On “elite”

Recently, our Prime Minister started referring to media such as the ABC as “elite media”.

Now, what does the word “elite” do?

First, let’s look at the definition.

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary gives the meaning of the adjective as:

“Of or belonging to an elite; exclusive”. And the noun – the elite – is: “The choice part , the best , (of society , a group of people , etc.); a select group or class”

Ideally, that would be considered a compliment; but all indications are that it was manifestly pernicious manipulation of language with the intent of causing disaffection with the ABC, Fairfax Media, and other media outlets that (more often than not) look to facts and seek to provide a genuine mix of perspectives.

How many of you are elite sportspeople? Few, as that term refers to those who are at the top of their sport. We like to watch, cheer for and be amazed by feats that can seem superhuman. The accomplishments of such people can inspire as well as provide a vicarious sharing in the thrill of winning. But for those of us not numbered amongst the elite sportspeople, we still remain separate from them.

Some will look at the social pages with envy as they see the rich and the powerful gathering at glittering events and partaking of expensive champagne, delicate canapés, and gourmet meals. As the glossy people bask in feigned admiration of each other, many might look on at these socially and financially elite and wish they were included. But they are not – that is the point. These elite will not include you unless you have the money, can gloss and glitter in expensive clothes and say the right things politically. You are separate from these elite.

So what happens when you suddenly find that “Our ABC” is not part of “elite media”? Does the organisation still speak to and for you? If the mischievous use of “elite” is doing its work effectively in your unconscious, there is a high probability that the answer is “no” – unless, of course, you count yourself as a member of the fact-seeking and fact-honouring elite.

When so much political discourse now refers to “Australian families” (never, single people you might notice), “mum and dad investors” and “the average punter”, we see politically inspired and driven support for those media which speak for and to the crowd, and which are not for the elite.

What has “elite media” to do with you, the average person, the mum or dad investor, the Australian family? “Elite” is separate, not you.

So now where will you find fact-based reporting and news (if you actually care to look for it)? No doubt the suggestion is that whatever you hear from shock jocks or read in tabloids or see on Facebook is good enough for the crowd. Apparently none of these sources is “elite”.

But the next time you see a very wealthy Prime Minister dipping into the canapés of other very wealthy people – the socially and financially elite crowd – you might like to wonder why a genuine member of that elite group wants to separate you from fact-based reporting and writing that offers some intellectual quality.

If, for example, the ABC is “elite” – that is, separate from you, not for you – will you care if it’s sold off, dismantled or corporatised to the point where it’s indistinguishable from the rest of the non-elite media?

On “Border Force”

Once upon a time Australia used to have a Federal Government department called something like “Department of Customs and Immigration” … something like that. It’s now called the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

Of particular interest, with respect to the use of language, is the language around “borders”.

One of the agencies in the DIBP used to be called the Australian Customs Service until 1 July 2015. One imagines it did the things you traditionally expect a Customs service to do. And that’s an excellent starting point for attention to the effect of language on your imagination, the setting of the context and the establishing of the culture of our society.

When you think of “Customs” what activities come to mind? If you saw someone working for Customs, how would you imagine they would be dressed? How might they speak to you? How would they perceive their job and, more importantly, what might they consider to be the priorities of their job?

If you were given the job of running the Australian Customs Service, what priorities would you establish? What would be the contribution of the service to the nation’s general physical and psychological health? What would be the priorities that directed the allocation of funding?

On 1 July 2015 the agency got a new name – Australian Border Force.

Now when you read that name what is in your imagination?

Re-ask yourself all the questions above – but this time from the perspective of someone working for Australian Border Force. What does that do for your personality and your attitude in the job? If you were in charge of running that agency, what are your priorities now?

To guide you through a more specific example, where do the words “border force” direct your attention? How much attention do you have for protecting Australia’s livestock and crops from invasive pests and diseases, for example, now that you work for Border Force?

When you find yourself working for an agency with “force” in its name, how does the hearing of that word affect your body? Does it change your posture? Does your muscle tone change? If you saw someone seeking refuge in our country – someone whose life was genuinely at risk in their homeland – to what extent do you seek to understand them now that you work for Border Force (as it’s now commonly referred to)?

As a member of the public how do you regard living in a country that has an agency called Border Force? Do you feel safer? Are you able to maintain the same quality of compassion for others in genuine danger when you think about Border Force?

Words in our language are only meaningful because they are associated with sensory representations: that is, the word “Customs” can only be meaningful if you have some associated combination of some or all of an image, sound, body sensations, smells and tastes. “Force” is a different word and it has different meanings from those of “Customs”. It has those different meanings because of the different images, sounds, feelings, smells and tastes you associate with “Force”.

Because of that, it has to change how you think when an agency changes its name from Australian Customs Service to Australian Border Force.

For each of us, then, the question is: is the change in you a healthy one? And, collectively, is the change in our society a healthy one?