For a new politics, we need new words
Words do things. When we utter a sentence we’re usually doing more than speaking. We promise. We threaten. We order and we greet. When we speak we create a social reality, establish or change relationships, and make some things possible while rendering other things less possible. Over time we create ourselves through the words we use; in vocalizing our thoughts, we don’t only reveal who we are – we become who we are. Words are constitutive, not just reflective. The intersection of thoughts and words condition our habits as they combine to shape our experiences, lead us down familiar or unfamiliar paths, or connect or disconnect us from others.
So: what we say matters.
When we do something intentional with words, we are performing “speech acts.” Speech acts are a staple in our communicative tool belts, but they are especially important for politicians. Through words, politicians assert, compromise, promise, flatter, deprecate, debate, and decide. When words are carefully chosen and thoughtfully articulated, they help to create trustworthy and respected leaders (and the networks of trust that sustain these leaders) and an open and constructive political environment in which those who take part feel safe and encouraged to participate.
That’s the goal, anyway. But sadly, that state of affairs seems closer to Narnia than to Ottawa.
Under its thin veneer of civility a deep layer of cynicism, resentment, and invective grounds our politics. All too often the veneer wears thin and the toxicity of our worst political impulses rises to the surface, asserting its presence through words. The foul-mouthery of Pierre “Fuddle duddle” Trudeau, Pat “This is a fucking disgrace” Martin, and (keeping the family tradition alive) Justin “You piece of shit” Trudeau are especially infamous examples of vacations from civility. But, as a 2010-2011 paper by Parliamentary intern Mackenzie Grisdale entitled “MP, Interrupted: Heckling in the House of Commons” makes clear, these kinds of outbursts, while uncommonly renown, are far from uncommon.
Grisdale’s study of heckling in Canada’s 40th Parliament yields discouraging findings. The Members of Parliament who participated in the study described personal attacks, including sexist and homophobic remarks. Comments directed towards female MPs were particularly disturbing, often referring to the member’s appearance and attacking individuals on identity markers that are protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. On balance, Grisdale found that nearly 40 per cent of MPs noted that heckling led them to participate less.
In November 2011, the University of British Columbia’s Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions held a conference that asked “Why Don’t More Good People Enter Politics?” The conference brought former and current politicians and media figures together to discuss who enters politics, who doesn’t, and why. One emergent theme was “politics as battle,” with former British Columbia premier Mike Harcourt calling democracy “war without bullets,” and former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan calling politics a “boxing ring.”
If democracy is indeed war without bullets, what, then, is the firepower used in the battle? Words must be some form of ammunition. But while words don’t literally explode, they can destroy. While they do not decimate physical structures, they can undercut action, discourage engagement, and poison cooperation, as Grisdale’s findings suggest.
Aristotle, unsurprisingly, was way ahead of his time on this. He noted, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, isn’t an act but a habit.” Habits are formed by repeated acts. And if words can be acts, then the way we speak will eventually play a role in determining who we are through taking part in the establishment of our habits. If the words that politicians use make them into bullies, silencing and discouraging their peers, then we will have bully politics. If our politicians use words as bullets, then only soldiers will battle for democracy, since our political terrain will be inhospitable towards those who wish to do things differently.
The notion of politics as war encourages a bloody, antagonistic politics. One particularly deadly form of ammunition in this politics is words. To change our politics, we must change our words, employing deliberate, daily practice to alter our rational and visceral reactions and interactions in the political realm with an aim to establishing generosity of spirit and receptivity to difference and disagreement. New words, meaningfully spoken, should work to generate a different kind of politician and a more open, respectful, and inviting political environment as new habits are conditioned, and new possibilities and networks of trust and engagement emerge.
In the late-modern world, a world marked by complexity, speed, and a plurality of ways of thinking and living, we need a new politics.
And for that, we need new words.