There is a word in the English language that is a kind of verbal Get Out Of Jail Free card. It is also quite delicious to say out loud. The word is ‘notwithstanding‘. It means ‘in spite of’ and is used when you want to recognize that something can be true regardless of the fact that something contradictory is also true. For example, I could say “I like to think I am 5’8″ tall, notwithstanding being measured at 5’2”.
This word has all sorts of promise for commentary when tact is needed. Today I read: “In recent months, Congress has failed to pass an infrastructure package, notwithstanding the widespread support for such a plan . . .” (Luke Broadwater, New York Times) This could have been written “Despite widespread support for the infrastructure package, Congress has not passed the plan,” or “There is widespread support for the infrastructure package, but Congress has not passed the plan.” I’m sure you can think of other ways to phrase it.
The point is that use of the word ‘notwithstanding’ in this context is a softer way of saying something quite damning. Similarly, saying ‘Congress has failed to pass’ is kinder than saying they voted against it.
The word ‘notwithstanding’ stood out for me perhaps because I am Canadian. Canada has a notwithstanding clause written into its Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is our way of saying “Yes, but . . .” to some laws, sometimes, temporarily. You can’t get more Canadian than that! It allowed, as one example, for the province of Quebec to have unilingual public signs in French instead of them being bilingual. This use of the notwithstanding clause was good for only five years and was not renewed but, temporarily, Quebec was able to override the Charter.
The reason that clause was included in the Charter was because without it there would not have been nationwide agreement on the new constitution in the early 1980s. It was a compromise, and it was a reasonable one. Without it, we would not have the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The word ‘compromise’ has become tainted. The whole concept of compromise suggests backing down, or loss, on both sides of a debate. This is unfortunate because the focus could just as easily be on the extent to which the parties agree. When discussing policies, it seems to me, everyone involved would do well to consider notwithstanding clauses sometimes, temporarily. All that is agreed upon would then take precedence over those things in dispute, and isn’t that what we all want?