Plain language and the nuisance referendum

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Today I ticked my answer to a ridiculous citizens initiated referendum.

Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?

When I first saw the wording I gave a big sigh. We've been here before. Maybe there's something about citizens' referenda that means inevitably they will have clumsy wording that's hard to understand. I remember this one:

Do you agree that the number of professional firemen should not fall below the number employed nationally as at 31 January 1996?

In front of the voting booth people were standing around scratching their heads. What does it mean? That one looked pretty straightforward, but even so it was discombobulating. Apparently many people voted the opposite way to their intentions.

Why? Because we want to say yes to something we agree with. Yes to something good, no to something bad. Sure, that's not logical --but it's human. Negative language is not just a linguistic factor: it has a powerful psychological impact.
Firemen=good, we think. Should vote yes. But that means voting to something negative, that they should not fall... It does your head in.

That looked like sloppiness, not manipulation. But today's referendum is an obvious attempt to manipulate voters with loaded emotive words. However, those Machiavellian efforts will backfire for a similar reason. In the end, the mix of positive and negative is too confusing. If people have to read it three times to figure out which way to vote, the results will be no guide to what the nation thinks.

  • smack: probably a neutral word for most NZers, or even positive: just a little tap with the hand to stop a toddler from doing something bad..
  • good: means good, right? So a smack is good. OK, got it so far.
  • parental. Parents are good. We are in favour of parents. So this part of the statement is loaded.
  • correction: I have no idea what this means. All things to all people, I guess. I didn't see my main role as a parent as correcting my kids although sometimes they needed helping, saving or stopping. That makes me a great big leftie softie but hey, my kids grew up to be terrific human beings, so there.
  • criminal offence: bad, bad, bad.

So the emotional (not literal) meaning of the referendum is:

Should a good thing be a bad thing?

Why, no! I feel that a good thing should be a good thing, not a bad thing. So I'll vote no, says my heart. Hang on, says my head...

Well, the exercise will be a fabulous waste of time and effort, as the government is comfortable with the law as it is, and the Prime Minister has declared the results of the referendum will be ignored.

Here's another question:

Should every citizen's referendum be in plain language?

Now that's an easy one. And here's another question:

How on earth was this impossible question translated into other languages?


Rachel McAlpine
Rachel McAlpine

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2 Comments

The importance of A Seattle family law attorney for your case. | The Lawyers Information Hub
The importance of A Seattle family law attorney for your case. | The Lawyers Information Hub

August 13, 2009

[…] Contented: content that makes people happy » Blog Archive » Plain … […]

VoteTheDay
VoteTheDay

August 04, 2009

So what the result will be like of this referendum? Will the smacking be forbidden once and for all? Predictions are accepted here – http://www.votetheday.com/new-zealand/new-zealand-corporal-punishment-referendum-result-450/

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