Culture of hysteria hijacks our language
Date October 24, 2013
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Understatement was a way to keep things in perspective. Now everything’s a disaster
Whatever happened to the Australian gift for laconic understatement? Humour and irony came together in the distinctive expressions we used to greet triumph and disaster. And such words were used sparingly, when nothing else would do to describe extreme events. Linguistic restraint imposed a steady-headed perspective on everything in between.
Today, superlatives rule. Every trivial happening or achievement is awesome or amazing. When we agree, we do so ”absolutely”. And that’s just the ‘a’ words. When things go wrong, or problems are just a bit challenging, it’s a disaster, an emergency, a catastrophe, a tragedy – even when no one dies.
It’s a far cry from this description under the heading ”Australian Understatement”: ”Making little of major happenings is a distinguishing feature of Australian conversation. Australians do not like to dramatise events, unless they are telling one of their ‘tall’ stories. In this case, everything is blown out of proportion. However, understatement is the more usual feature.”
This passage, from the book Cultures of the World: Australia, was written as recently as 1990. Just listen to everyday conversation, media coverage and political debate and you soon realise how much has changed. Australians do not like to dramatise events? As if.
The breathless quality of our language would have been foreign to Australians past. When the sun beat down, they might have noted it was ”a bit warm out there”. Or, in the case of a savage storm, they’d remark on ”a spot of bad weather”.
If in serious trouble, Australians were likely to be ”up a gum tree” or ”in a bit of bother”. If they were really ill, they’d admit to ”feeling a bit crook” or ”not too good”.
When, by contrast, something went well, Australians might respond to the query ”how’d you go?” with the classically understated ”not too bad”. If someone else achieved outstanding success, we’d congratulate them on having ”done all right”. Even day-to-day successes and achievements are now routinely draped in words of excessive praise such as hero, epic, incredible, fantastic and great. Something moderately desirable is ”to die for”. (When I hear human mortality reduced to such banality, I have to quash the thought ”I wish you would”.)
It is telling that the Australians who experienced the almost incomprehensible horrors of World War I were unrivalled in their creation of humorous, understated expressions that endure to this day. And if they called someone a hero, that person certainly was one.
Understatement was a way of keeping a manageable human perspective amid the very worst or best of experiences. In some circumstances, ”no worries” may be ironic, but along with ”she’ll be right, mate”, such expressions generally epitomise the unruffled Australian who keeps a sense of balance and reserves superlatives for genuine extreme circumstances or humorous exaggeration.
Humour and irony are critical parts of any good bullshit detector; when they go missing as the superlatives pile up, beware.
Language is not just an expressive device; it shapes our thinking and our responses to events, according to the weight of the terms and phrases used to describe them. Hate speech has obvious real-world impacts by influencing people to absorb and act upon its messages. (Victims of genocide have often been described in subhuman terms long before the hostility became deadly.)
But what about habits of language that favour terms that are emphatic or absolute – such as best or worst ever – at the expense of all the nuances in between? This leaves us with a black-and-white world in which shades of grey seem to survive only in the form of soft-porn novels.
This is not just a lament for language. Our descent into verbal extremism can compromise our ability to distinguish between threat and concern; disaster and inconvenience; catastrophe and upset. When understatement is blown away by the breathless hype of a 24/7, hyperconnected world, we are closer to the childlike state in which we love or hate just about everything. Adolescent overreaction is then to be expected.
In Japan’s Fukushima nuclear incident no one died, whereas the earthquake and tsunami claimed about 20,000 lives, but the words disaster and deadly were used equally freely.
Former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s assertion that climate change is ”the greatest moral challenge of our time” attracted some retrospective criticism – and surely the 22,000 avoidable deaths of children every day as a result of poverty was always a more immediate contender – but that didn’t stop his successors in government going the whole hog on overstatement. We have, for instance, a ”budget disaster” and the ”national emergency” that boat arrivals created for border protection. (Should we be hoarding survival rations?)
While such claims don’t withstand serious scrutiny, they show Australia has lost its aversion to overblown language. The ironic humour that would puncture it seems largely to have gone missing.
Bad news was once greeted with a phlegmatic ”that’d be right”. Now excess rules in language and, in turn, in personal, popular and political responses to minor ”disasters” and ”threats” (the bikies are coming!) of a sort that we should easily take in our stride.
And once you’re high up that gum tree, it can be pretty hard to get back down.
John Watson is a senior writer.