Monday, November 14, 2011

Lessons without pupils or teachers

BBC Radio 4's Any Questions last Friday was rich with the sort of blah that infects political debate in most countries. The radio doesn't attract the big hitters who get the gig on the BBC's television equivalent, Question Time, which is why the panellists are more timid than usual. There's a bit of slugging, as with all such panel shows, but the main aim of the politicians is to get away without having said anything. It's significant that the follow-up show on Saturday, where listeners write in with their comments, is called Any Answers, because the last thing you'll get on Thursday is answers. 

Every politician has a number of phrases in his arsenal that are designed to deflect the question rather than answer it. In a discussion on the NHS, one panellist (I think it was the Tory representative Andrew Mitchell) came up with one of the most popular such phrases:
Lessons will be learned
Let's think about that for a moment. Lessons will be learned. Doesn't it just resonate with contrition and desire to make amends? Yes it does, and that's why politicians love it. But what does it actually say? Does it say any of the following?
I failed
My organisation failed
I (or my underlings) will make the following improvements
I am sorry
We will discipline or sack those responsible
I will resign
See? This comforting slab of insincerity doesn't acknowledge fault or promise action. At least that other, slightly more contrite platitude "mistakes were made" acknowledges that something went wrong, but both use the evasive passive voice, whose USP (for politicians) is that it is a sentence without a subject.

So, if ever you hear someone say "lessons will be learned", interrupt them with at least one of the following questions, but certainly the last one:
What lesson will be learned?
Why do lessons need to be learned?
Who will teach the lesson?
Who will learn? C'mon, give me a name
Learning is an active process. If something is to be learned, then someone – one or more specific individuals – needs to do the learning. Don't let them get away with stock platitudes instead of answers.

Moral: When politicians use the passive voice, they're hiding something. Insist on an answer.


  1. I did appreciate this post and have memorised the questions suggested. In the unlikely event I have the relevant opportunity to ask them I will let you know just how they are answered...

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