Judith Timson: Has politics become a culture of insults and lies?
I used to be pretty good at insulting people, especially people I didn’t know.
Once, when I was a supposedly mature woman, I was driving my car with a friend when some young punks in another car cut me off. I rolled down my window and yelled at the teenage driver: “Are we out in Daddy’s car?” He flipped me off and my friend and I laughed and went home for tea.
I don’t do that anymore. It’s too dangerous. As a nurse friend of mine put it — after she and her late middle-aged husband were chased down the street by a younger guy he had a verbal altercation with —“ there are too many unstable people out there.”
There are indeed, and I may well be one of them.
Besides, you don’t need to get in a car or even leave your desk these days to safely insult people.
We are living, alarmingly, in an escalating culture of insult, weaponized by social media platforms, in which the quick draw slur is the thing. Virtually everyone in this culture of insult at one point or another feels “disrespected.”
You would think that the current occupant of the White House’s exhausting predilection for gross insults, mean tweets and derisive nicknames would inspire more people to watch what they say.
Dispiritingly, it seems the opposite holds true: more and more American politicians are taking up insulting as their main method of discourse, simply because it seems to work.
As political reporter Jenna Johnson recently reported in the Washington Post, “In races across the country, other Republican candidates — and some Democrats — also are branding their opponents with unflattering nicknames, tweeting in all caps, refusing to apologize for things that politicians once apologized for, being proudly politically incorrect, circulating false information, calling their hometown newspapers ‘fake news,’ releasing damaging information about their opponents and generating controversy to get headlines, even unflattering ones.”
Charming. And if you think we’re above the fray here, think again.
Federal immigration minister Ahmed Hussen and Lisa MacLeod, Doug Ford’s new minister provincially responsible for immigration, got into an ugly brawl last weekend when he called her out over her fledgling conservative government stating not only that it would not participate financially in helping Toronto’s hefty numbers of refugees, but also deliberately making it seem that this situation was basically because Prime Minister Trudeau had virtue-signalled his way to open borders.
As Hussen sternly pointed out, Canada doesn’t have open borders, and asylum seekers are in a separate queue. It may be “irregular” to cross into Canada at certain points, but it is certainly not illegal to seek asylum.
Then obviously in a controlled fury, Hussen took the discussion after a meeting with provincial ministers to a hot-button level, saying that making deliberately false statements about Canada’s immigration practises is “irresponsible, it’s divisive, it’s fear-mongering and it’s not Canadian, and it’s very dangerous.”
Oops. MacLeod, who is both tough and impulsive, opened up an aggrieved can of whoop-ass on Hussen, one that elicited some predictably racist replies as she pointedly said in one tweet, “Ahmed Hussen called me unCanadian today.” He technically didn’t, but when has truth ever mattered in the high noon moment of insult slinging? Hussen is the first Somali born federal cabinet minister, a point that seemed to add to MacLeod’s followers’ ugly umbrage.
The obvious question to ask is how does this insult culture serve the voters?
The underlying behavioural issue politically is not just insulting but outright lying. Some of our politicians are doing it more frequently. And as a federal election campaign gets underway, an insult here or there may come to seem like small potatoes, especially on social media, as a fierce battle against false information intensifies.
There are some social media platforms made for insults. As conservative Canadian broadcaster Charles Adler tweeted recently “arguing for civility on Twitter must feel like arguing for celibacy in a brothel.”
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy some of the barbs flying back and forth, most of them not from politicians. Bette Midler never disappoints: She recently tweeted, “Donald Trump warned Europeans that immigrants were causing Europe to ‘lose its culture.’ Then he poured ketchup on his steak and watched 8 hours of Fox News.”
Last year, I watched the award-winning movie The Insult. Directed by Ziad Doueiri and set in Beirut — where as one character pointed out, the Middle East is “the home of the insult” — the movie is about a riveting court trial that stems from a street level spat between two men, one a Lebanese Christian and the other a Palestinian refugee.
At the heart of it is one quickly muttered insult that blows out of control and threatens to end in a much larger conflagration.
“What you said is unacceptable and that’s how wars start,” one main character says to another.
We often seem in this culture not to be aware of or even care about how dangerous the wrong words can be. And besides, to not insult is to be left behind.
Remember the phrase “Them’s fightin’ words.” It was often used unironically in Westerns to signal the deadly shootout was about to begin.
Today that phrase is useless. “Fightin’ words” seems to be all we’ve got.