Language shapes the way we experience the world. What we call things matters. This section looks at common language patterns that hide or confuse political issues, responsibilities, or consequences for politicians. We call these bogus excuses. If we learn these basic patterns in simplified form, we can spot them more easily when they try to sneak by us in the form of rhetorical emails, tweets and other ways elected officials speak publicly online.
We start with Scott Reid, an MP who hesitates to publicly take a stand against his provincial counterpart, who continues to endanger lives by violating public health orders. Scott wants to make a public statement to excuse his inexcusable actions.
Here's what Scott did: Scott knew the actions of Randy Hillier were directly harming constituents in his riding. Despite virtually every municipality in the constituency condemning the actions of Hillier, Scott remained silent as the only elected official who could speak for the entire geographical riding in one tweet. His words could have literally saved lives but instead he chose to pander to constituents that were still donating to his and Hillier’s campaigns.
In his public statement, Scott uses several statements that show common language patterns that can interfere with clear thinking and are ultimately just bogus excuses for supporting the inexcusable actions of Randy Hillier.
1. Substitute the General for the Specific
In this pattern, both the specific individual and the specific act disappear. A description of a general category of acts and a vague reference to anything else replaces (and hides) the specifics.
Example: “Section 1 of the Charter of Rights creates a formula under which governments are permitted to restrict the freedoms guaranteed in the Charter---including freedom of assembly and association, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion---if the restrictions are sufficiently tight, and are justified under the circumstances. ”
2. Use a Conditional Frame for Consequences
The speaker shifts the focus to the question of whether the acts affected anyone. The excuse is made contingent on how others reacted or were affected.
Example: “Why have I been quiet on all of these matters? Because it makes sense to focus on the matters where I think I can make a difference, and where people might actually listen to what I say and change their actions in ways that would improve their health outcomes.”
3. Use Denied-Motivation as Misdirection
Instead of honestly stating the motivation, the speaker seeks self-exoneration by talking about what the motivation was not. Denying an irrelevant charge that no one has made can be an effective rhetorical tactic.
Example: “I was very glad and relieved to get my own first dose of Astra Zeneca at the end of April 2021. I have devoted a considerable amount of time in one-on-one conversations, trying to convince vaccine-hesitant individuals to sign themselves up.”
4. Use the Abstract Language of Technicalities
The speaker translates people and events into abstractions, using the jargon of technicalities to justify the excuse.
Example: “The Ontario government makes the claim that its stay-at-home orders, including the prohibitions on attending church services, may be regarded as "reasonable limits prescribed by law [which] can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society." I disagree with the government's assessment---and clearly, Randy does as well.”
5. Use the Passive Voice
The speaker’s recent relevant actions disappear. Things are done without reference to who does them.
Example: “Take a look at my Twitter feed and my Facebook, and you’ll see that early in the pandemic I was actively promoting mask-wearing. In April this year, I made a point of posting a selfie of myself being vaccinated.”
6. Make Unimportant by Contrasting with What Did Not Occur
The speaker anchors the presentation in scenarios of extreme consequences that did not occur. The contrast makes whatever may have happened seem trivial.
Example: “In my view, the present stay-at-home order infringes on a host of Charter-guaranteed rights, including: freedom of assembly and association, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion”
7. Inexcusable Behavior with the Language of Accidents, Misfortune, and Mistakes
The speaker fails to mention making a conscious decision to benefit from Hillier supporters, which would strike most people as inexcusable. The description makes the speaker a victim of being an imperfect human, of lacking omniscience and infallibility. The speaker pushes the acts into the category of those random, inevitable mistakes that afflict us all and are beyond our control. At worst, they are a matter of having fumbled a matter of judgment, although if this construction is examined closely, it seems to assume that almost anyone would have difficulty judging whether supporting blatant disregard for public health is excusable. This may not be quite as hard a judgment as the rhetoric implies.
Example: "I have been trying to provide gentle encouragement to many vaccine-hesitant individuals, some of whom (in this riding, at any rate) are very respectful of Randy Hillier’s views."
8. Smother the Events in the Language of Attack
Assuming that the best defense is a good offense, the speaker avoids responsibility by attacking others. Whatever the speaker may have done becomes trivial or justifiable in light of the terrible things other people have done. The language of attack stirs up emotional responses. It works against people joining together to examine the facts and their implications and sets people against each other, dividing them into "us" (the good people, unjustly attacked) and "them" (the bad people, who deserve what we can dish out). The speaker's rhetoric serves to draw listeners into his or her camp and to ridicule or intimidate those who are on the other side (i.e., the enemy). The rhetoric encourages listeners to evaluate claims not in terms of whether they are valid and relevant, but in terms of whether they support the listener's loyalty to one side.
Example: "I have also refrained from making public comments about: Doug Ford’s response to the pandemic, which---speaking frankly---has been disjointed, confused, and seems to be driven as much by what he thinks the latest polls indicate is likely to be popular; The mess that the Trump administration made of its COVID response; Many aspects of the Trudeau government’s handling of COVID at the federal level, some of which have been so inept that they would be comical, if they were not resulting in the deaths of Canadian citizens and the prolongation of this disastrous epidemic by several months. "
Adapted from: KSPope.com
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