Words matter. They are powerful.
Used carelessly or thoughtlessly, words can be hurtful and counter-productive. Used with malign intent, they can be downright dangerous.
The power of words has been on display in recent days, from Ottawa to Toronto to the United Nations to Washington and Pyongyang, North Korea.
Let’s start with Ottawa where former Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, a member of the neanderthal wing of the Conservative party took it into his head to disparage Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, the accomplished international lawyer who is one of the stars of the Liberal cabinet. On Twitter, Ritz called, called her a “climate Barbie” on account of her vigorous support for the Paris climate accord.
That sexist putdown caused an uproar in the Commons. Ritz apologized the next day, but it took another day for his leader Andrew Scheer to disassociate the Conservatives from the neanderthals’ brand of misogyny. There are Conservatives who fear successful women politicians, but Scheer eventually awoke to the reality that it is not smart politics to belittle the gender that makes up more than half of the voting population.
McKenna, who is no “Barbie” dumb blonde, put the issue into proper perspective, with this tweet: “Do you use that sexist language about your daughter, mother, sister? We need more women in politics. Your sexist comments won't stop us.”
On to Toronto and Queen’s Park, where Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown, choosing his words with care, attacked Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne, claiming that Ontario has “a sitting premier sitting in trial” and that Wynne “stands trial” in Sudbury. That is not true, and Brown knows it. Wynne was a witness in a bribery trial involving the selection of a Liberal candidate in a provincial byelection in Sudbury. She has not been charged with anything, and won’t be.
Although Wynne has threatened to sue him, Brown won’t back down. He is gambling on two things. First, that Ontario voters are not smart enough to recognize the difference between being a witness and being an accused; and, second, that he has more gain from tearing down the Liberal government than he has from building his own credentials for Wynne’s job. In the political ethics course that I teach, Brown’s misrepresentation of the facts would be classified as a self-serving lie.
Next, Donald Trump, Kim Jung-un and the battle of words that has gone dangerously out of control. Last Tuesday, President Trump addressed the UN General Assembly. The UN being an institution dedicated to world peace and international understanding, when national leaders appear there they generally speak in measured tones – firm yet conciliatory. Accommodation not confrontation is the objective of the UN.
But self-restraint is not Trump’s style. He simply had to demonstrate that he is the biggest and most feared bully in the global school yard. He told the UN: “If (the United States) is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself.”
“Totally destroy North Korea?” History suggests that threats will not work against an isolated, intensely nationalistic regime like North Korea. And a personal insult like “Rocket Man” will be fiercely resented by a family regime that expects its subjects to regard them as virtual deities.
Kim’s reaction was predictable, even if his word choice wasn’t. “I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire,” Kim declared.
So the escalation continues. The U.S. put on a show of force, sending bombers with fighter escorts farther north than ever before on Saturday, while North Korea warned the UN that a missile attack on the U.S. is “inevitable.” Meanwhile, Kim is preparing another nuclear test.
Lost in the war of words is the real issue. It is not to dissuade North Korea from using its nuclear weapons. It is to persuade it to give up its weapons. That requires a very different approach and vocabulary.