Like The Hub?
Join our community.
Join

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

Commentary

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?)

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.”

Olivier Rancourt: The common thread on tech regulation? The consumer ends up paying

Commentary

For the past several months, Canada’s federal government has been on a crusade against the so-called GAFA companies (Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon).

Different government departments have stated that these tech giants are not paying their “fair share” in Canadian taxes, and that they use news content without compensation. They are looking to the European GAFA tax and the Australian media bill for inspiration in creating a new series of rules, including two major laws which would be the first of their kind in North America.

The problem with this regulatory project? These two measures are based on economic assumptions that do not hold water, and they will only end up hurting Canadian consumers.

Imposing a GAFA tax?

The first proposal is for a GAFA tax like the one introduced in France, which is an additional tax levied on certain digital companies. This measure is a response to the targeted companies supposedly having gotten away with paying less income tax than other companies, which is false. Indeed, the very name is misleading, for this tax is really a surtax, collected not on profits like an income tax, but on revenues. Revenue taxes are far more punitive than income taxes, and are among the levies most strongly criticized by economists.

In France, this tax is applied in a completely arbitrary manner — not levied on all profits above a certain threshold, but rather on a specific list of companies, including just one French firm. Several countries, such as Ireland, opposed the idea of a pan-European tax, which is no surprise since they are home to the European headquarters of certain companies and would be penalized by it.

Following the adoption of the GAFA tax in France, Google announced that the fees it charges to advertise on its platform would increase by 2 percent, or nearly the entirety of the 3 percent tax. Once again, we can see that tax hikes largely get passed along to customers, in this case those companies that buy advertising on Google. In turn, those who buy products advertised on Google can expect to see a portion of those increased costs passed along to them as well.

Paying for news content?

The Canadian government’s second proposal is a law forcing online companies to remunerate “traditional” media companies when the latter’s content is published on the former’s websites. The government justifies this law by the loss of revenue that traditional media has suffered due to the shift of advertising dollars to the web giants.

But the adoption of this law ignores why advertisers prefer sites like Google or Facebook. Their economic incentive to reach very precise target audiences will not disappear as a result of the law. Its only effect will be to punish companies that will have to shoulder an advertising fee hike, which again will then be passed on to their own customers.

This law merely creates a link tax, punishing websites that share links to news sites. This kind of law is extremely exploitable by media companies, which could themselves publish their news on Facebook and Google and then demand compensation.

Moreover, Facebook’s news ban in Australia proves that the news media need Facebook more than the other way around. After all, it is the media that need the internet to reach a bigger audience. The web giants can survive just fine without them. This power relationship makes the idea of forcing these sites to pay for content as outlandish as forcing restaurants to pay customers to taste their food.

Expanding the CRTC’s reach?

A similar economic argument can be made regarding the government’s notion to subject digital companies to Canada’s Broadcasting Act, and thus to the authority of the CRTC. The idea of threatening international websites with fines if they do not respect certain standards regarding investing in local production, and even banning a site in case of non-payment of such fines, demonstrates glaring technological illiteracy. This operating method does not take into account the way the internet functions today. There are more and more alternatives to popular sites emerging all the time. Banning a service or forcing content that users don’t want will only push them toward other platforms that are not subject to those standards, circumventing geolocation restrictions if need be.

Attempts to force unwanted content on the population are simply doomed to fail. An example of this kind of futile policy is the CRTC requirement for Quebec radio stations to play francophone music. To respect the quotas, stations play the vast majority of francophone songs outside of peak listening hours. Even when the government does get companies to collaborate, if the public is not interested in the content, it will end up in some forgotten corner of the platform, remaining online solely to justify respecting some rule or an other. And once again, the additional costs to produce and provide this unwanted content will be passed on to customers, who will be forced to foot the bill.

In all of these cases, it’s consumers who end up being hurt by the various laws proposed by the federal government. They’re the ones who see the prices of different online services rise in response to arbitrary content quotas, to the propping up of industries that need to reinvent themselves, and to arbitrary taxes on innovative companies that create interesting products.

It’s time to stop punishing consumers for the choices they make simply because they fail to conform to the choices a bureaucrat would make for them.