The ability to make a clear and concise point is often the difference between making a persuasive argument and exposing yourself as an ignoramus. As a lawyer in training, I receive a lot of feedback on my communication skills — and spend a lot of time trying to avoid the latter.
While COVID-19 continues apace and we spend more time on social media, perhaps now more than ever the consequences of communicating imprecisely are highlighted. Loose speech becomes particularly dangerous when combined with the natural human fear of “outsiders.”
Whether in discussions of “vanlifers,” foreigners during COVID-19, or something more sinister, there is a very fine line between principled argument and xenophobia.
Lately, xenophobia seems to be winning. This observation is perhaps best represented in a somewhat disturbing statement from John Horgan, B.C.’s premier, made on July 27, 2020: “With respect to those who have offshore plates and are feeling harassed, I would suggest perhaps public transit… [or] that they ride a bike.”
Innocent on its surface, perhaps, this statement lacks the liberal mindset and principles that form the basis of many Canadians’ national pride.
That Horgan later said we should “hold judgement” is no defense: most Canadians would not stand for this reasoning in any other context, regardless of the extenuating circumstances.
In judging our times, we must remember that we are concerned about people who have, or who are spreading, COVID-19. We are afraid of a virus, not people.
There is good “precedent” on how imprecision can manifest in ugly ways. The homophobia that sprung as a result of the AIDS pandemic is not, and never was, justified by the higher rate of AIDS in the gay community. Fear of “outsiders” who might come from a population with a higher rate of COVID-19, though less morally obscene, shares parallel and equally unfounded justification. Simply because COVID-19 is more transmissible than AIDS does not make generalized, imprecise, and xenophobic attitudes or policies any more acceptable.
The “dark side” of our COVID fears are well exhibited in social media reactions to recent news stories.
In one story, a Canadian-American couple attempting to marry (and re-unify in Canada) were accused by many commenters of trying to blatantly skirt laws or of needlessly putting other Canadians in danger — neither of which was evidenced on the facts. In other stories, some Canadian commenters supported vandalizing of cars with out-of-province plates. In others, borderline vigilante-style Facebook posts are “outing outsiders” for simply being “outsiders.”
This imprecise social reaction to COVID-19 is poorly reasoned and devoid of evidence. We should judge people on whether they follow the rules society has adopted, not their group identity. To the extent policy is based on group identity, we should tread extra carefully. Our justice system is built on individual culpability, not group affiliation, and there is no reason our feelings during COVID-19 should be radically different.
None of this is to say we cannot distinguish between groups or acknowledge statistical realities. It is to say, however, that our default reaction should be to treat people as individuals.
Precision is imperative to effective communication and argument. One of the best ways I have learned to argue more precisely is to replace ‘general’ words such as “those,” “these” or “they” with more ‘specific’ words such as “some,” “many,” or “often.” This tweak in our communication can give significant credibility to what we are actually trying to say.
If even 99% of people in a particular group have tested positive for COVID-19, it is not the case that “those people have the virus.” Many of the people in that group have the virus.
Slight changes in rhetorical precision can have a drastic impact on what we think an acceptable policy solution (or an appropriate Facebook comment) might be, well beyond the COVID-19 context.
Once “those people” become “many of those people,” we are reminded of the remainders, and hopefully about the effect our imprecise arguments can have on each other.
Nicholas Terry has been a Squamish resident since 2011 and is currently a student at the Peter A. Allard school of law at UBC.