We expect our politicians to be engaged with the electorate, often assuming this equates to constant participation in public debate in the media.
It’s as if there is a mathematical formula allowing us to measure their ‘cut through’ according to the total number of words they utter in public. That is, a greater number of different words, repeated frequently, amounts to more effective communication.
On the contrary, it’s more likely that less words will engage people more effectively. Thomas Merton said in his 1956 classic Thoughts in Solitude that silence ‘teaches us to know reality’. He warned that words not informed by silence can ‘defile’ reality. That is certainly what underlies practices such as meditation and yoga, which help us to listen to silence so that we can connect with the world around us from the core of our being.
It was also the key point of Pope Benedict's World Communications Day message that was released last week. He said that silence and words are ‘two aspects of communication which need to be kept in balance’ if ‘authentic dialogue’ is to take place.
The Pope’s insight could usefully serve as advice to the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader from political strategists charged with explaining why they are failing to connect with voters.
‘In silence, we are better able to listen to and understand ourselves; ideas come to birth and acquire depth; we understand with greater clarity what it is we want to say and what we expect from others… we avoid being tied simply to our own words and ideas without them being adequately tested.’
Applying this principle to political rhetoric, we might hope that punctuating words with silence will allow leaders to move beyond ‘Stop the boats!’ and other blunted and hollow mantras towards an understanding of the real fears and hopes of the Australian people. On this issue, there is little doubt that the weight of words has distorted and defiled reality.
The Pope refers to communication as ‘a kind of “eco-system” that maintains a just equilibrium between silence, words, images and sounds’. These are the ingredients which, in right measure, could allow the hitherto elusive ‘real Julia’ to appear in time for the 2013 election.