Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, left, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Photo at left from Facebook, right from CNS

We all need to watch our words

  • May 16, 2024

Wacko. Liar. Cheater. Predator.

Recent headlines shine the spotlight on a growing trend polluting our public spaces: name-calling, accusations, put-downs, swearing and other forms of abusive language hurled at those we think are wrong or have failed us.

During what should be civilized debate, Conservative Party of Canada leader Pierre Poilievre calls Justin Trudeau a “wacko Prime Minister,” refusing four times to withdraw the remark unless he could instead use the words “extremist” or “radical” to describe the Canadian leader.

Around the same time, Liberal MP Pam Damoff announced she won’t run in the next election due to the “disrespectful dialogue” and violent words she routinely encounters: “The threats and misogyny I have experienced as a member of Parliament are such that I often fear going out in public, and that is not a sustainable or healthy way to live.”

Meanwhile, speculation continues on the motive for the shooting of Drake’s security guard at his Toronto mansion. Many believe the Canadian rap singer’s war of words with American musician Kendrick Lamar might have contributed to the incident.

In their songs’ lyrics, the two have been accusing each other of a variety of misdeeds including infidelity, domestic abuse and relations with underage girls.

Lest we think such incivility is confined to the world of national politicians and international rap stars, there are stark indications disrespectful speech and actions pervade everywhere.

An increasing number of government offices, health-care centres, banks, retail outlets and other workplaces are posting signs warning against harassment, intolerance and verbal and physical abuse. That these posters need to state the obvious is a sad commentary of how far our society has sunk in the way we treat one another.

Indeed, professionals who provide vital services to a wide range of people have become targets for verbal mistreatment.

For instance, according to a 2024 Statista survey, 89 per cent of nurses polled across Canada report having been verbally abused by clients in the past year, with 79 per cent experiencing bullying from clients and 69 per cent being verbally abused by colleagues.

For politicians, death threats and hateful language are two of the many abuses that are “a ‘routine’ part of being a politician,” according to The Hill Times newspaper.

The first of the paper’s three-part investigation, launched May 10, details the horrific vitriol aimed at MPs, particularly women, people of colour and religious minorities.

Not surprisingly, such working conditions don’t bode well for employee retention. A Canadian Nursing Association brief submitted to the Standing Committee on Health in 2019 notes 60 per cent of new nurses resign within six months from their first place of employment if they experienced workplace violence, which includes verbal abuse. Half of these nurses leave nursing altogether, says the brief. Similarly, MPs like Damoff are driven away.

We need dedicated, skilled nurses to take care of us. We need caring, insightful politicians to lead us. We need artists, restaurant servers and all workers to enrich our lives, and we need to provide the same types of support for others.

Words are containers of power. They can hurt or heal, bless or curse, lift up or tear down. Marriages are broken and friendships are lost when reactionary, impulsive words spin out of control in the heat of the moment.

A number of Scriptures describe the power of words and exhortations of how we are responsible for every idle word that escapes our lips. As Jesus says in Matthew 15:11, “It is not what enters one’s mouth that defiles that person; but what comes out of the mouth is what defiles one.”

Pope Francis is very clear on the words we use to each other. In his 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti (On Fraternity and Social Friendship), he quotes the Greek word chrestótes St. Paul uses to describe kindness, “an attitude that is gentle, pleasant and supportive, not rude or coarse… It involves “speaking words of comfort, strength, consolation and encouragement” and not “words that demean, sadden, anger or show scorn.’”

Even basic politeness — “excuse me,” “pardon me,” “thank you” — can go a long way to “create a healthy social atmosphere in which misunderstandings can be overcome and conflict forestalled,” writes Pope Francis.

Using non-inflammatory words doesn’t preclude us from expressing our opinions on various issues or even our dissatisfaction with others’ viewpoints, actions or behaviours. If we create an environment of respect with our words, we get our point across much more effectively than insults, which are serious blockages to the flow of communication.

Love thrives in kind, well-measured dialogue.

(Majtenyi is a public relations officer specializing in research at an Ontario university.)

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