When words become weapons, repression follows

Wednesday July 12, 2017, The Globe and Mail

It appears we can become accustomed to anything, provided it’s repeated often enough. What may have appalled us last year, or the year before, eventually loses its edge and is rendered normal. Think of the way highway speeding ratchets up as drivers accelerate to maintain the faster flow of traffic.

Something similar happens with language. Words accelerate. Without thoughtful restraint, they are like speeding cars, prone to accident.

Before Sept. 11, 2001, there existed a tacit consensus in Western pluralist societies that generalizations about race and religion might be destructive to the public good: the living memory of 20th-century atrocities largely sufficed to keep the most extreme animosities in check. These unspoken taboos were frequently breached, but racist speech was ordinarily frowned upon and usually did not sink deep roots. When the protective umbrella of taboo failed, as in the former Yugoslavia after the death of Josip Tito, for example, predictable violence ensued. Words matter, especially when they emanate from people in high places.

It appears we can become accustomed to anything, provided it’s repeated often enough. What may have appalled us last year, or the year before, eventually loses its edge and is rendered normal. Think of the way highway speeding ratchets up as drivers accelerate to maintain the faster flow of traffic.

Something similar happens with language. Words accelerate. Without thoughtful restraint, they are like speeding cars, prone to accident.

Before Sept. 11, 2001, there existed a tacit consensus in Western pluralist societies that generalizations about race and religion might be destructive to the public good: the living memory of 20th-century atrocities largely sufficed to keep the most extreme animosities in check. These unspoken taboos were frequently breached, but racist speech was ordinarily frowned upon and usually did not sink deep roots. When the protective umbrella of taboo failed, as in the former Yugoslavia after the death of Josip Tito, for example, predictable violence ensued. Words matter, especially when they emanate from people in high places.

My husband, Tom, likes to rail about the damage that’s been done across time by the little word “all” – as in “all Muslims are ‘X’” or “all Jews are ‘Y.’” He’s right; words are not innocent. We are each responsible for maintaining the civility of public discourse, but people in positions of leadership hold a special trust. They set the rhetorical standard. And they must be held accountable.

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