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"Like any other tool, language can be abused, used not to build but to destroy, not to communicate but to confuse, not to clarify but to obscure, not to lead but to mislead." - William Lutz
Retired American linguist Dr. William Lutz spent much of his career at Rutgers University studying how language is abused in public conversations. He pointed to government and industry as the worst offenders in a practice known as Doublespeak, which Lutz described as “language designed to evade responsibility, to make the unpleasant appear pleasant … language that pretends to communicate but really doesn’t. Language designed to mislead while pretending it doesn’t.”
Dr. Lutz worried that doublespeak has invaded public discourse about important issues. When killing innocent men, women and children is called 'collateral damage', torture becomes 'enhanced interrogation' and the dirtiest fossil fuel becomes 'Clean Coal', public conversations lose meaning. We struggle to make sense of things. These euphemisms sanitize language and steer important issues below the public’s radar.
It would be rash to regard doublespeak as mere PR spin. The purpose of doublespeak isn’t to persuade but to silence and confuse. It is far more cunning than PR. Along with euphemisms, doublespeak campaigns use propaganda techniques such as demonizing dissenting views and concocting fake debates to magnify their impact.
There came a point when the tobacco industry realized they could no longer rely on PR to challenge the link between cigarettes and cancer. They turned to doublespeak to nudge the public away from a real debate about public health to a fake debate about sound science and free choice.
Those concerned about public health were labeled as zealots using junk science to promote a nanny state. In the end, the tobacco industry failed to persuade the public, but their tactics protected revenue and blocked health regulations for decades.
The U.S. has been overwhelmed with doublespeak campaigns for too long. From gun control to health care and climate change, industry front groups have confused and polarized American discourse, resulting in a state of bitter gridlock.
While its a relatively new phenomenon north of the border, the oil and gas industry and the Harper Government launched a ‘made in Canada’ doublespeak campaign early in 2012.
The campaign’s euphemism, Ethical Oil. Its message: Canada’s oil sands industry produces ‘Ethical Oil’. The world needs our ethical oil so we will crack down on these foreign-funded radical environmentalists who oppose the expansion of the oils sands via the Northern Gateway pipeline.
Within a very short timeframe, our national debate about environmental protection and the rights of First Nations shifted to a manufactured debate about protecting Canada’s national sovereignty and economic security against foreign interests and extremists.
Here are a few of the statements made by government and industry just as the Northern Gateway pipeline public review hearings were getting under way early last year.
From the Prime Minister’s Office in January 2012:
Foreign radicals threaten further delays
Today, Ecojustice attacked the independence of the Northern Gateway Joint Review Panel. ForestEthics, Living Oceans Society and Raincoast Conservation Foundation joined them in their attack on the Joint Review Panel. Here are the facts:
The Northern Gateway is currently going through a careful and comprehensive review process to ensure the proposal is safe and environmentally sound.
Radical groups are trying to clog and hijack the process, rather than letting the panel do its job independently, expeditiously, and efficiently.
Then on January 8th, 2012, an oil industry front group called the Ethical Oil Institute launched a national publicity blitz targeting news outlets across Canada. Here is what their spokesperson Kathryn Marshall said on CTV's Question Period national political program:
“The reason why the Northern Gateway Pipeline is a good project for Canada is that it will allow Canada to export more of our ethically produced oil to different countries that can reduce their dependency on conflict oil from nations like Nigeria and Saudi Arabia and Iran that have atrocious human rights records and really don’t care about the environment at all.”
“So, we have to make sure that foreign interests and their foreign-funded front groups and lobby groups … are not hijacking the hearing process and taking over or interfering with a Canadian decision.”
"If you care about ethics then support jurisdictions like Canada that have environmental laws, have human rights protections, have workers rights protections," Marshall said.
Then came an open letter to Canadians from Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver:
"Canada is on the edge of an historic choice [the Gateway pipeline approval]: Unfortunately, there are environmental and other radical groups that would seek to block this opportunity to diversify our trade. Their goal is to stop any major project no matter what the cost to Canadian families in lost jobs and economic growth. No forestry. No mining. No oil. No gas. No more hydroelectric dams."
"These groups threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda … they use funding from foreign special interest groups to undermine Canada’s national economic interest."
The campaign took on a 1984 tone when Public Safety Minister Vic Toews released a report on terrorism that warned Canadians of "domestic issue-based extremism" by environmentalists. The report stated:
"Although not of the same scope and scale faced by other countries, low-level violence by domestic issue-based groups remains a reality in Canada. Such extremism tends to be based on grievances—real or perceived—revolving around the promotion of various causes such as animal rights, white supremacy, environmentalism and anti-capitalism."
Astonishingly, the federal government didn’t draw the line with this unhinged political rhetoric.
On February 28, 2012, Senator Nicole Eaton launched an inquiry into the funding of environmental charities by foreign foundations, alleging what she considered a threat to the Canadian economy.
To Eaton, the inquiry was about so-called "master manipulators who are operating under the guise of charitable organizations in an effort to manipulate our policies for their own gain." She used phrases such as "political manipulation" and "influence peddling" to describe the money being raised by charitable organizations. "This inquiry is about how billionaire foreign foundations have quietly moved into Canada and, under the guise of charitable deeds, are trying to define our domestic policies," Eaton said. "Cleverly masked as grassroots movements, these interests are audaciously treading on our domestic affairs and on Canadian sovereignty, all under the radar."
Eaton has publicly echoed the Ethical Oil jargon ever since she launched a senate inquiry into the benefits of the oil sands back in 2010 stating, "In an industry dominated by OPEC, the world needs more fair trade, conflict-free, ethical Canadian oil."
As the campaign heated up, the House Finance Committee launched a hearing into the foreign funding of environmental charities in response to complaints lodged by Ethical Oil Institute against the David Suzuki Foundation, Tides Canada and other charitable groups. At the end of April, in the midst of the Senate inquiry and Finance Committee hearings, Environment Minister Peter Kent upped the ante by accusing environmental groups of money laundering, a charge that other Ethical Oil advocates were quick to repeat.
Kent’s accusations were as follows:
"There has also been concern that some Canadian charitable agencies have been used to launder offshore foreign funds. Whether you call it money laundering, or a financial shell game or three card Monte, it's inappropriate under those organizations' charitable status."
Now if you think this campaign was ill conceived and not very convincing you would be right. From water cooler chats in British Columbia to kitchen table debates in the Maritimes, most Canadians didn’t buy it. Even business leaders in the boardrooms of Bay Street and Calgary shook their heads. It was a harebrained attempt at persuasion and Canadians saw right through it. On most fronts, it backfired.
Nevertheless, we should remain concerned about the ongoing Ethical Oil campaign. Not just because it paved the way for a wholesale dismantling of environmental regulations that provided protection for communities across Canada – or because it was an inexcusable attempt to demonize conservation groups – but because doublespeak campaigns like Ethical Oil undermine confidence in constructive public discourse.
Doublespeak feeds the false notions that there are no facts, just spin, and that you can’t trust anyone, so why bother. Why bother to demand that industry and government clean up their act and admit what all of us already know – that there are some things that money shouldn’t be able to buy?
Doublespeak creates public cynicism, that’s really its purpose and that’s why it is so dangerous. Recall Dr. Lutz’s description of doublespeak as "language designed to evade responsibility."
If we want to stop doublespeak pollution from clouding the public square, the public must demand better from industry and government leaders. The lack of accountability for deceptive doublespeak poses a genuine threat to Canada’s future.
Image credit: Kris Krug
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