Book review

Death Sentence: the decay of public language

Don Watson, Death Sentence: the decay of public language
Knopf 2003
RRP: $29.95

A plea for rhetoric, not a polemic

By John Sexton
Catchword, Issue 97, Autumn 2004

Death Sentence is a great title for this quite entertaining ‘essay’ (his word) on what Don Watson calls ‘public language’: the language used by pollies and spin doctors and the media when they speak to (or at) us. But the book is too long for an essay; it seems to me more like five essays in the form of a book.

I found it an annoying book to read, in spite of many amusing comments and examples. There is no ‘Contents’ page, no heading to any of the four arbitrary divisions or chapters after the ‘Introduction’, and no sub-heads within chapters to alert you to what is coming. Nor is there an index to help you look back at where you have been.

I felt that the book cried out for a good editor to cut it back to a more manageable size and shape.

A friend of mine told me he enjoyed the read, but ‘You only need to read the first forty pages to get what he's talking about’. I agree. A pity, really, because what he's talking about is important, and what he has to say is insightful and worth listening to.

The book is about the decline of truth in public discourse, and about how people in positions of power and influence use and misuse language to deceive and manipulate the rest of us in our different roles as citizens, voters and customers. It is also about how the languages of marketing and managerialism have spread inappropriately.

Here is part of one paragraph, with a few comments on how it seems typical to my eyes.

Marketing, for instance, has no particular concern with truth. Management concerns are relatively narrow – relative, that is, to life, knowledge and possibility. This alone makes marketing and managerial language less than ideal for a democracy or a college. In addition their language lacks almost everything needed to put in words an opinion or an emotion to explain the complex, paradoxical or uncertain; to tell a joke.

Then he continues the same paragraph:

If those who propagate this muck really believed in being context-sensitive, they would understand that in the context of ordinary human need and sensibility their language is extraordinarily insensitive. It enrages, depresses, humiliates, confuses. It leaves us speechless.

Phew! Don Watson clearly is by turns enraged, depressed etc. But such strong emotions can turn a reasoned essay into a polemic. And they can blur the clarity of the message the writer is trying to convey. My sense of it all is that his strong feelings were allowed too much rein, that the message is clouded by them, and that as a result his ‘essay’ is not nearly as effective as it could have been.

I finished the book feeling let down in some way. I had started it with reasonably high expectations – I had heard him speak at the launch of his Keating book in Hobart, and thought he was witty and enlightening. He is both of these in this book – but only in spots. His examples are often excellent and telling – and often repetitive. Some of his comments have the same characteristics.

I expected to be able to recommend this book, especially to people interested in words. Yet I cannot. I think the idea is great. I think the subject is very important. But I feel there is a strange irony in my conclusion that the book was rushed into print for some (commercial?) reason before it had time to be refined into a clear and cohesive treatise worthy of its subject.

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