The politics of words: Of linguistics and nitpicks on the Hill
 

The tricky politics of language on Parliament Hill

Just days after the Ottawa shootings, the leaders use ‘terror’ to define the party line


 
Chris Wattie/Reuters

Chris Wattie/Reuters

The study of history is a balm for almost everything, including, in today’s instance, the excesses of political rhetoric.

“The major parties, the only ones ever to hold office nationally, do not represent anything in particular,” Blair Fraser, a revered Maclean’s columnist and editor, wrote in 1967. Any distinction between the major parties, he added, “has vanished from all but the vocabulary of political invective. Some Conservatives still call Liberals ‘crypto-republicans,’ some Liberals call Conservatives ‘puppets of Big Business’ or ‘colonialists,’ but nobody takes this kind of talk seriously any more.”

One of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s contributions to politics is that there are more real differences between his party and others than there were between Lester Pearson’s Liberals and John Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservatives. But, still today, MPs get hung up on questions of language. An important one arose after Michael Zehaf-Bibeau shot his way into Parliament.

It was very upsetting for everyone who works in and near Parliament, and human nature drew everyone together for a while. That didn’t last. Two days after the attack, Oakville MP Terence Young sent a detailed and compelling account of the attack, as he experienced it from inside the Conservative caucus room, to his constituents. It ended with a description of the party leaders’ statements in the House of Commons when business resumed on the Thursday.

“The two opposition leaders promised solidarity in protecting our freedoms, which was good to hear,” Young wrote. “However, I was very concerned that neither of them could muster the will to say the word ‘terrorist’ or ‘terrorism’ . . . From my experience listening to them for the last two years, neither leader’s world view allows them to believe that terrorism could actually exist in Canada. That explains, in part, their lack of support for our mission in Iraq.”

Anyone tempted to accuse Young of picking nits would soon see he had a point. A week after the attack, the parties gathered again for their Wednesday caucus meetings. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair took a question on the word “terrorist,” and he stood his linguistic ground.

“They’ve used the word from the get-go,” he said, referring to the Conservatives and terrorism. “It was the word that they used immediately before any of this other information was out there. And frankly, the information that is now available to the public comforts me in my choice not to use the word ‘terrorism’ in describing the act that took place here.

“I think there is a distinction to be used, and when you look at the background of the individual and what was actually going on, that use of that word was not the appropriate one.”

I find a kind of grim hilarity in the fact that Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, reviewing the same evidence that confirmed Mulcair in his decision to eschew the word “terrorist,” reached the opposite conclusion. “The RCMP said it was terrorism, so it was,” he said. This puts paid to Young’s suspicion that Trudeau, at least, is incapable of imagining terrorism in Canada. An effort of memory might have helped, too: Trudeau’s father invoked the War Measures Act after terrorists kidnapped Quebec’s transport minister and a British diplomat. You could look it up.

As is often the case when politicians concentrate on language, everyone concerned had less success defining a word than in defining themselves.

Trudeau, who would not use the word “terrorism” until an expert told him it was okay, was nodding to the Liberals’ late-breaking fondness for “evidence-based policy.” For those of us who spent the ’90s watching the Jean Chrétien government argue every side of most questions, the notion that Liberalism is synonymous with deference to impartial authority is a bit rich, but let it pass. Self-definition is almost always the most flattering kind.

Harper was confirming, as he seeks to do at every turn, that he alone is tough enough to stand up to the demons haunting Canada. It’s a big part of his self-image. “The real defining moments for the country, and for the world, are those big conflicts where everything’s at stake and where you take a side and show you can contribute to the right side,” he told this magazine in 2011. He named the global fights against fascism and Communism as examples.

Are we in such a conflict now? “I think we always are,” he said. And what’s the conflict now? “Well, I think it’s more difficult to define now,” he said, but “the most obvious is terrorism, Islamic extremist terrorism.” If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, and if all you have is global existential struggles, every gunman looks like Stalin.

But I don’t want to let Mulcair off the hook here. The evidence he left behind suggests Zehaf-Bibeau, himself, was quite sure he was a terrorist. To deny him the label because he had a history of mental illness and addiction is to suggest that terrorism is some kind of elevated calling, fit only for thoroughbreds. That’s an odd door for any bouncer to guard.

Mulcair was sending out a signal: If you think the Conservatives are too quick to call people terrorists and too quick to sacrifice all of our freedoms for a witch hunt, the NDP’s your party. Harper was sending a signal: If you think being tougher will make Canada safer, vote Conservative. Trudeau sent mixed signals. Language in Ottawa has served its assorted purposes once again.


 
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The tricky politics of language on Parliament Hill

  1. “Harper was confirming, from the inside of a closet, that he alone is tough enough to stand up to the demons haunting Canada.”

    There – fixed it for ya.

    Harper was rather quick on the draw – calling it an act of terrorism before those doing the investigating had the facts and were willing to do so. At the time he first spoke the word, it most certainly was not clear that that’s what it was (unless he had inside information that he leaked – which brings other issues into play). It struck me as deliberate political grandstanding.

    Trudeau’s wait and see approach made the most sense to me.

    • The reason Harper was so “quick on the draw” is because it doesn’t take a rocket-scientist, or “those investigating” to come to the conclusion that the guy outside the room who’s shooting at random targets is in fact committing an act of terrorism. Trudeau’s “wait and see” approach makes me wonder how many “experts” he needs to consult when tying his shoes in the morning.

    • Keith noted:
      “Trudeau’s wait and see approach made the most sense to me.”

      yes….because waiting and seeing what someone else does…before making a decision (or agreeing with one) is a true sign of leadership.

      Please note, Keith….Harper and his party got this one right from the get-go. It was terrorism, committed by an Islamic terrorist.

      as is usually the case….Trudeau relied on someone else to tell him what he’s supposed to think.

      Pierre Trudeau: “Just watch me”
      Justin Trudeau: “Just let me watch”

  2. As is often the case in these discussions, the word “terrorism” is not defined. If the guy in Calgary had blown up his Veterans Affairs office, would that have been “terrorism”? Justin Bourque shot up 5 RCMP officers, is that NOT “terrorism”? And in fact, who cares? You can’t murder people in Canada. Whether political leaders choose to use the word “terrorism” or not is irrelevant to the debate about what the word means at all.

    Anyway, Orwell already wrote about this abuse of language:

    “In the case of a word like DEMOCRACY, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of régime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.”
    http://goo.gl/21qMs

    • Neil wrote:
      “As is often the case in these discussions, the word “terrorism” is not defined. If the guy in Calgary had blown up his Veterans Affairs office, would that have been “terrorism”? Justin Bourque shot up 5 RCMP officers, is that NOT “terrorism”?”

      they guy who wanted to blow up vetrans affairs had a beef with Vetrans affairs, and how they were handling his case. He did not want to kill a bunch of people because of his religion. Justin bourque shot up the RCMP, because he didn’t like the RCMP…he didn’t aim his guns at those who he saw as innocent. Islamic terrorists have a similar mentality as far as their aims are concerned. the problem of course, is that Islam see’s anyone who is not a Muslim as the enemy. They are also well funded, and have hundreds of millions of people in the Muslim world who agree with them. Islamic terrorism targets everyone….bourque and the vetrans affairs dude…..were targeting those who they think wronged them. Islamic terrorists…..think everyone has wronged them.

      The genius continues:
      ” And in fact, who cares? You can’t murder people in Canada. Whether political leaders choose to use the word “terrorism” or not is irrelevant to the debate about what the word means at all.”

      Well, clearly YOU DON’T CARE…..and it is just as clear, you are completely clueless to the threat posed. But just stay home and worry about yourself……there are a lot of people who are committed to keeping you safe, regardless of whether you support them or not.

      You are a true Liberal progressive in every sense of the word. congrats…now pat yourself on the back and feel good about yourself.

      Politcally correct defined:
      “The ability to not notice the obvious”

      • they guy who wanted to blow up vetrans affairs had a beef with Vetrans affairs, and how they were handling his case. He did not want to kill a bunch of people because of his religion. Justin bourque shot up the RCMP, because he didn’t like the RCMP…he didn’t aim his guns at those who he saw as innocent.

        You haven’t highlighted a difference in those cases from Zehaf-Bibeau, you’ve illustrated the similarities. Zehaf-Bibeau didn’t target random civilians. He had a beef with the Canadian Government and targeted that government and one of it’s soldiers.

        • Zehaf-Bibeau didn’t kill random civilians because he was using a deer rifle that only holds 7 rounds. He didn’t want to waste them on “normal” people, he was making a point of killing the military member, followed by his attempts to assassinate a Canadian politician.

          And you fail to note; the vetrans affairs dude, and bourque would have been “done” when they had accomplished their mission. Islamic fanatics are never done. to them, “done” means no more infidels.

          The “similarities” you mention are nothing of the sort. the only similarities found are from the terrorist who stormed parliament hill…and the hundreds of thousands of other terrorists (and their millions of supporters in the muslim world) who feel exactly the same way, and share the same goals.

          Puposefully being obtuse is someone else’s “schtick” farhoum….so I’ll assume you had a different reason for posting what you have posted.

          • The similarities you highlighted are known facts: in all cases the killers had specific targets and ignored civilian/non-government targets.
            The only differences you’ve been able to produce you’ve invented: Zehaf-Bebeau’s reasons for not killing random civilians, when any of the killers would have been “done”.

          • Farhoum,

            I did not invent the terrorists conversion to Islam, nor did I invent his “jihad video”….I did not invent Bebeau’s own personal Jihad…he did that. After his exposure to a backwards religion, from a backwards culture.

            The guy was a terrorist….he wanted to kill infidels and get to paradise, while he carried out what his Islamic religion demanded of him.

            The other two guys were just losers with a grudge…….Bebeau, was a terrorist with a much wider target….and there are many more just like him in Canada, and millions outside of Canada.

            That’s the threat. Not some pissed off losers who want to take out a few folks that have ticked them off.

          • Now you are inventing what I said you invented! Very meta.
            I said you invented the reasons Zehan-Bebeau did not kill random civilians and when each of them would have stopped if they hadn’t been stopped by authorities.

          • Farhoum,

            you need to beef up your reading comprehension.

            I never invented anything….but if common sense eludes you, so be it. The rifle used in the Parliament hill shooting only holds 7 rounds. If you were a terrorist…would you waste your few remaining shots on some dude walking on the Hill….or would you save them for the MP’s therin?

            I don’t think you are as deluded as the others’ on here who seem to sympathize with the bad guys (bad guys = Isalmic nuts)….so what is your reason FARHOUM?

            Just asking.

          • Of course you invented Zehaf-Bebeau’s reasons for not killing random civilians – you, not Zehaf-Bebeau, are the source of the claim!
            We know for a fact that he didn’t target random civilians. It’s also pretty safe to assume that someone can’t be said to have committed a terrorist that they didn’t actually commit, whether or not someone named James really, really thinks they would have, if only they had more bullets or something.

  3. I agree with this scenario but Mulcair had to go through the Hamas Rep (Libby Davies) before he could do so. Sarc Off

  4. Why didn’t Harper use the ‘T’ word to describe J. Bourque? He, after all, engaged in (much more) ideology-inspired violence.

    My guess: doesn’t fit this government’s absurd notion that we are in a ‘clash of civilizations’ with ISIS et al. A clash, no less, in which ‘everything is at stake’, yet warrants only 6 planes and promise of ‘no ground troops’.

    Zehaf-Bibeau’s violence seems much closer to that of Bourque, Columbine, Newton, etc… than any organized kind that might fit some grand geopolitical narrative this government wants to advance.

    • Rameau’s Nephew wrote:
      “My guess: doesn’t fit this government’s absurd notion that we are in a ‘clash of civilizations’ ”

      Well then don’t take Harper’s word for it. Just listen to what the Islamic terrorists are saying. They are pretty clear about their goals…..you should take them seriously. They want a global caliphate……and guess what. You aren’t welcome to the party.

      You’re just as clueless as Neil. You must be related; or you both attend the same Mosque.