Catch phrases often backfire in thought and meaning

The past is warm and comforting, the future unsettling and unclear.

Is it any wonder, then, that aspiring political leaders campaign on evocative promises to turn back history, stop the world from spinning, return us for good and always to some imaginary time when all was right and just, when the worthy were rewarded, the transgressive sternly dealt with.

Citizens deserve better. They owe themselves and their community greater critical thinking.

They cannot at one and the same time complain that politicians are shameless mountebanks while eagerly purchasing every jar of snake oil on offer.

At minimum, they should be aware of what politicians are doing and exploiting.

Consider the use of language. Such slogans invariably make use of the power of hard consonants — the k, t, b and hard c. They are sounds that pop off the palate and grab our attention.

It is the difference between saying, “hush” or “shut up!” The meaning is similar. Lower the volume. But the one soothes, the other is spat out as a verbal slap across the face.

Advertisers and political manipulators know that the sound of words can matter as much as the meaning. It is not for nothing, after all, that most profanity in the English language is full of such sounds. It is language meant to grab attention.

But far more dangerous is what such slogans do, how they exploit our susceptibility to nostalgia, our penchant for editing and burnishing the past into something far simpler, fairer and greater than it was.

They hint at some better tomorrow that will be summoned by going backward, though seldom explain how it will be achieved.

Rather, they fuel dissatisfaction with the present and suggest — if not overtly naming — some scapegoat responsible for ruining things, whomever it was that things need to be taken “back” from.

The clarion call to which we are all so neurologically susceptible is an appeal to emotion, not reason.

And make no mistake. Such slogans work.

They turn us into a nation of oldsters in rocking chairs, insisting hockey was better when we were young, children better behaved, families never dysfunctional, an honest day’s work was done for a day’s pay, and handshakes were better than contracts.

This, of course, is delusional codswallop — the echo of our biblical fall from some idyllic garden, owing to deceit, treachery and gullibility.

Research in Europe suggests the majority of those over 35 think the world used to be a better place. Further, men, the unemployed and economically anxious are most prone to such feelings of nostalgia. And such feelings are often triggered by negative moods, anxiety and insecurity.

Yearning for retreat to a time of order and predictability serves as our internal stabilizing mechanism.

In Erin O’Toole’s rendering, those on whose behalf he is proposing to take Canada back are the uber-virtuous, “all of the hard-working Canadians who built this great country,” and the farmers — salt of the earth, doubtless — “who get up early every day and risk it all to provide for us.”

The untitled nobility of humanity, he suggests, who are all “being taken for granted.”

This is not a plan. It is a fable about some imagined past paradise, a calculated nurturing of grievance about its loss.

Yet, if there’s a recurring lesson for humanity, it is that time runs in one direction.

Flux prevails, change is constant, adaptability is key. No one gets to freeze history and evolution at a time most favourable to themselves.

Dinosaurs vanish. Empires rise and fall. Borders change. Corporations dominate then disappear.

From Yeats’s declaration that “time’s levelling winds” erase even the monuments of the mighty, to Joni Mitchell’s lament that “we can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came,” the truth abides.

We can’t go backwards.

And we should recognize that those promising otherwise are not calling to the best in us.

They are exploiting our weknesses and fears.

-The Toronto Star