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Absolute nonsense

September 18, 2014

I was reading a newspaper the other day and in two adjacent articles columnists dismissed claims they disagreed with as ‘nonsense’. This word has become common currency in political debate, and is always used in the same way: to reject disagreed-with views in a sweeping, no-reservations-permitted manner. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard panellists on Question Time trash other panellist’s views as nonsense, or, more dismissively still, absolute nonsense. Sometimes it comes in the form “Polly Tician is talking absolute nonsense and she knows it.” (Why someone would talk absolute nonsense on purpose in public is never explained – for the sheer fun of it, presumably.)

No doubt some people would say this is part of the vigorous cut and thrust of debate and a jolly good thing too. I’m not persuaded. Firstly, it seems to me unnecessarily rude. There is no need to stigmatise somebody as an idiot who burbles nonsense just because you think they’re wrong. Second, it is inaccurate: claims that are trashed as nonsense usually aren’t nonsense – that is to say, they are not devoid of sense. They are just (according to the speaker) mistaken. When the word is used accurately – as when Jeremy Bentham used the wonderful phrase ‘nonsense on stilts’ to dismiss ‘natural rights’ – it’s powerful. What Bentham meant wasn’t that proponents of natural rights were mistaken, but that the concept they championed made no sense at all. (Whether he was right or wrong about that is another question, of course.)

Third, it’s just ineffective rhetorically. Nobody who was undecided on a political question would be swayed by hearing someone bray that one of the points of view was nonsense. But they might be swayed if the debater said: “I think that’s wrong, because…” or “There’s a grain of truth in that, but you haven’t taken into account…” or “It’s a nice idea, but it ignores the fact that…” or “I can see why you think that, but if you look at…”

So for reasons of politeness, accuracy and rhetorical effectiveness, could politicians and commentators just stop accusing each other of talking nonsense all the time?

Actually, there’s a fourth reason. It’s boring.

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