BEHAVIOR

Politics of abuse

Harsh language is under widespread attack

BRUCE WALLACE November 26 1990
BEHAVIOR

Politics of abuse

Harsh language is under widespread attack

BRUCE WALLACE November 26 1990

Politics of abuse

BEHAVIOR

Harsh language is under widespread attack

To Gilles Rocheleau, a member of Parliament who sits as part of the separatist Bloc Québécois, Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien is Quebec’s “Judas, a traitor to Quebecers, a hypocrite and a liar.” Rocheleau issued his denunciation at an Ottawa news conference in July, after he resigned from the Liberal party because of Chrétien’s leadership victory. Declared Rocheleau: “I will not put knives in his back. I will put them in his face.” That kind of extreme language is being used with increasing frequency in Canadian politics. In September, when he learned that Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was seeking approval from Queen Elizabeth II for the creation of eight new Senate seats, Liberal Senator Jacques Hébert told a Quebec radio interviewer that Mulroney had “bribed the Queen.” Exaggerated rhetoric, said former Liberal cabinet minister Jack Pickersgill, now 85, “is discrediting our institutions at a time in our history when we cannot afford to have them discredited.”

In his heyday, the sharptongued Pickersgill never shrank from the give-andtake of the Commons. As a prominent opposition critic and Liberal cabinet minister

during the 1950s and 1960s, he participated in such partisan issues as the 1956 Pipeline Debate and the frequent allegations of corruption and scandal that characterized the period. But, said Pickersgill from his Ottawa home last week, “if you could see those debates on television today, you would regard them as tame compared to the rudeness nowadays.” Indeed, many analysts say that civility is disappearing from Canadian politics. In March, Monique Vézina, the federal minister of state for employment and immigration, who is also an opponent of Chrétien, said that the Liberal leader made her “vomit.” More recently, at the height of last summer’s Oka crisis, native leader Georges Erasmus accused Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa and Mulroney of being “cruel and sadistic” in their military response to the native blockades. And Ontario Premier David Peterson, as his re-election campaign skidded towards defeat at the hands of Bob Rae’s New Democratic Party in September, warned an audience in Sudbury that the policies of an NDP government would cause a recession, in which “your kids cannot get enough 9 to eat.”

Analysts have put forward Ï a variety of reasons to explain

the increasingly intemperate use of language in politics. One of the reasons, said Toronto novelist Timothy Findley, is that some modern-day politicians have little of substance to say. “The rhetoric of people like Pierre Trudeau was founded upon intelligence, and an intelligent choice of words,” he said.

Some critics say that television, with its nearly insatiable demand for provocative statements and colorful imagery, is to blame for the rise in rhetorical excess. The analysts say that some politicians, who are eager for TV exposure, are tempted to push their language beyond the usual partisan barbs to get airtime. But others claim that excessive language sometimes arises out of the tensions that are current in a broad range of highly charged S issues—from domestic uncertainty over Canada’s constitutional problems and the sagging economy, to the threat of war in the Persian Gulf. Said Elly Alboim, Ottawa bureau chief for CBC TV’s The National: “Canadian politics is operating at an unbelievably high emotional level right now. Many politicians sense that the country itself is at stake, and that makes them ruder and more on edge.”

The feverish pitch is evident in the current bitter Senate debate over the controversial Goods and Services Tax, which Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government plans to implement next year. The Senate debate has often descended into bitter namecalling. Said Hébert: “Most senators on both sides are gentlemen, but now there is no question of talking tough inside the Senate and going for a scotch afterward.” He added, “I think Mulroney is destroying the country, so I cannot be pleasant with his generals.”

Some critics say that the use of violent political language is now widespread in the United States as well as in Canada. There, political critics have chastised President George Bush for comparing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler, and for other exaggerated statements. In fact, comparisons to Hitler and his Nazi party are being widely used in American politics. During this month’s midterm elections, John Silber, the defeated Democratic candidate for the governorship of Massachusetts, described the Rev. Jesse Jackson as “the voice of Adolf Hitler.” Silber was subsequently defeated in the election.

Some critics say that, eventually, the slanging and slander may cause some voters to tune out politicians—and their messages. According to the Winnipeg-based pollster Angus Reid, the shrill rhetoric of the young federal Liberals who made up the so-called Rat Pack “did not help the Liberals in 1986, and the Senate shenanigans are not helping them now. It is becoming acceptable to say to your co-workers, family and friends, ‘I just don’t believe any of those bums.’ ” In such an atmosphere, said Pickersgill, all politicians become contaminated—and the moderates risk being “lumped in with people who do nothing but indulge in abuse.” But until that message sinks in, the politics of churlishness seem destined to prevail.

BRUCE WALLACE in Ottawa