Next time you hear a politician or public official speaking, suppress for a moment your irritation or ennui, look beyond, if you can, the clichés and other infelicities of language (notably, the Hobson's choice between witless vulgarity and dry, dun-coloured pebbles) and chances are you'll realise something even stranger. You'll realise it's the same speech repeated over and over again: the "passive servant of an irascible people" speech.
Just last week, for example, there was a news story about unpaid fines for parking and speeding being pursued by the NSW government up to 20 years after the offence. The public official defending the exercise pointed out - immaculately, inevitably - that irrespective of the time that had elapsed, "the people" would expect such matters to be pursued otherwise some offenders would receive punishment while others evaded it. Someone, in short, would get away with something and "the people" would not tolerate this.
This is a particularly fine example of the "passive servant of an irascible people" speech. It has the three hallmarks. There is the conceit of the speaker as "channeller": that is, the speaker is simply channelling these views and whatever influence or responsibility he or she may have in the matter should be considered miniscule at best and, preferably, non-existent. Second, not only are the views disowned, they are imputed, quite unabashedly, to another source. Third, the source to which they are imputed, "the people", is conceived as harsh, punitive and only imperfectly restrained in its lust for parity.
With minor variations, this same speech is repeatedly endlessly in all fields of government but is most useful, of course, in health, education and welfare. When a drug with the potential to improve the lives of a small group of sufferers is not listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, a Minister points out that "the people" would not accept an expensive drug of limited application being subsidised by the bulk of the community. Elsewhere, a politician asks whether "the people" would find it reasonable that a young person from the western suburbs of Sydney should miss out on a university place by one or two marks when another student (from the North Shore, naturally) with lesser marks, has been able to obtain a place by paying for it. And over in welfare, directly after intoning, "There're no rights without responsibilities", a public official states that job-seekers need demonstrate their "work-readiness" (through various self-defeating and entirely symbolic "mutual obligation" schemes) else "the people" would demand their pension be withheld or reduced.
Apart from its tiresomeness, the speech is dubious on many grounds. For example, one might demonstrate that the inequities the speaker purports to be forestalling are, in many cases, spurious, trivial or of the government's own making. Alternatively, one might point to the mendacity involved in misrepresenting one's policy decisions as someone else's and thereby abdicating responsibility. Yet such points are minor when compared to the two truly pernicious aspects of the speech.
The speech imputes to the Australian populace characteristics that were previously considered highly unattractive: for example, harshness, vengefulness, cruelty. It conceives an Australian populace of the lowest common denominator, a vicious, unthinking people salivating on command, like Pavlov's dog, for a notional parity. Furthermore, it assumes a populace that welcomes such a characterisation. In the outstanding fines example, not only are the people conceived as harsh and punitive, they are conceived as wanting to be seen as harsh and punitive. In fact, the speaker imputing these characteristics regards himself or herself, in an obscene inversion of traditional values, as bestowing a compliment, as flattering the people. It need hardly be said that the casual imputation of such characteristics to others is both highly contagious and highly damaging to our social and political life. Yet as each day passes, the tic spreads further and further, unchecked and unremarked.
In addition, the speech precludes an entirely different possibility, a quaint notion rumoured to have existed long ago. I'm speaking of mercy or charity, two terms which, though much reduced and loaded today, originally referred to a common concept: that of asymmetry or non-parity. Mercy, for example, in the texts of ancient Greece and Rome, involved the deliberate selection of a penalty milder than the one specified by law for the offence. Crucially, it was not about disregarding fault, rather, about mitigating punishment. Charity, too, in its original sense is predicated on the notion of non-parity: help is given to those who need it, not, as the Government would have us believe, those who deserve it or earn it. In other words, the idea of the quid pro quo, of commensurability, is precisely rejected in mercy and charity.
And these virtues (yes, that's what they are: virtues, genuine ones) were not seen as ameliorating or disrupting normal utility. They were seen as contributing to utility. As the philosopher Martha Nussbaum notes, mercy in the Roman Stoic tradition was seen as demonstrating the strength and dignity of the person who gives it (that is, he or she doesn't need to inflict pain to be a whole person) and increasing the trust with which that person is regarded socially. Thus, in contrast to the implication contained in the speech, social goods may not be inextricably linked to the principle of parity. Non-parity may also be conducive to social goods, indeed, more conducive. However, fed as we are, day after day, with a poisonous burlesque of egalitarianism, we are becoming incapable of seeing it.
So next time you hear a politician or public official spouting the "passive servant of an irascible people" speech, consider how it is that if mercy was once a marker of strength, we are now content, even eager, to portray ourselves as merciless. Consider too blowing a giant raspberry and seeing to your ballot box pencil.