I am afraid that we are entering an age where empathy is being trampled under foot and words are being used in a war aimed to reduce the humanity of people whose opinions differ from those in power. I worry that this will lead to intolerance for sure and possibly to violence.
We are all familiar with the “either you are with us, or you are against us” language that is being so freely bandied about in public circles these days. Notorious phrases like “either you are with the government, or you are with the child pornographers”. All of us recoil at the reductionist nature of these black and white choices, but I have to say that as a theatre maker it makes my blood boil. In theatre we pride ourselves on delving into the grey zone and handing our audience complex issues in the form of questions that they can take away and mull over after a show. It is anathema to us to see the world in black and white terms. But we are stuck with many ideological political leaders today who are burdened with a total lack of nuance or imagination, let alone a capacity for empathy.
In an excellent article on the blog The Little Red Umbrella titled Rob Ford’s War on Facts there is a wonderful insight into all of this. They are talking with one of my favourite Toronto City councillors, the unflappable Joe Mihevc, who is sensitive to what I am talking about. To quote: “Councillor Joe Mihevc, was a professor of ethics with a PhD in theology before he ran for council. He sees Ford, who he has worked alongside for more than a decade now, as a political fundamentalist. “In a plural world,” he recently explained to The Grid, “I understand that my truth is different than your truth, and we can create a truth together through a process… a fundamentalist says, ‘Follow me—are you one of the believers or non-believers?’” These days the fundamentalists are far too often using words to demonize the non-believers.
Our public discourse is being willfully poisoned by folks who are wielding words in an attempt to reduce people- complex, nuanced human beings -to the status of non-human entities. If they are successful, the plan is that then these entities can easily be subject to dismissal, scorn, defamation and ultimately perhaps subject to public mischief, if some unstable people get the idea that this person is just an evil entity.
Why did Anne-France Goldwater feel free to call Carmen Aguirre ”a bloody terrorist” on our national CBC airwaves. Even worse she went on to say “How we let her into Canada, I don’t understand.” All this took place without any retribution from the CBC or an apology from Goldwater who later said “I’m really sorry she’s hurt, but that’s part of what life is in Canada.” Have we actually become complacent to these uses of words as poison? Once a person is poisoned these ill considered words might lead an unstable individual to think that Carmen is not a person at all but an inhuman pestilence of some form that has no right to exist in this country.
As you will remember, Marina Nemat came in for the same form of attack from Ms. Goldwater on the same broadcast. I am particularly upset because I know Carmen and Marina as courageous, principled women and it deeply pains me that they were injured by this woman’s words. But I am also concerned that the aftermath of that event has been reduced to a discussion about the “controversy” rather than about this form of verbal “assassination”.
All this concern about the use of words came to a head for me after Gary Webster was fired as the Chief General Manager of the TTC. In the Toronto Star the following day Rosie DiMano choose to dedicate her page two column to Ford’s dieting plan. What got me was that in her preamble to this unaccountably “thin” subject, she managed to dismiss Gary Webster with these words- “(Ford) threw his considerable heft around Tuesday and orchestrated the whack job on TTC general manager Gary Webster. It’s difficult to shed tears for a well-remunerated suit getting his ticket punched — and a honking huge severance to soften the blow.” The words she uses to describe this man are “whack job on”, “difficult to shed tears”, “a well-remunerated suit” and “his ticket punched”. She never refers to him as a human being and her verbs are violent. Most days that would roll off my back, but on this day, I had to stop and reflect on how we got here. How did we get to a point where it is okay for a journalist/columnist to dismiss a man in such a violent way? Without any sense of empathy for his situation. Or the reader’s. Or the city.
The war is on and it is being fought with words. Take my word for it.