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John Milton’s Paradise Regained (the poem which followed his great English epic, Paradise Lost) expands and interprets the gospel narrative of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness (Matt. 4). In one particularly potent scene Jesus accosts Satan as deceiver, as one for whom, “lying is thy sustenance.” Jesus says:
“But what have been thy answers, what but dark,
Ambiguous and with double sense deluding,
Which they who ask’d have seldom understood
And not well understood as good not known?”
That the devil deceives through ‘double sense’, through ambiguity, is a simple but profound insight. And, just as we can say that the devil actively deceives through ambiguity, we can understand that wherever there is ambiguity the devil is likely to be active; as G.K. Chesterton said, “evil always takes advantage of ambiguity”.
If I were to level a single critique against the federal Government it would be their failure to use precise language, their failure to be articulate; in the past months the Liberals have introduced more than one piece of legislation which fails the fundamental test of clarity. Injustice lies in wait when laws come into effect without clearly written intention, scope, and method. Ambiguous definitions in law harbour the potential for both ulterior motive and later misuse.
Two evident examples of ambiguity are the recent An Act To Amend the Broadcasting Act (Bill C-10) and An Act to Amend the Criminal Code (Conversion Therapy) (Bill C-6). Now that Parliament has risen for the summer, and with an election call in the coming months a near certainty, it is likely that these Bills will never be signed into law. Should the Liberals secure another mandate, however, nothing would stop substantially similar Bills from being reintroduced in a later Parliament.
The stated intention of Bill C-10 has been to go after profiteering web-giants and to protect Canadian content and media on the Internet. There is little doubt that the rapid expansion of the Internet (and technology more broadly) in past decades has left gaps in Canadian legislation that require thoughtful and adaptive policy solutions, and the influence of web-giants may need to be kept in check in various ways. However, as Peter Stockland noted, “The difference of opinion between Bill C-10’s advocates and critics is fundamentally a division between intention and effect.” The stated intentions of a Bill live only as long as debate lasts, the real effects of a Bill are cemented into Canadian law. So what would have been the real effects of C-10?
At a recent Macdonald-Laurier Institute webinar, a panel of journalists and subject experts expressed unanimous confusion around the substantial effects of Bill C-10. What is clear is that the Bill would redefine online activities (potentially including personal social media posts) as ‘broadcasting’ in order to bring them under the regulatory control (censorship) of an unelected government body. How this would be implemented and how it would accomplish the stated intention of the Bill is anyone's guess.
If anywhere there exists any ulterior motive to limit Canadian’s free speech on the Internet, Bill C-10 would be the suitably ambiguous vehicle for that wicked end.
Likewise, the intention of Bill C-6, to ban the harmful practice of conversion therapy, was uncontroversial but the Liberal’s failure to articulate a clear definition of ‘conversion therapy’ would have opened doors for infringement on Canadian’s fundamental freedoms. The wide definition of ‘conversion therapy’ in the Bill left room for the criminalization of respectful private conversations around sexuality, parental guidance around sexual behaviour, or freely sought religious counselling services.
Once again, if anywhere there exists a radically secular ulterior motive to make religious ethics around sexuality criminal, Bill C-6 would be the suitably ambiguous Bill to accomplish the curtailment of religious freedom in Canada.
If such ulterior motives were underneath these pieces of legislation, then we are witnessing the situation described by George Orwell in his essay Politics and the English Language: “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible… Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”
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The federal government’s failure to be articulate is a fundamental failure in their role as lawgivers. Drawing from Plato’s Cratylus, Richard Weaver wrote: “Actually stable laws require a stable vocabulary, for a principal part of every judicial process is definition, or decision about the correct name of an action. Thus the magistrates of a state have a responsibility to see that names are not irresponsibly changed.”
The central task of the just lawmaker is to achieve precise language in law, to master grammar and dialectic — the sciences of precise definition. Plato said, “the work of the legislator is to give names.”
The declining recognition that precise language is central to just lawmaking, evidenced by recent legislation, could be attributed to the broader rise of a belief in the subjectivity of language and the non-objectivity of texts. Modern theories of language that call into question the capacity of language to articulate truth, and in the capacity of texts to contain objective meaning, will obviously undermine the importance of precise language in legislation.
If laws are ‘living’ documents, entirely subject to the whims and interpretive prejudices of later readers, and not bound by their author’s original intention, then the actual terms of a law are broadly insignificant. If we are to see a revival of precisely written laws, we may need to see a broader revival of confidence in the power and importance of the written word.
In the meantime, in Bills C-10 and C-6, the definitions of ‘broadcasting’ and ‘conversion therapy’ were in danger of irresponsible change, and the implementation of similar Bills in a future parliament could bring significant injustice. Any government which fails to understand the need for precise language in law misunderstands a fundamental aspect of their role as legislators.
Convivium publishes texts that do not necessarily reflect the views held by Cardus, the Convivium team, or its editors. In the spirit of discussion, dialogue, and debate, we ask readers to bear in mind that publication does not equal endorsement. Thanks for reading. Join the conversation!