Premier Redford and the novelist George Orwell have one thing in common—they recognize the value of euphemisms in political discourse.
A euphemism is a mild or indirect word or expression used in place of one that is too harsh or blunt. The recent exchange between Premier Redford and Prime Minister Harper about the national energy strategy is a brilliant example of two savvy politicians using euphemisms to stake out their positions on a critical federal and provincial issue—the exploitation of the oil sands.
Premier Redford fired the first volley (although she didn’t realize it at the time) in a speech to the Economic Club of Canada where she outlined her vision for a national energy strategy and Alberta’s role as a leader in the economic development of Canada. She said Ottawa and the provinces needed to work together to make Canada an energy leader and—in a turn of phrase which in retrospect would have benefited from the application of a soothing euphemism—said “We need to put all antagonisms behind us.”* Antagonisms…? Too adversarial, try something more bland like “differences” or better yet, scrap the sentence altogether.
The Prime Minister was not amused (now there’s a euphemism if ever there was one), particularly when the premiers of BC, Sask, Que and Ontario climbed on board. Mr Charest, the premier of Quebec, boldly stated that the provinces didn’t need the federal government to set up a national energy strategy because they were already working on it. Take that Mr Harper!
Mr Harper’s response was measured and cut to the quick. He was puzzled. He described Redford’s energy strategy as “kind of vague”. He had no idea what the premiers were talking about but looked forward to discussing it with them. Then in a devastating use of euphemistic metaphor he flashed the sword of federal power. He tied Redford’snational energy strategy to Trudeau’s National Energy Program (NEP) by stating that all Canadians get “nervous” when they hear the words “national” and “energy” used in the same sentence. The NEP still evokes a visceral reaction from Albertans 40 years after the demise of that disastrous program.** Nice slap down Mr Harper, but was it really necessary?
Yes it was—if you’re Mr Harper. Strip away the cloak of euphemism to see what really going on here. Mr Harper is not the least bit “confused” about Ms Redford’s national energy strategy. It’s crystal clear to him that the provinces are banding together to create it and as far as Mr Harper is concerned if the provinces think they’re going to go forward a Canadian energy strategy without the fed’s involvement they can think again!
Ms Redford reacted quickly to this veiled attack on provincial cooperation. She gave interviews expressing her “surprise” at the Prime Minister’s comments but was quick to note that she was “not offended”. She said (and here’s a clever example of a sentence so vague it completely loses its meaning) that she “didn’t really take it as anything to be particularly preoccupied with one way or the other” and concluded that the Prime Minister’s comment was a tempest in a teacup.***
There are an awful lot of fluffy metaphors and abstract understatements flying around between Ms Redford and Mr Harper over the most critical issue facing Canadians today. And that’s the point…euphemisms serve two purposes: (1) to send messages staking out one’s position without being so blunt that the message requires an equally blunt response and (2) to phrase the message in language the public won’t fully understand so that the public is rendered incapable of participating in the discussion.
The use of euphemisms in political dialogue is very dangerous because a misguided political strategy will be well into implementation (perhaps completely haywire) before the public understands the facts and has an opportunity to complain. That hasn’t happened yet in the discourse around the national energy strategy, but it has happened in the context of Alberta’s healthcare policies, energy policies and land management policies (to name a few).
The run-up to the provincial election will be peppered with euphemisms from all political parties. We would be well advised to take George Orwell’s definition of euphemism to heart. He said euphemism is obfuscatory language designed “to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable”.****It’s time to start paying close attention.
*Calgary Herald Online Nov 16, 2011
**Edmonton Journal Online, Jan 6, 2012
***Calgary Herald Online, Jan 22, 2012
****The Economist Dec 17, 2011, p107