Helping our politicians out of the uncanny chasm of media training…

The uncanny valley is a “hypothesis in the field of robotics… which holds that when human replicas look and act almost, but not perfectly, like actual human beings, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers.” In other words, we get turned off by almost-but-not-quiteness.

Over the last 18 hours, since the delivery of the Prince Edward Island budget yesterday afternoon, I have heard members on the government side utter the phrases “low and modest income Islanders,” “new fiscal reality” and make reference, in interviews with TV and radio reporters, to “people like you and I” enough times to know that there are media-training puppeteers lurking behind the scenes with a carefully crafted playbook designed to help the goverment sell its budget to we citizens.

Members on the government side are not unique in this regard: media training is very obviously a part of opposition politics  as well. And its something — recall “Canada’s New Government” — that exists at all levels of government.

It’s hard to argue with the notion that politicians be trained to effectively communicate ideas to constituents: talking and listening is, in essence, their job, and being able to distill concepts so that we can all understand them is important if our collective pulse is to be gauged and reacted to.

But at some point “hewing to the playbook” crosses over from “effective communication” into a sort of trance-like ceaseless reptition of stock phrases and drains the humanity out of politicians to the point where they appear almost robotic.

Hon. Wes Sheridan, Minister of Finance, has, for me, crossed over this divide, and it’s his pronunciation of the word chasm — with a soft “ch” like “cherry” instead of a hard “ch” like “kiosk” — that’s taken him there. I’ve got nothing against the metaphorical chasm he’s referencing, it’s just that, now having heard him repeat the metaphor three times in various media in less than a day, I’m now acutely concious that he’s just saying the same thing over and over and over again.

Low and modest income Islanders.” “New fiscal reality.” “The six provinces without resources in the ground.” “People like you and I will pay more.” 

Perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect politicians to be able to extemporaneously speak from the heart at every turn. But, as this is a trend that will only continue unless we offer feedback, I think it might be the time to suggest to our politicians that we’re not as much interested as being sold to as we are interested in gaining insight, and to gain insight requires that we help them out of the uncanny chasm and back into a less-well-trained, conversationally honest way of communicating.


Anne Storey's picture
Anne Storey on April 19, 2012 - 13:48

Politician, n. An eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of society is reared. When he wriggles he mistakes the agitation of his tail for the trembling of the edifice. As compared to the statesman, he suffers the disadvantage of being alive.
—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Democracy: Noun. Informal. A form of government in which people, faced with the prospect of self-rule, cast the job into an exclusive mire of unskilled panderers.
— Thorax, 9 Chickweed Lane

Ian Petrie's picture
Ian Petrie on April 21, 2012 - 17:25

One way to expose/break the habit of politicians from repeating well-rehearsed words and phrases is for interviewers to simply say “I don’t understand what you mean.” It might take two or three times to say this, but often something a little more genuine and original comes out at the end. It’s a game, and this is one way reporters can say they don’t want to play.

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