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Some time ago I was at a school function when an autistic boy came up to me asked who I was. Thinking he was asking my name I replied, “I’m Shane”. “Who are you” he persisted. Thinking he had not heard me properly I repeated my name. His aid bent near the young man and said, “This is Tim’s dad.” “Tim’s dad!” he exclaimed. With that, he turned and went his way. A little later I saw him with my son. When he caught sight of me he said, “That man. Tim’s dad.”
I realised that in the mind of the boy I needed to be fitted into his worldview. To be included as part of his experience. As an individual, unidentified and undifferentiated, he needed a reference point to make sense of where I fitted into his world. That reference was only gained by providing him with an already familiar reference point from which he could place me in relationship to himself. Once that reference point was achieved, “That man. Tim’s dad”, was not a vague, dismissive reference but an acknowledgement that in his world I fitted in.
I begin with this story because it highlights the differences in the way language is used to create, refer to and acknowledge the presence of others and how those others relate to the world we know.
Last week John Howard was speaking on the Macquarie Radio network when he was asked about the case relating to Jack Thomas, the accused terrorist who was found innocent of all charges and who has become a huge embarrassment for the government. Trying to defend his phoney ‘war on terror’ and the fact that the law found no guilt, Howard referred to Thomas as “this particular man”.
When I heard him say that, I immediately recalled that Howard had used a similar phrase to define others. In 2000 when Labor frontbencher Wayne Swan questioned the impact of the GST on pensioners, Howard referred to him as “that man”. When a Queenslander called into a talkback show and questioned the effect of the GST on small business, he was referred to as “that man”.
In 2002 when Howard was faced with the overwhelming evidence that Peter Hollingsworth was not suitable as our Governor General, he referred to him at a press conference as “that man”. In 2003 he used the term to describe the new Palestinian Prime Minister, Abu Mazen, when addressing a gathering at a Jewish company. When, is 2003, a US expert called into question the farce we call the “war on terror”, Howard referred to him as “that man” in an attempt to wave off the criticism. In the same year when US diplomat Joseph Wilson demonstrated that the so-called uranium from Niger to Iraq was a lie, Howard dismissed him as “that man”.
Just last year when referring to convicted drug runner, Van Tuong Nguyen, Howard was quick to ensure that we understood he was not going to do anything for “that man” on death row. In June of this year John Howard could not bring himself to utter the name of Abu Bakar Bashir, preferring to call him “that man” and around the same time he could only refer to an innocent Iraqi shot by Australian soldiers as “that man”. It would seem a pattern is emerging. One that reveals quite a bit about Howard and the way he views the world and therefore, the rest of us who dwell in it with him.
John Howard is not a fool. Puerile and fanatical but not a fool. He has climbed to the heights of politics by being very careful. Careful to nurture the ‘right’ connections. Careful to ensure that he’s seen at the ‘right places’ with the ‘right people’. Careful to ensure his messages are crafted in such a way as to target directly and indirectly his main audience and others who may be listening in – as they do in a media saturated world. John Howard’s use of the term “that man” or “this particular man” is way for him to locate the individuals, whose existence he finds repulsive, outside the frame of reference of the discussion he is having. To name them would be to legitimate them.
John Howard believes that there are those who are deserving of the bounty of the earth and there are those for whom life is meant to be, as Hobbes so described it, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” For these types, Howard sees no connection between himself and them. They are non-entities. Non-persons. People of no regard. Therefore, Howard’s references to them are intended to be nasty, brutish, and short.
Whether its an opposition politician who dares to challenge his tax policy or a Governor General who chose to cover up despicable acts or a democratically elected leader of another people, so long as these men represent those things that Howard will not and cannot acknowledge, he will use the most demeaning terms he can find to put distance between him and them. Why?
A name represents more than just a person. Think back to your teachers at school. Mrs. Smith, for instance, was not just the maths teacher. She was, perhaps, the authoritarian who was not afraid to send you to the principle for detention. On the other hand, perhaps she was the one who stopped to listen to stories of weekend adventures. Whichever one she was, her demeanour, her attitude and her position all combined to influence you in the development of your relationships with the people who would come to occupy similar positions in your adult life.
Some you come to avoid at all costs. Others you gravitate towards. Others you would tolerate and from some you would recoil. Just like us, Howard’s view of the world has been shaped by the people he has encountered. However, unlike Howard we have not spent the last 30 or more years fighting for the right to rule and hold the most powerful position within the nation. Unlike us, Howard’s 30 years in politics has meant that he has lost his ability to recognise the humanity in others who do not orbit in his rarefied plane.
Howard has become the ‘total politician’ and is consumed with his own desires. He truly believes that the vision of the world he has is exactly the same vision the rest of us hold. In that vision, those who hold opposing views or whose positions challenge his, are the ones who must be eliminated and reduced to nothing. Their names are not important because they are not important. Their position in relation to his is one that challenges the fundamentals of his being. They are to remain nameless and therefore powerless. This is the reason Howard resorts to addressing people as “that man” or “this particular man”.
Unlike the autistic boy at my son’s school for whom the term “that man” was a mode of address that demonstrated he knew who you were because of his relationship to the commonalities you shared, Howard’s use of the term is designed to put distance between both him and his audience and the person he is referring to. Unlike my son’s school friend, Howard uses this mode of address to create and foment division.
My son’s friend used the term “that man” because in his world everyone mattered. For him it is just a question of finding out how best to establish a relationship with you. For him the best way was to find the things you had in common rather than highlighting the things that keep you apart. For this boy, language is about finding ways of uniting people. It’s a pity that, with all the resources he has at his disposal, our Prime Minister’s language can’t do the same.