Martin Luther King knew the power of righteous rhetoric. Indeed, as he told us, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” (greenlighrights.com)

How we speak to each other matters

We need to recapture a sense of civility and common purpose for a complicated, multicultural democracy to work

Yme Woensdregt

Many of us watched in horror on January 6 as the US Capitol was invaded by a mob of violent domestic terrorists. They thought their President had instructed them to take control of the US government and overturn the results of an election which he claimed was stolen. For the last four years and longer, they have been fed a steady diet of hatred, prejudice, chaos, and violence by a man who is a genius at manipulating the worst elements among us.

This has been Trump’s agenda ever since he was elected. He has worked hard to polarize the American public, engaging in hate speech and pitting people against each other. He has been remarkably successful. Society is so polarized that it seems it is no longer possible to talk with each other across the great divide which he has widened.

The same forces are at work in Canada. We cannot sit back and assume smugly that it couldn’t happen here. In fact, it is happening. The far right is actively seeking to divide our country as well. A research project from 2015 concluded that there are at least 100 white supremacist groups across Canada, spewing their bigotry against blacks, Jews, Muslims, immigrants, and anyone else who is “not like us”.

A couple of examples should suffice. Far–right media personality Ezra Levant has founded Rebel News, which has been described as “a global platform for anti–Muslim bigotry and hatred.”

Secondly, the Proud Boys are not an American group. Trump gave them a shout–out in the debate with Joe Biden. This militarized white supremacist group which led in the invasion of the Capitol, was founded by Canadian Gavin McInnes. They made national headlines in 2017 when five Canadian Armed Forces officers, members of Proud Boys Halifax, interrupted an Indigenous protest ceremony on Canada Day.

We are hearing echoes of this kind of divisive rhetoric in the speeches of Doug Ford and Erin O’Toole. O’Toole ran on a campaign to “take back Canada”—which sounds suspiciously like “Make America Great Again”. It makes me wonder whom exactly does he want to take Canada back from?

It is dangerous speech. It’s not “just words”. Words have power. They can unleash a mob. They can incite hatred. They can produce chaos. They can cause violence. Violent words can lead to violent action. We just watched it happen.

This is not a new phenomenon. Violent rhetoric has paved the way for violent action for thousands of years.

It begins with viewing the world as “us versus them”, which has been a characteristic of fascism. It’s the heart of Trump’s worldview.

Once you’ve convinced people to see the world as “us versus them”, then you can appeal to force or intimidation as a way of silencing legitimate opposition. Witness Rudy Giuliani’s remark that “it’s time for trial by combat” just before the mob marched on the Capitol. I learned that this is known as the ad baculum fallacy, from the Latin “appeal to the stick” or “appeal to force”.

Another tactic is reification, which means to treat another person as an object or a thing. If we can reduce a person to a thing, it no longer matters how we respond to them. We delegitimize them.

That is all done with hyperbole, with exaggeration. All Mexicans, for example, are criminals and drug dealers and nasty people. All liberals are “politically correct” and opposed to law and order. All Christians are infantile followers of a cult which is a psychological crutch.

Ad baculum arguments. Reification. Hyperbole. Three classic techniques of personal attack to divide a society and foment violence.

What’s the solution? How can we stand strong against that kind of violent rhetoric which threatens the very foundations of our society?

If we are to thrive as a society, we must cultivate respectful practices in our speech and our actions. If we disagree, for example, it doesn’t mean that you are my enemy. It simply means we disagree, and we need to work harder to treat each other with respect and dignity as fellow human beings. We must practice deep listening, empathetic hearing, careful speech.

Firstly, as a society, and as individual citizens, we must stay alert. Whenever we see others engage in this kind of “us versus them” thinking, using the tactics of hyperbole and reification, we must call it out for what it is. We must refuse to join in and expose the potential damage in the full light of day.

Secondly, we must make better choices. We choose to make arguments in good faith. We choose to treat other people—even those who are wrong—as fully human. We resist the urge to stereotype them and increase the polarization.

Thirdly, we must learn to deal more responsibly with social media. Apps like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram don’t encourage respectful or thoughtful dialogue and deliberation. Social media offers an unhealthy buffet of angry rants and “gotcha zingers”. They encourage people to vent their anger and score points without any evidence or facts to back up their thoughts.

We need to be careful of the rhetoric of division. Angry words will fuel events like this insurrection. We need to recapture a sense of civility and common purpose for a complicated, multicultural democracy to work.

Martin Luther King, Jr knew the power of righteous rhetoric. Indeed, as he told us, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Jimmy Carter would agree: “What are the things that you can’t see that are important? I would say justice, truth, humility, service, compassion, love. You can’t see any of those, but they’re the guiding lights of a life.”

Both King and Carter can act as faithful guides for us as we seek to navigate a more careful, respectful, and loving way forward.

Yme Woensdregt is a retired Anglican priest living in Cranbrook

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