Language Barrier

By Jessica Smith, Illustration by Sasha Pincus

President Obama’s national health care policy, the Affordable Health Care Act, mandates that everyone must have a radio-frequency identification chip (RFID) implanted by March 23, 2013—or else. According to the Internet, this looming ultimatum is a non-negotiable contingency of Obamacare, or rather, H.R. 3962. And of course, the Internet is never wrong.

Nevermind the constraints of this country’s staggering debts, or the logistics of the government sneaking into people’s homes and implanting RFIDs against their will. And while we’re at it, hell, let’s pretend that little thing called “freedom” isn’t a concrete cornerstone of this nation’s very existence. Because that’s what you would need to dismiss to believe that the ruler of the free world would forcibly track you like Amazon tracks packages.

Regardless of the painfully obvious fact that this conspiracy is a monumental heap of horse pucky, a solid contingent of Americans exist who are irrevocably certain that this seemingly sci-fi provision is more fact than fiction. The worst part? The text from the actual bill is what convinced them.

The heralds of this theory point to a provision of the bill that allows the secretary of state to develop a national registry of implanted devices as evidence of this malicious mandate. But when the provision is read in its proper context by someone who’s not debilitatingly paranoid, it’s clear that it has no malicious underbelly. This is only one of several facets of the bill that seem to support these theories though. While these ideas are not based in fact or in logic, they are enabled by the convoluted language used to write legislation.

H.R. 3962 is a 1,990-page document with countless sections and subsections written in obscure legal jargon. The document is so expansive that if an easily swindled American was told that one tidbit of the bill implied that the government mandated RFID implants, it would not be entirely unrealistic for the gullible individual to believe it.

As much as I support conscientious, contextual reading and comprehension, these paranoid masses cannot be entirely to blame for their own ignorance.

This raises two pet peeves of mine. The first, an absence of digital literacy. The issue of individuals’ pitifully poor ability to analyze what they find on the Web will solve itself in due time. This will either be because of the continued emergence of digital natives, or the creation of tools like Truth Goggles. (If you haven’t heard of Truth Goggles, it’s a tool that determines how factual a web document is, and I highly recommend you check it out, so you don’t accidentally create a bogus conspiracy theory that goes viral.)

The bigger issue, though, is the lack of true government transparency, due to the fogginess of legal writing. It’s one thing to have the wool pulled over your eyes; it’s another to have the wool pulled over your eyes because of the complexity of a factual document. The laws that we pass, and the ways that we pass them, need to be comprehensible to the average citizen. The site takes a nice swing at bat with this by opening dialogue on certain bills and providing ancillary information. But it still does little to interpret the verbose vacuum of the actual legislation. For Americans to truly be active participants in this great nation’s democracy, the way legislation is written must change.