By Steve Smyth
The COVID-19 pandemic has given the public an opportunity to watch our elected officials and civil servants do the things we elect and expect them to do.
For every Donald Trump gaffe (he can’t be doing that on purpose, could he?), we have the pleasure of watching someone like provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry stand before the microphone and calmly, soothingly and most importantly, factually deliver statistics and medical information and advice.
Health minister Adrian Dix also gets top marks for his daily message delivered in the same informative way.
The one thing refreshingly missing from Dr. Henry’s messages is an overabundance of “weasel words” and phrases. She speaks directly to the common man and woman in all of us, all the while avoiding phrases that fill sentences but say nothing.
Contrast this style with a press conference a few hours later on one occasion with two other cabinet ministers whose speeches were rife with bureaucratic mumblespeak about “synergistic goals” and “sympathetic alliances”.
George Orwell’s novel 1984 famously brought us Newspeak, in which superfluous words were eliminated and substituted with simplistic terms. Good, was understood by common folk, so why not use “ungood” instead of all the confusing words that were its opposite. “Double plus ungood” became easily understood as a very bad thing by even the most poorly educated.
The political purpose of Newspeak was to eliminate ambiguity and nuances from the English language, thereby eliminating awareness and free thought.
In our lifetime, we have seen the rise and perfection of weasel words and phrases that are crafted to a fine point in order to hide any possibility of responsibility in case something goes wrong. Phrases like “this initiative speaks to”, “known facts” and “robust investigations” are used to make the listener feel that the speaker surely must be smarter than he.
I recently received a press release from a government cabinet minister that contained the phrase “an application-based funding program to support health, sustainable and resilient communities facing rapid and large-scale economic development and associated need for enhanced social service readiness.”
One imagines a table full of wordsmiths, stirring each word and its possible alternatives into a cauldron and fusing them to extract any possible offense and achieve maximum efficiency.
But wait, one might say in horror, that combination actually means something and back in the blender it would go until the original meaning required the reader to read and reread, straining themselves to discover the actual intent of the phrase.
Governments at all levels fall over themselves to provide “good paying jobs for hard working Canadians. Does this mean they support poor paying jobs for lazy Canadians?
They hold “conversations with citizens” to appear chatty and warm and make us feel like we actually sat and had a beer or coffee with someone. People no longer have the time. They “don’t have the bandwidth” to “think outside the box” while “picking the low hanging fruit”. They “reach out” and “touch bases” while they “hit the ground running” to achieve “maximum potential”.
While the good Dr. Henry slips in the occasional technical terms, it’s done in a manner that enhances the meaning of the statement, rather than changing, or worse, hiding the original intent. Perhaps that’s why she has received the respect and admiration of many both in the media and in society in general.
Professors and educators in the future would do well to study and discuss Dr. Henry’s style and method of delivery. We are very lucky to have her, and others like her, in our public service.
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Steve Smyth writes for the Terrace Standard.