Commentary | Paying for social cost in language

Is The Daily’s talk about prisons paradoxical?

An empty birdcage acted as the visual pivot for two articles – one being a News piece and the other a Features piece – concerning the market venture of prisons in last week’s edition of The Daily. Neither took a vehement prison abolitionist standpoint, though that worked in their favour, and neither detailed the systems of bodily control that punitive justice by way of incarceration implies.

Molly Korab’s News article, “University students push for prison divestment” (February 2, page 7) raised a poignant question within the university context. It described groups of students at certain American universities who had become aware about their university’s holdings in private prison systems and were seeking divestment.

The question of nebulous university holdings has been raised at McGill through the ongoing tar sands and oil pipeline divestment campaign lead by Divest McGill, and in the more distant past with campaigns for the University to divest from the South African apartheid regime and tobacco companies. The latter two were successful, though little movement has been made within the administration regarding Divest McGill.

Groups such as Demilitarize McGill have already revealed damning information relating McGill’s investment portfolio with the military industry, and Korab’s article poses the possibility of a university student’s traceable relationship with the prison-industrial complex.

Continuing the theme of prisons, Nadir Khan’s feature “Mandatory minimums, maximum harm” (February 2, Page 13) focused on proving the claim that mandatory minimum sentences are absurd. The rhetoric imbued in the text juxtaposed the social economic costs paid by the Canadian state with the effectiveness of prison sentences, creating a strange logic of capital whereby the human subjects who are incarcerated are measured by their economic cost to so-called good, tax-paying citizens.

Khan poses the question, “How do we measure the cost of the harm and pain that is caused? Are we prepared to pay it as a society?” The use of capitalistic terms to describe a movement away from the prison industrial complex is paradoxical at best, and perhaps inescapable. It suggests that how we understand our society and the people that constitute it is through the language of capitalism.

In describing the “skyrocketing social costs, the economic cost of mandatory minimum sentencing,” “value as a bargaining chip,” “this process [as transferring] huge amounts of power from the hands of judges to Crown prosecutors,” and so forth, Khan mobilizes the words of economics to describe the absurdity of minimum sentencing in Canadian prison systems.

If words are content, and grammar the context in which those words exist, then is defining anti-capitalistic tendencies using capitalistic terms not just perpetuating the prison-industrial complex? When I write “anti-capitalistic tendencies,” I mean that which is against the commodification and control of bodies via prison systems.

I am proposing that The Daily make a movement toward reflecting on the language it uses in delving into topics that reflect its Statement of Principles (SOP). The most obvious method of upholding the SOP is to seek out topics that showcase the voices of the normatively voiceless. The second most obvious way to uphold the SOP is in following the standards of a more progressive politically correct language.

An additional and necessary engagement with SOP content can be found in the causal relationship between the structuring of the text and the content itself, whereby the difficulty of discussing the privatization of prisons and systems of bodily control without using controlled capitalist language is interrogated. When we say social cost, what do we mean?


Readers’ Advocate is a twice-monthly column written by Hera Chan addressing the performance, relevance, and quality of The Daily. You can reach her at readersadvocate@mcgilldaily.com.


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