The Cosmetic Enhancement of Public Debate and the Crisis we Face

Here is the question I keep on asking myself: is what I publish on my Nurturing Justice blog pertinent to public debate?

Can others take up what I put forward here? Can they – when and where it is appropriate – use the ideas and concepts to enhance their own contributions to public conversation and debate?

In a global context dominated by a constant babble of alternative and dissonant stories – now flooding our post-post-modern consciousness on a daily, if not hourly, basis – is our own contribution going to be merely more “windy words”? Job’s words to his comforters can remind us how our speech can run out of control.

Will your windy words never end? Will you continue going on and on and on …? (Job 16:3)

Do we have any enduring task in all this? Should we even be seeking to make a contribution?

And even if we are not (yet) able to enter publicly into political debate, is it worthwhile to develop interpersonal conversation about the issues that face us, perhaps in our family,  with parents, with wife or husband, with people we know, those with whom we work, or people we meet “in the street”? Is conversation truly part of our human task?

That is a question a blogger should never dodge. But then, how are we to contribute in the howling gale? How do we contribute without becoming part of a conversation that loses its way? Or have we already lost our way and we keep on talking because that is how we can distract ourselves from our own confusion?

Is all this part of the story of why, these days, story-telling has become the vogue? If so, then maybe I should try. Here goes.

Yesterday, as I waited on the other side of the chemist’s check-out, as Val reappeared from the rows of pharmaceutical products with a weekly supply of vitamins and other medicines, I found myself surrounded by that chemist shop’s advertising hoarding. One cannot easily avert one’s eyes in that highly feminised environs and I found myself looking at this and feeling uneasy. (The uneasiness has me remembering my mother’s subscription to “Women’s Weekly”, the pages I turned with a young boy’s feelings of deep uncertainty and curiosity.) But as we left the store, I held myself in check. I refrained from discussing the “fake” advertising that faced me? The hoarding suggested that ongoing cosmetic enhancement will make everything beautiful for young women if only they – or perhaps it is aimed at their mothers – join up and purchase these cosmetic products. The advert was not addressing me; it was calling upon women, all women, to avail themselves of services that “celebrate the beauty of all Australian women.”

Now if some of my readers would care to read Calvin Seerveld’s “cosmetology” lecture “Philosophising Beauty” [Part 2 Chapter 4 of In the Fields of the Lord 2000 (an edited version of which is found in The American National-Interstate Council Bulletin of Cosmetology 15:1 September 1960, pp. 3-5)] you might discover a Christian corrective to any attempt to consign cosmetics wholesale to the rubbish-bin as simply a part of the devil’s devious tricks. Seerveld’s lecture shows respect for those (women) who find their calling in such an industry. But it is still a tricky business, is it not?

Consider my use of the term “cosmetic”, or even the way the term “ambassador” appeared in the advert. It has a commercial nuance as the pharmaceutical company displays its team of women, “cosmetics ambassadors”. The aim is to explain why these cosmetics should gain dominance in the Australian market-place of beautiful women.

The term “ambassador” was also used by the US president in his Warsaw 6th July address when he thanked his wife for her “ambassadorial” introduction. We will also notice (5.30 to 6.00) the backhanded compliment to hard-working US diplomats, but the intention was to elevate his wife – the First Lady – to the status of  “no better ambassador”. And who could deny that there had been a concerted effort at “cosmetic enhancement” from that highly choreographed attempt to win public approval. The President’s wife was part of a diplomatic manoeuvre designed to enhance, to give a whiff of, legitimacy to the incumbent of the presidential office who has conducted his own political affairs with such acrid recklessness.

I am not wanting to belabour this point. The aim of this post is to encourage readers to explore and think about the way public discussion is formed. In these two examples we confront enhancement by cosmetic manipulation.

Think about it. Nurturing Justice is committed to making a Christian contribution to the art of everyday conversation.

The New Testament is unequivocal in affirming that in Christ Jesus, God’s full and complete revelation, has now been restored to its rightful and central place in our lives. Through him, we have been rightfully restored to the place God assigns us. This Word of God restores human life in its entirety – and that includes our communication in all of its created dimensions. Conversation, however it is developed, can now fulfil its true meaning and purpose. Conversation is by no means merely windy words.

And that is why we need to discuss how public discussion can make its peculiar and valid contribution as we face the crises before us. And that also means the crisis in public conversation with the pervasive sense of futility that hangs over us, which if left unchallenged would undermine wholesome and otherwise healthy talk. The crisis in discussion needs to be understood and overcome. And it will not be overcome without us openly acknowledging the destructive character that dominates so much of our public discussion. We need to discuss among ourselves how to form debate that avoids whatever destroys and vandalises the good created gifts that God continues to shower upon us. Yes, the human art of everyday conversation is a skill to be learned. As just like complex diplomatic negotiation, it is part of the wonderful created reality of our social life.

BCW 9.7.17


2 thoughts on “The Cosmetic Enhancement of Public Debate and the Crisis we Face

  1. Jim Skillen says:

    Dear Bruce:
    I like what you wrote. It is important. And today we have so many ways in which fake-news images compete with and overpower words, whether the words are true and insightful or simply fake-news words.
    The other day I came across the following quotation from Kierkegaard in his book “For Self-Examination: Judge Yourself” where he is berating a journalist or pastor or someone. I think it fits our day perfectly, especially our Trump show that you pointed to, though it is only words with no picture or video:
    “And man [he is referring to “human”], this clever fellow, seems to have become sleepless in order to invent ever new instruments to increase noise, to spread noise and insignificance with the greatest possible haste and on the greatest possible scale. Yes, everything is soon turned upside down: communication is indeed soon brought to its lowest point with regard to meaning, and simultaneously the means of communication are indeed brought to their highest with regard to speedy and overall circulation; for what is publicized with such hot haste and, on the other hand, what has greater circulation than—rubbish!”
    [from the translation by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, published by Princeton University Press in 1990, p. 48]


    • Thankyou for this Jim. My immediate response to this telling quote from Kierkegaard about the cultivation of rubbish was to pen a story of my own – I will include it in my next post – but at first I did so instinctively, telling a tale about an unnamed school teacher (myself). And then, with a little reflection and investigation I came across Kierkegaard’s own view of anonymity: and so I come to query my “dogmatic instinct” that the story can be more easily understood if I “absent” myself from it’s detail. Telling one’s own story may leave one open to an accusation of self-indulgence; but just because “one” writes about “one” (also in this sentence) and in the third person is not communicative integrity. As you say, communication involves what is true and insightful and that, in this context, is helpful when confronted by/with fake superficiality and artful cosmetic enhancement for effect …

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