our leaders. And we must work harder to find the right words to let people know –many times over and despite a generation of appearances to the contrary — that we believe in them as well.

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