Monday, October 3, 2011

In Defence of Political Spins

(This article appeared in the Oct 2011  edition of Lexpert under the title "In Defence of Ploitical Spins.)

Euphemisms aren't necessarilly anti-semantic


Howard Richler

In perhaps the most famous political essay ever penned, George Orwell in his Politics and the English Language stated,“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” But sometimes, “pure wind” is exactly the prescription required. I'm not defending the use of horrific euphemisms such as “ethnic cleansing,” “pacification” and “final solution” that barely disguise murderous acts. Expressions such as these should be avoided at all costs and a spade should be called a spade rather than a subterranean digging device just as a Nazi concentration camp should be referred to by the more accurate term death camp.

So while it is easy to be cynical about the intent of political euphemisms, at times they are necessary. As politicians must heed public opinion, one must always remember that words are not only a weapon of war but a required political tool.

When we look back on certain conflicts we suppose they enjoyed universal support in their respective populaces, but rarely is this the case. For example, as late as 1944, almost forty percent of Americans said they favoured a negotiated peace with Germany, hence the specific words used by the Roosevelt administration were crucial in swaying an isolationist population's support for an overseas war. Also,sometimes direct language is counter-productive if you want to effect an agreement. When the Dayton Accord was signed between in 1996 between the Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians, none of the participants were prepared for the jarring reality of having the word “partition” in the peace agreement, So they didn’t use it even though the former country of Yugoslavia was effectively being partitioned. Instead of partition, someone invented the term “inter-entity agreement” and everybody was satisfied notwithstanding that nobody knew what the heck it really meant. But at least the lack of clarity allowed a pact to be consummated.

Another historical example of the efficacy of political euphemism occurred during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 when the Americans instituted a “quarantine” on ships travelling from the Soviet Union to Cuba rather than declaring a “blockade.” Why? Theodore C. Sorensen explained in his 1965 book Kennedy that “The President... adopted the term 'quarantine' as less belligerent and more applicable to an act of peaceful self-preservation than 'blockade' ” Sorensen could have added that instituting a “blockade” was considered an act of war whereas instituting a “quarantine” was only an attack on semantics.

This brings me around to the crux of my article ­- our need for some creative word phraseology in Canada. When referencing our health care system, all national politicians avoid uttering the term “two-tier,” like a vampire eschewing a cross. This reticence is notwithstanding the many deficiencies therein and the fact that Canada represents the only country aside from Cuba and North Korea that doesn't have a two-tier health system. Also, the fact that many progressive European nations with left-wing governments have installed health care systems with two tiers that are far more efficient than Canada's and cheaper to boot is blithely avoided by vote-lusting Members of Parliament. For, in Canada, any elected official who admits that he/she is in favour of a two-tier system is immediately excoriated as being un-Canadian and possibly a mole for American Republicans.

Ergo, the solution is simple. Banish the term “two-tier” from the Canadian political vernacular. Let's just talk about “diversified-market health care.” After all, our heterogenous population is more diverse than it has ever been, so “diversified” may be le bon mot we require.

I'm, however, open to other word spins at

Howard Richler's latest book is Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words

No comments:

Post a Comment