Sam VanderVeer: Among the pandemic’s many victims is the English language

The HMCS Hyperbole is not a ship that can be turned around quickly
Pedestrians walk past a physical distancing sign in Calgary on Dec. 12, 2020. Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

C.S. Lewis begins one of his best-known non-fiction works, The Abolition of Man, with a scathing review of an elementary school textbook.

The authors of the textbook write about two tourists visiting a waterfall and analyze the tourists’ different reactions to it. One tourist reacts with a simple description (he says it is “pretty”) and the other with a value statement (he says it is “sublime”). 

The textbook authors make the argument that the tourist who called the waterfall “sublime” was not in fact making an objective statement about the waterfall, but rather just describing how the waterfall makes him feel. They write:

“This confusion is continually present in language as we use it. We appear to be saying something very important about something: and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings.” (Author’s note: Did these guys design Twitter?)

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CS Lewis takes issue with the textbook authors “subverting” objectivity with subjectivity. Over the course of the short book, Lewis argues that pretending the only thing that is real is how we feel at any particular moment has all sorts of confusing and damaging consequences — especially as it relates to how people interact with, and relate to, each other. 

I thought of this passage recently while once again shaking my head during a government press conference. Does anyone mean what they say anymore? Or say what they mean? 

We seem to have entered a bizarre period of hyper-inflation when it comes to words and meaning. The sheer volume of information and opinion (often indistinguishable) has never been greater, while at the same time it feels like words themselves have never had less real meaning. As the meaning of words becomes ever more diluted, the language we see used by individuals, the media, politicians and corporations is increasingly hyperbolic, brash and absolutist. 

Take a look at how much of the outrage machine is fueled by statements of historical absolutism.

Seeing absolutism grow and ultimately consume the progressive project in recent years has been a surprise. Progressivism promised openness, tolerance and an escape from the dogma and cruel objectivity of traditionalism. Within certain bounds this has certainly been true and many lives are better for it. But establishing and prosecuting the boundaries of openness and tolerance has come to dominate the progressive project in a way that looks more like tribalism than it does liberalism. The dogma, it turns out, also lives loudly in progressivism.

As New York Times columnist Bret Stephens wrote (in a column the Times declined to publish), “we are living in a period of competing moral certitudes, of people who are awfully sure they’re right and fully prepared to be awful about it.” 

Take a look at how much of the outrage machine is fueled by statements of historical absolutism, as an example. Are race relations the worst they’ve ever been? Is wokeism the greatest threat to freedom of speech in a generation? Has income inequality reached all-time highs? Is the science settled? None of these kinds of statements convey objective facts, yet we hear them constantly. They are disguised as factual by individuals in pursuit of personal or political agendas.

There are countless examples of the media accelerating the devaluation of words. In two separate cases, Rachel Maddow (a left-wing MSNBC host) and Tucker Carlson (a right-wing Fox News host) were able to save themselves from the financial consequences of defamation lawsuits by arguing that what they say should not be taken literally. In Maddow’s case, the judge wrote that the mix of news and opinion on the show meant “a reasonable viewer would not conclude that the contested statement implies an assertion of objective fact.”  It bears noting that Maddow is a Rhodes Scholar and has won three Emmy Awards, two of which were for “Outstanding News Discussion and Analysis.” 

COVID-19 has similarly laid bare how the careless use of language can render words meaningless. In instructing individuals not to wear masks and declining to restrict borders in early 2020, politicians and health officials disguised policy preferences as facts (the reality was that there were not enough masks to go around, not that masks were ineffective). Canada’s borders have never actually been “closed,” but you’d be forgiven for thinking they had.

Contradictory messaging around the recommended use of the AstraZeneca vaccine is another good example. The chair of the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) recently went as far as saying on national television that she wouldn’t want her own family members to take the AZ vaccine due to risk of death, while at the same time assuring viewers that AZ is “very effective” and that the risk of thrombosis is “very rare.” As if to assist in the writing of this column, the chair of the NACI went on to say in the same interview that she didn’t think her advice would contribute to confusion or vaccine hesitancy. Yet, just this week, several provinces announced that they will no longer be administering the first dose of AZ.

Readers who enjoy precise language will be able to provide countless examples of COVID-19-inspired vocabulary that reject meaning in favour of sloganeering and, at times, misdirection. We are told to “practice social distancing” when it is in fact the law, and the law states that we must keep a physical distance.

At the time of writing, the “Reopening Ontario (A Flexible Response to COVID-19) Act” has forced the closure of most Ontario businesses for the third time. Ontario’s golfers — who are permitted to walk alone in a field so long as that field is not a golf course and they are not carrying clubs — may quibble with the description of the legislation as “flexible.”

So what is there to do? Is it time to chain ourselves to the Oxford dictionary and shout “Stop!”?

The bad news is the HMCS Hyperbole is not a ship that can be turned around quickly. That said, in a world in which what we say means a little less than it did yesterday, our actions mean a heckuva lot more. 

The first step is to focus more on what is done rather than what is said, both in how we conduct ourselves and in how we interpret what we are told. We can also take care to speak plainly, truthfully and with humility, and to value others who do the same over those who shout loudest. 

In a lesser known collection of letters to fans, C.S. Lewis gives advice to a young writer that may be part of the prescription for hyper-inflation of this kind:

“Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very;’ otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.”

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