On Rhetoric: “Locked Up” vs Environmentalism

As a rule – and I didn’t even realise I was thinking this way until just this morning – I will not be writing about politics per se on this blog. I may write about political ideas and ideals, and given my career (marine science, conservation genetics) there may be a couple of barbed grumbles about “the (no-longer-so) recent Australian election” but generally speaking, there won’t be any rants ranted or names named in regard to the horror that is currently Australian politics.

There are multiple reasons for this.

Firstly, there are a lot of people who already do it a lot better than I ever could (I’m not sure where to start linking, so I advise Googling “Australian political blogs” and going from there) and I have little if any interest in reinventing the wheel.

Secondly, I strongly suspect that I would continue to be surrounded by people with whom I share most of the aforementioned ideas and ieals, and thus there wouldn’t be much point if I couldn’t provide an informative analysis. We already have a perfectly functional wheel, we all agree that it’s round, move on.

Thirdly, I can’t provide that informative analysis, because I just don’t know enough – I would quickly get out of my depth and the last thing the internet needs is more uninformed political waffle. Or, to continue the metaphor, a square wheel.

In regard to political analysis, however, there is one thing – and only one thing – that I can do properly.

I can understand and dissect rhetoric. I think that rhetoric (also media delivery of same) is the key to the situation we find ourselves in, in Australia, and of course in other parts of the world. I think that understanding rhetoric, cognitive biases, and how determined people are to believe what they want to believe, regardless of evidence, is the goddamn Holy Grail of politics in a country with compulsory voting.

It’s not really about understanding people. It’s about understanding how people respond to language.

I’m going to provide one example, and then I’m going to stop there, because there is so much I could give that I’m thinking about making this a weekly series. This example is near and dear to my heart, and it involves naming names (which as I said above, I won’t make a habit of. Yes, I just ended a sentence with a preposition. Take a moment to weep quietly, my grammarian friends, then move on).

The mistake we made with regard to Tony Abbott, the “Mad Monk” who is now our Prime Minister (“we” meaning the left, I suppose, if I align myself anywhere, but even the more liberal version of the “right”), was underestimating him in the first year or so after he acquired leadership of the conservative party. Speaking for myself, I thought the man was laughable. He was so hilariously wrong, so poorly spoken, so utterly lacking in charisma, I couldn’t imagine how even the most staunchly conservative right wing anti-Labor anti-Union anti-Greens voter could consider numbering “1” in that box. He was anti-choice. He was clearly homophobic. He said things that were so misogynistic I almost thought they were satirical, because in this day, in this age, who says that? Seriously?

He got caught out by journalists in ways that ranged from hilarious (skip past the propaganda commentary at the start – it’s accurate enough, but it’s really not the point) to actually worrying and piteous (I actually couldn’t find this footage; it appears to be taken down. It’s the one where Abbott got caught saying nothing in particular and a journalist pressed him for more details and he just started nodding and twitching and zoning out – it really looked like he was having a seizure and I’m not 100% convinced that he wasn’t). He was caught lying. He was caught displaying his ignorance for all and sundry.

I made a mistake. I thought he was a fucking idiot. Most of us did.

The man’s a Rhodes scholar. You don’t get to be a Rhodes scholar by being an idiot. You can get to be a Rhodes scholar by lying to a certain extent about your extracurricular activities, and perhaps your political involvement, but you don’t get to do it by being stupid.

He’s not an idiot. He just thinks everyone else is, and in September last year, we all went and proved the man right. I wonder if that hurts more than anything else.

I was reminded of this again, this morning, when I was exposed to the man’s execrable views on national parks of any kind.

Even before the election, Abbott referred to Marine National Parks as being “locked up”. “We don’t want to lock up our oceans,” he is quoted as saying.

Lock up.

Now he is quoted as saying that “Too many of our forests are ‘locked up.’”

Locked up.

Yeah. The man’s not stupid. Sure, I could go on a conservation rant, I could talk about biodiversity and ecosystem function, I could talk on population connectivity (my own career specialty) and how we still don’t know enough to know if we have enough area spaced out in parks to sustain natural populations – I could do that. And the people who agree with me already, or the people who are very interested in environmental science, or the rare people who actually haven’t decided either way on an issue and want to hear the evidence – they’d read it. They’d take it in. They might debate or discuss on points. I’d look up references. We’d have a fantastic conversation and precisely nothing would change.

This is how you end up feeling helpless.

Here’s what you need to hear: the words “locked up” are simple, straightforward, and terribly evocative. You might not have finished a book since that report you had to finish in year eight, or maybe you fudged that in a sneaky way by watching the movie instead and managed to avoid reading more than three pages of text at a time throughout your entire educational experience, or maybe you’re an English Literature major and your house is walled with books, but you know what those words mean. We all know.

There’s an image. It will be slightly different for everyone. Maybe you envision a locked door, or a barred cell (perhaps a lonesome bar of moonlight shafting in through the window, or if you’re feeling particularly whimsical, strains of harmonica music). Maybe it’s just a feeling. Maybe you feel yourself locked away from the mountains or the sea, the wilderness taken away from you.

Maybe you feel separated from that wilderness.

I’m not a person who enjoys hunting or fishing, nor am I involved in any wild harvesting practices overall, so I’m going to see it slightly differently from someone in that bracket, but perhaps they (or you, if that’s you) see a world of profitable or enjoyable or healthsome resources rotting on the vine or on the wing or fin or paw, wasted for no good reason (setting aside for a moment that ecosystem function). Maybe you look around at a denuded landscape and feel frustrated that there’s all those resources locked up.

And maybe you get angry. Maybe you start resenting people who lock those things up, keeping them from you, something you think is part of your heritage and that should be part of your future. You start thinking of those people as very different from yourself (they’re not).

And it’s not too long before you start spitting, “Bloody greenies” (or some sentiment along those lines). This is instead of actually having a conversation about conservation (see what I did there?), or wilderness preservation policies, or even basic ideals with someone who might identify as a greeny, or even ecosystem function with an ecologist, or population connectivity and biodiversity with someone like myself.

Those conservations would be infinitely more productive.

What this language – this manipulative and downright patronising language (I don’t make a habit of trying to tell people what to feel, but if you don’t feel insulted by this sort of tactic, you probably should) – is doing is making those conversations more difficult or even impossible before they even start. It also makes it look like there’s been no compromise, or no discussion, those autocratic fascist environmentalist folk have just drawn the line and now they’re telling you what to do. It is basically alienation on demand (which has been achieved a thousand times over regarding the refugee situation).

That’s not the case. National parks are already a compromise. The wilderness can’t be “locked up”. It can’t be set aside. We’re too dependent on these resources, either in an economic sense or simply for what we now consider to be basic infrastructure. What we can do is try to select threatened and representative pieces of wilderness – small chunks – and say, “Okay, you can hunt and fish and harvest everywhere except these spaces. Everywhere else? Go forth! This one? Go camping.”

What you feel when you go and explore the wilderness, when you hike or camp or (I presume) raft, that glory and freedom and frank admiration – that’s one of many reasons we have national parks. We have them because that feeling should be sustained. We want people to have access to that feeling, to remember that part of our country, to be able to delight in the little wilderness we have left.

And without being too blunt about it, or indeed adopting too many manipulative and condescending rhetorical tactics, we can’t delight in what we don’t have, and over-harvesting will result in a loss of wilderness. That’s not made up. That’s already happened.

This isn’t about locking it away. It’s not about putting money in a bank account you can’t access. It’s simply making sure that the nice things are kept where everyone can see them, and keep seeing them, for generations to come.

But with two words, words that everyone understands, words that have a hefty cultural weight to them and cause an instinctive emotional reaction, the Mad Monk has made it about something very different.

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