Friday, May 06, 2011

New England & the death of a thousand semantic cuts

A post on Tuesday on my personal blog, Regional, rural & the whole damned policy mess, sets out my reaction to the ABC's Q&A program on regional development. The post included an excerpt from a seminar paper I gave in Armidale on the somewhat crazy  proliferation of terms - country, regional, rural, remote, coastal etc – that overlapped and were used in different combinations to describe parts of New England.

Another totally disconnected post, Cognitive bias and the practice of law, I looked at the way in which forms of thinking affected legal practice.

These two completely different posts dealing with apparently disconnected issues are in fact connected and relevant to New England. The unifying element in the two posts lies in what the economist Kenneth Boulding called images, what I have called mental mud maps, what are are also called frames

The world around us is complex. To manage and understand that world, we use frames, images, my mud maps, to simplify and interpret.

  In the case of law and indeed the other professions, training instils a particular way of looking at the world and of expressing things in language. But what happens when that way of thinking and the language involved actually creates a disconnect - a gap - between the real world and the perceived world?

I'm sure this this sounds abstract, but this is just what has happened to New England. The place has disappeared, emasculated by language and the forms of thought associated with language.

There was no recognition in the Q&A program of the history of regional policy in Australia. Consequently, there was no recognition of alternative solutions previously advanced including new states. While people recognised that problems facing Regional Australia did not just arise, it was as though the possible solutions were all newly minted.

Throughout the program, the words regional and rural were used all the time.

Those words joined together actually have no real meaning in the sense that they really don't describe anything. They are, in fact, a symbol of division, for regional really describes not an area but bigger country urban centres, while rural describes the rest. They are a typology, a form of thinking, an image of the world that has been established through usage. Further, they have come to be used to describe inland Australia. The coast is, apparently, neither regional nor rural. 

New England itself is an area on a map composed of a number of regions, each occupying a portion of New England. New England has an identity, and so do each of those regions. Concepts such as regional and rural divide not just New England, but the regions within it.

Just as in law, the language and forms of thinking associated with the new jargon create a real disconnect between language and thought and the real realities of New England.

The loss of history is both a cause and consequence of these ways of thinking and speaking. A cause because it removes challenges to the mental mud maps involved in the new jargon. A consequence because acceptance of new jargon actually destroys history. How can you study something that doesn't exist?

These ways of thinking also destroy the chances of doing anything meaningful in a policy or development sense. How can you create sensible policy for something that actually doesn't reflect anything other than a definition?

Sound extreme? Well, how would you prepare a development policy for regional and rural Australia? Is this the same as regional policy?

The old word country, a word rejected by the bigger urban regional centres, at least had the benefit of clarity. Noticeably, in the Q&A program Tony Windsor kept using that term whenever he referred to political action.

Even country is not perfect from a New England perspective because it puts a divide between Newcastle and the rest of New England. New England cannot and should not ignore Newcastle. Apart from anything else, it's impossible in historical terms. Yet country is still the best descriptor of non-metropolitan Australia.

New England is made up of a number of regions linked by history and geography. Each region has its own features and internal divisions. Policy needs to take into account both the linkages and the special features of each region. It also needs to take into account divisions within regions.

So long as we accept current jargon, New England will continue to suffer the death of a thousand semantic cuts.  


Greg said...

Hi Jim, another interesting post. The thing that gets up my nose is the way that the term "regional" is used as a general term for non-capital city Australia. I interpret regaional as refering to towns and small cities of less than 100,000 people.

So where does a city like Newcastle fit into that picture? It is neither a large capital city nor a small regional city. It is a metropolis of about 1/2 million people with particular (neglected) needs in terms of transport, police, health care etc. Yet it does also have a hinterland which is rural/country/regional with which it is closely connected. It has elements of both city and country but is probably neither. It is in a no mans land and falls between the cracks of such broad descriptors of city/country or metropolitan/regional.

Because of not really fitting either category but having elements of both it's needs nearly always go unaddressed when discussions of metropolitan vs. regional issues emerge.

Greg said...

It is probably obvious what I am driving at in the comment above, but just to put it another way - Newcastle tends to be regarded as regional whenever there is discussion of city issues (ie. capital), but it also tends to be equally regarded as being city when there is discussion of regional issues (ie. country). So it tends to fall through the cracks as being neither one nor the other.

If we have to categorise then perhaps there should extra categories eg. capital cities, non-capital metropolitan areas, regional cities and towns and country/rural? I really don't know what purpose that would serve other than to give a better picture of just what we are talking about when addressing the issues faced by towns and cities across Australia.

At least it would be recognition of the fact that some non-capital cities still have city type issues that are different to either the well serviced capital cities or smaller regional communities.

Jim Belshaw said...

Interesting, Greg, and worthy of a full post on my part. Newcastle does have a problem, although your suggested solutions illustrate the semantic difficulties involved!

To me, Newcastle is New England's big city that needs to be brought out of the shade. All of the existing wording acts to conceal.