Reports

Is the Year an Argument for Change?

October, 2020 Language Matters

Look through a paper or magazine, and you may well come across an invocation of the year the author is writing in as a way of justifying an opinion or signalling a perceived lack of progress in society.

It's 2017, but there are still thousands of people across the United States who can't afford water. —Global Citizen

It’s 2019. Where are all the women in corporate Canada? —The Globe and Mail

Invoking the year is a punchy, concise way to advocate for improvement, but despite its frequent use, it is sometimes criticized for promoting a nonuniversal belief that progress is inevitable and for being a lazy substitute for more rigorous argumentation.1 So, is it time to move on from it?

Is This a New Thing?

Citing the current year had many proponents in the twenty-tens, judging from its widespread usage in that decade by a range of voices, including bloggers, activists and heads of state:

Because it’s 2015. —Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in response to why he chose a 2015 cabinet with an equal number of men and women

It’s 2018, and dongle hell has only gotten worse. —Mashable

It’s 2019. Can we all now call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency? —climate activist Greta Thunberg on Twitter

Looking further back, we can find examples in the 1700s and 1800s where the century is cited to argue for progress.

Shall in the 18th century the barbarous policy be adhered to of dividing a nation into a favoured and disgraced caste? —excerpt from a British parliamentary debate in 1791

Why in the 19th century do these practices still continue? —excerpt from a British parliamentary debate in 1817

The assumption inherent in the current year argument, as it is often called, seems to be that the forward march of time ought to bring along continuous progress in civilization. This assumption gained great popularity in the 18th-century Enlightenment and has had a significant presence in Western thought ever since.2

The Best of Times, Or the Worst of Times?

Not all people share the belief in progress inherent in the current year argument. Many imagine decades past as a time when life was better than the present, or believe that civilization is on the decline.

Further, some thinkers argue that modernization is not always beneficial. For example, author and historian Ronald Wright has cited the repeat appearance in history of progress traps, which are technological advancements that improve life in the short term but ultimately cause harm by ushering in newer, bigger problems—think of the progression from club to sword to gun to the humanity-threatening atomic bomb.3

These criticisms are not presented here to discourage hope or advocacy for progress, but to warn that the current year argument may not automatically resonate with readers. The following sections provide tips on how to strengthen this type of argumentation.

Advancing the Argument

One way to inject persuasive power into the current year argument is to replace the date with context for humanity’s progress. Here is an example where such a replacement could be made. The following headline juxtaposes the year of publication with the tragic fact that a disease with an archaic-sounding name is still a major public health problem:

It’s 2018, and black lung disease is on the rise in Appalachia. —Grist

Some readers may be unsure of why these two realities (the year 2018 and the rise of a disease) are jarring when presented together. To clarify this, the writer could focus on the advancement in health research that has been made, in order to better illustrate why a juxtaposed lack of advancement in preventative healthcare is baffling:

Health experts have known for the past 50 years how to prevent black lung disease, but in 2018 it’s on the rise in Appalachia.

In With the New

Another way to strengthen the current year argument is to infuse it with fresh wording. We have seen some of its most commonplace formulations, including because it’s [year]. An expression that has staled into a cliché can be transformed in order to retain its original value. When reimagining the current year cliché, we can find inspiration in this 19th-century orator who employs a creative wording:

Have we no additional lights to guide us in 1823, beyond those which were possessed in 1400? —excerpt from a British parliamentary debate in 1823

Time for Timelessness?

If you aim for readers to engage with your text for a long time, it is good practice to limit features that will anchor it in the year of writing. Remember, of course, that the current year only sounds cutting-edge for that one year.

We do not even need to mention the current year when inviting readers to reflect on a lack of advancement that seems incongruous with modern society. This quote, for example, juxtaposes the world’s unsophisticated system for regulating biological weapons with the comparatively high-tech ubiquity of fast food:

The UN Biological Weapons Convention, which is a global ban on developing bio-weapons[…], has a smaller budget than an average McDonald’s restaurant. —BBC Future

However, if you want your text to be closely associated with the time of writing, the current year argument is an excellent way of doing so, and trawling through articles that contain this convention is a neat way of discovering what a writer saw as an antiquated reality in a particular year.

It’s 1977. Why don’t we have cleaner air? —Natural Resources Defense Council newsletter

In my opinion, you can wear whatever you feel comfortable wearing to the symphony because it’s 2012 —The Dallas Observer

Conclusion

While the current year argument may frequently grace the pages of the press and the lips of orators, it cannot necessarily stand on its own as a convincing justification for an opinion. Moreover, its use can alienate readers who have differing ideas about the nature of human progress. However, that is not to say that it shouldn't ever be used. As we have seen, with care, creativity and supporting arguments, this rhetorical device can add value to discussions that guide us into the future.


  1. Pell, Nicholas. “It’s nearly 2017! Can we finally retire the current year as an argument for social change?” The Washington Post, 2017. 

  2. Pollard, Sidney. The Idea of Progress: History and Society. London, C.A. Watts, 1968, p. 9. 

  3. Wright, Ronald. An Illustrated Short History of Progress. Toronto, House of Anansi Press Inc., 2008, pp. 4-5. 

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