Thursday, May 24, 2012

Words, Words, Words

As a retired English teacher and a lifelong lover of books, I have always been fascinated by words, both what they actually mean and how they are used to influence and manipulate. As the years have gone by, I have become especially interested in the political uses and abuses of language along the lines described in George Orwell's seminal essay, Politics and the English Language, the latter of which I would explore every year with my senior classes.

As I noted in an earlier post, the power of language to curb liberty and undermine free and critical thought is something we are witness to on a regular basis, and it is only by being familiar with these techniques that we can, to some extent, guard against them and recognize perversions of truth when they occur.

Orwell was well-aware of these dangers when he wrote his essay 56 years ago, and the problem has become so extensive that many of us almost automatically tune out when politicians or other 'leaders' open their mouths.

In Ontario, we are currently witness to a barrage of demagoguery and euphemisms from the McGuinty government in its battles against teachers and doctors. Take, for example, Education Minister Laurel Broten, whose government insists on a two-year pay freeze for teachers and the elimination of the retirement gratuity that exists in lieu of any post-retirement benefits. When she says she is choosing full day kindergarten and smaller elementary class sizes over teachers' paycheques, she is awakening latent public antipathy against 'greedy teachers', a pretty obvious subtext of her public pronouncements.

When she says, “I am asking the unions and the teachers to come to the table and work with us,” insisting she is “not negotiating in the media,” that is precisely what she is doing, of course.

And then there is her strange use of the word 'negotiation', which denotes a give and take to arrive at a reasonable solution. However, in this context, since she and McGuinty have made clear there is to be no give, only take, (OSSTF, for example, did offer to accept a two-year-wage freeze but not the end of the gratuity) 'negotiate' becomes a euphemism for saving the government the political embarrassment of having to strip away collective bargaining rights at some political cost to the party.

The same, of course, applies to the 'negotiations' the province is conducting with doctors. When Health Minister Deb Matthews says she’s disappointed that the OMA rejected her offer, what she is really saying, since the word 'offer' is a euphemism for 'ultimatum', is that she is sorry that the medical profession has not capitulated to her government's demands. That negotiation is not possible is attested to by the fact that she and McGuinty rejected the OMA's offer of a pay freeze.

No matter where we might stand on the direction being taken by the McGuinty government, it is imperative that all of us recognize and decry tactics that take us further and further from a healthy state of democracy.


  1. As another former English teacher who taught Politics and the English Language to his senior classes, I'm struck by how many governments have used Orwell as a how-to-manual rather than a warning.

    It would seem, though, that -- at least in the province of Quebec -- students have learned what the word "negotiate" means these days.

  2. To neo-libs and neo-cons "negotiate" means "Do as we command or fuck off and die".