Aussie Life

Aussie Language

28 August 2021

9:00 AM

28 August 2021

9:00 AM

TV host Paul Murray spoke on Sky News Australia about the role the word ‘misinformation’ is currently playing in the culture wars. Cancel culture has now taken the place official censorship played in years gone by. And the reason given for banning a person or publisher from a social media platform or a university campus is usually the charge that they spread ‘misinformation’. The verb ‘to misinform’ has been part of English since at least 1393 and is about getting things wrong—passing on wrong information. But the really interesting issue linguistically is the difference between ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’.

The latter is a much more recent coinage (from 1955) and is always malicious—meaning, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, ‘the dissemination of deliberately false information’. ‘Misinformation’ on the other hand means passing on wrong information having believed it to be true. An anti-vaxxer social network, for example, may choose to spread a false story about vaccination which is then swallowed whole by the gullible—but the story started somewhere. Someone somewhere concocted the lie in the first place. They are the guilty ones—and the charge they face is one of ‘disinformation’. So, when people are charged with ‘misinformation’ they are being accused of believing the wrong thing. If they are professional journalists who are scrupulous about their research the charge is likely to be false. But wrong or right, it still amounts to banning a person or publisher because they believe the wrong information (‘misinformed’) not because they have invented a lie (‘disinformation’). That looks to me like shaky and stupid grounds on which to impose censorship. If I’m getting it wrong, don’t ban me—show me I’m wrong!

The discussion about a vaccination ‘mandate’ being imposed by corporations or governments raises the question of what, exactly, counts as a ‘mandate’. The word is recorded in the legalese division of English from 1552. It comes from a classical Latin word meaning ‘command’. In early English law it meant a command of the king. Its current meaning is ‘a judicial or legal command from a superior to an inferior…’. Which raises two deeper questions about the application of the word: (1) can such commands be about anything—including health matters? and (2) who is your superior in such matters? All of us (except the most militant anti-vaxxers) go along with compulsory vaccination of our kids against highly infectious diseases such as whooping cough, chickenpox, measles, diphtheria and so on. And we want the kids our kids mix with to be vaccinated as well to stop an outbreak of something nasty. Is that the model for our ‘commanders’ to mandate Covid vaccination? What do we want our loved ones to be exposed to? An infectious militant anti-vaxxer? An infectious ‘hesitant’ non-vaxxer? Until they invent a face mask that changes colour when a Covid positive breath passes through it, how can we know what we are exposed to and by whom? Does protecting citizens give governments a right to exercise a ‘mandate’ over vaccination? Furious responses from libertarians welcome.

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Contact Kel at ozwords.com.au

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