The Pandemic's Attenuation of Language




  1. a system of government that is centralized and dictatorial and requires complete subservience to the state.

  2. "democratic countries were fighting against totalitarianism"

I have been critical of the left's diminution of the English language for a while. The wanton re-definition of words such as 'hate' and 'violence' threaten to sneak into the laws of the land, weakening areas of human rights such as freedom of speech and association. For example, certain types of speech now qualify as 'violence', opening an obvious contention to free speech, of which kind one would have thought were ironed out during the enlightenment, hence their constitutional inclusion and protection in western democracies. Oh, my bad, I forgot the enlightenment thinkers were racist, they don't count despite us being the beneficiaries of the freedom and prosperity that their thinking brought about in practical, constitutional and policy terms.

Now, however, it is the right-wing that is guilty of the attenuation of our language. I don't think it would be far wrong to assert that the fair bulk of our COVID-19 conspiracy theorists belong somewhere on the right side of political thinking. I must make clear that when I say 'conspiracy theorists', I do not include in the definition those who are merely critical of public health policy. Criticism of government policy is an integral function of liberal democracy and is not, as the media, who is ironically most responsible for such criticism, so often claims, conspiratorial, rather it is interrogative.

The right isn't redefining words in the same way the left is, just too often using them loosely and betimes, leading to the diminution of their elucidating heft. I don't think it's overbold to say that every time the word 'totalitarianism' has been thrown around hitherto in this pandemic, it has lost muscle and authority by degrees in exact proportion to its poor, or at least premature usage. As if its misuse wasn't already racking up enough mileage in the usual course of public debate pre-pandemic, now it is being flogged through the mud of pandemic discourse and has depreciated in value ever faster. By the time the pandemic is over and an unqualified dude at K-Mart is searching between our toes for a suitable injection site for our 27th digital COVID-19 booster vaccine made by Facebook, or should I say 'Meta', while Daniel Andrews encourages us from a telescreen after delaying 8 elections under section 8A of the Public Health and Wellbeing Act, words like 'totalitarianism' will be like a pile of useless beat-up metal in the scrapyard where forgotten words like 'ultracrepidarian' or 'throttlebottom' (look them up and thank me later) go to die.

Many measures taken by federal and state governments around the world do accurately trigger the correct employment of the word. However, (as much as it pains any thinker to say 'however' after an example of totalitarianism is produced), without going into the lack of quality debate on the matter, the general public has accepted the tradeoff between their rights and their health as necessary. Thus, there is a broad disconnection between public health measures taken and the application of the word, making it, in the eyes of the world, empty and irrelevant.

The danger of emptying strong words like 'totalitarianism or 'authoritarianism' of their meaning is that when we need to apply them to a situation that genuinely and objectively meets their definition, such as where there is no longer any risk to public health yet measures are taken anyway, they no longer contain any convincing power. Vaccine mandates, for example, are touted as non-compulsory, yet come with economic coercion and social pressure from the top down. For a more egregious and terrifying example, there is currently a bill before the Parliament of Victoria to amend the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 leading up to the expiration of the State of Emergency declaration in that state which can't be renewed after mid-December.

The amended bill will give the Premier and the Health Minister the power to declare a pandemic and introduce public health restrictions without parliamentary approval or oversight; with new powers of detention and severe monetary penalties for non-compliance; with exemptions to restrictions and penalties on the basis of race, gender and ideological purity (which inherently requires a system of social credit); and worst of all, without a pandemic disease or disease of pandemic potential even being present in the state. But fear not, there are strong 'safeguards'. Such as an advisory committee...which the premier appoints himself. And a report by the chief health officer...recommendations of which need not be followed. And human rights advice and reviews...which also need not be followed. Or considerations of social and economic impacts...which may or may not be regarded.

Say what you will about the conspiracy theorists, but we have to admit that they got a few things right (not forgetting that a broken clock is right twice a day). For a start, they saw, perhaps more so than the mere critics, sinister motives and potential for power grabbing in the initial two-week lockdowns. Sure enough, almost two years later, 'two weeks to flatten the curve' has turned into three jabs to feed your family, and, 'we're in this together' turned right quick into 'show me your papers.' And now there is an attempt in Victoria to make the emergency powers used to do such things permanent, to be used without the checks and balances or accountability of parliamentary oversight at the discretion not only of the current Victorian government but every government the Victorian people elects in the future with safeguards that amount to practically nothing. We can't say we didn't hear warnings about this kind of thing early on.

Now when we need to apply the word 'totalitarianism', which has been attenuated beyond recovery, to a situation in which the full degree of its meaning is valid, where there is no tradeoff to be consented to but simply a decree to be followed, it falls upon deaf, or perhaps just uninterested ears. The boys and girls, self-educated at the University of Google, who, for nearly two years have shepherded our rights and cried 'power seizing tyrant!' too often, are now wondering why no one is listening. I argued many months previous that the foundation of the kind of society that we will emerge as post-pandemic is already being lain, and here we see that foundation manifesting itself. Should we have listened to the lovers of conspiracy, or should we critics have been as bold as they in our judgements? I would argue the latter, and what's more, that we are to blame.

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