Equivocation Will Undo Us

Al Lehmann’s column

Our industrial society relies upon precision at nanometer scale for its IT machines to function. By comparison, we are enormously sloppy with language.

In Hamlet, a simple gravedigger practically baffles Prince Hamlet through equivocation, saying one thing but slyly meaning another, causing the prince finally to exclaim, “How absolute the knave is! We must speak by the card [with accuracy and exactness], or equivocation will undo us!”

Hamlet recognizes, as does the gravedigger, how important it is to express ideas precisely.

Political speech today continually burdens us with equivocations, attempting to blur or conceal policy intentions using the sly techniques of propaganda and rhetoric.

True, there are legions of political figures that rely upon simple lying to promote their chosen ends. The assertions that climate change is a hoax, or that refugees are part of a huge yet clandestine international plot to bring sharia law to the West come to mind. (Given the popularity of these misconceptions, it’s clear many among us believe these claims, despite their absurdity.)

Although these liars, with their aggressive, in-your-face posturing, can be largely dismissed intellectually, their capacity for damage is unnerving. Even the most rigorous of fact-checking is useless to a society that does not care about facts.

Less obvious, though, are those wily communicators whose purpose is to lull their audience’s critical faculties into accepting the impossible or nonsensical through vague appeals to sentiment. Particular appeals include iconic values such as “children,” “family,” “tradition,” “church,” “patriotism,” and numerous others. These concepts function as powerful symbolic categories that lend authority and a kind of imagined certainty to their speakers, allowing them to slip all kinds of nonsense into their arguments, between the lines, as it were.

At times, politicians recognize that although you can’t please all of the people all of the time, you can cloak your objectives and decisions so as to satisfy most of the people, most of the time. Equivocation is essential to this cloaking.

Both the federal and BC governments profess commitment to phasing out fossil fuels’ climate impacts, but they also invest vast sums into expanding the production and sale of those same fossil fuels. Citizens might well ask, “Which is it to be? How can it possibly be both?”

The simple answer is that it can’t. But you won’t find that either government will tell you this. Instead, they’ll equivocate, frantically trying to call both sides of the coin toss while presenting themselves as calm and in control.

The rigor with which responsible scientists have been presenting the growing climate catastrophe over the past quarter century exemplifies clear (if complex) language use at its best. By contrast, politicians have presented us with bafflegab and partisan equivocations.

Trudeau, for example, has repeatedly argued that expansion of TMX will fund Canada’s clean energy future. Semi-true, perhaps. We’ll sell the fuels to Asia, where they’ll burn it (as if that’s not our problem). Only days ago, Canada approved development of another gigantic offshore oil project in the waters off Newfoundland.

The BC government claims our climate plan is the strongest in North America, yet if the planned expansion of the LNG industry goes ahead, it will become the single largest source of emissions in the province.

Governments lead in opposite directions simultaneously. We may wish for truth, but contradictions proliferate. Equivocation will undo us? We’re already undone.