Euphemism and sheer cloudy vagueness
In Politics and the English Language, the English essayist and journalist George Orwell wrote: “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”
In the 1946 essay, Orwell made the connection between degraded language and political deceit, listing a number of words, such as totalitarian, progressive and equality, as the kind “often used in a consciously dishonest way”.
“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible . . . Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness,” he wrote.
This sort of language is more than a little harsh if tagged onto our political leaders; and we do not question, nor doubt their sincerity and commitment to Barbados’ development.
However, we all can do with a little more straight and simple talk, particularly when we are being fed bitter medicines, mainly against our will.
The language surrounding the latest tax imposed on Barbadians effective September 1 easily falls in the category of “euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness”.
In his presentation of the 2016 Financial Statement and Budgetary Proposals, Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler announced a National Social Responsibility Levy of two per cent on the customs value of all imports and locally produced goods for local consumption. Goods for the manufacturing, agriculture and tourism sectors were exempted.
Upon closer examination we are left to wonder, what is a National Social Responsibility Levy? Orwell would likely have found a meaning for the term within the context of politics and language. To us, however, it is a euphemism for an increase in the Value Added Tax.
The administration has never hidden its addiction to taxes and it has found every conceivable way to feed this addition. Also, it might never admit it, but its insatiable desire to please the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has been it worst kept secret.
Therefore, when in 2010 Mr Sinckler announced a temporary rise in the VAT from 15 per cent to 17.5 per cent, the IMF advised Government to not only make it permanent, but to increase it further to 18 per cent. Six years later, the 18-month trial has become nothing but a bad memory and 17.5 per cent is the new baseline from which to launch new increases.
Government has said the $142 million it expects to collect from the new levy will go towards funding health care and sanitation services; which begs the question – Orwell again – is this the reincarnation of the Municipal Solid Water Tax?
It would not be politically expedient to announce to all of Barbados that Government was increasing the VAT to 19.5 per cent, or was reintroducing the Municipal Solid Waste Tax, or was introducing user fees for health care. Therefore, language about social responsibility is born.
Let us be the first to admit that the two per cent levy might have nothing to do with any of these, however, when messages come clouded in sheer vagueness, we are forced to wonder.
We have been down this road before. Earlier this year Government raised the VAT on mobile phone use by 4.5 per cent, to 22 per cent. Back then there was no ambiguity. We all knew it was a VAT rise.
Yes, there were questions regarding its application; true Barbadians were terribly unhappy with having to pay more taxes, but there was never any doubt what is was. And in the end, we complained and complied.
On the other hand, our political leaders probably figured out that people would not stomach an across-the-board VAT rise, so the language became exhausted and cloudy.
Orwell also said political language gave “an appearance of solidity to pure wind”. The remedy, he said, is to insist on simple English. We could do with some of this when it comes to the National Social Responsibility Levy. But then, who is really interested in clear language?