How the exploitation of linguistic ignorance is fuelling the very dystopia that people claim to dread.
There is no denying, at present, that the world does feel as though it is on the brink. And I write as someone who spent the first fifteen years of their life in the Cold War, blissfully unaware that Raging Ronnie could have sent the nukes flying at any moment. And remembers the Balkan Conflict. And the fall of Thatcher. And the first Gulf War…oh yes. Anyone who thinks those older than 35 had it easy in a joyously peaceful world really needs a reality check. Because the world has always been volatile, angry, and dangerous. The key difference between now and the first 30 years of my life is that people did not have access to devices to spread misinformation, disinformation, and false narratives. And people also seemed to know what words actually meant, and when to use them. Because words appear to be meaningless and yet all-powerful now. And as a result, vitriol and anger against those who are elected to lead seems ever stronger. And the systems they lead seem ever-more fragile. Now that’s worrying.
A key illustration of this bizarre state of affairs, in which people’s angry denouncements online of politicians taps into vitriol sparked by people who claim to be respected and knowledgeable but gives the impression of not knowing what they are denouncing, is the strange case earlier this year of the world’s apparently greatest authoritarian… Justin Trudeau, the Canadian Prime Minister. In late January, whilst a Russian autocrat with a nifty history of poisoning opponents, threatening peaceful states, and interfering in foreign elections was planning an invasion of a democratic neighbour, the conservative press in North America and here was getting in a spin over the decision made by Trudeau to clear a convoy of truckers that were occupying downtown Ottawa and had done so for three weeks. And who, from reports by the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police), were making it impossible for residents to go about their lives.
Yes. They had been there for three weeks before Trudeau seemingly decided to do anything about it. The reason for their being there was due to a vaccine mandate that was deeply unpopular and viewed as an attack on the trucker’s freedom. From 15 January 2022, any trucker that crossed the border in the US and back had to show proof of vaccination from Covid 19. Trudeau’s seemingly dismissive remarks of the protestors as a “fringe minority” only seemed to bait them further into action – the action being an ultimately lawless protest. And he responded with the implementation of an Emergency Powers Act, which was revoked after the truckers had gone, and also ruled out bringing in the Canadian Military. However, the Act froze people’s bank accounts in an attempt to prevent others from assisting, which riled people up further. And it sparked online outrage, with #TyrantTrudeau and #TrudeauTyranny trending. Not to mention memes of Trudeau in a Nazi uniform. Not to mention commentators from The Spectator to GB News to Fox News lashing out, condemning Trudeau as a “beauty who is a beast”, a “dictator”, “an obscenely over-promoted princeling” and an “airhead” ( interesting choices of words, which seem to point to a weird, almost misogynistic-by-proxy view – he’s so pretty he can’t be a real man.) Not to mention a protest outside no.10 a month ago when he came over to discuss Ukraine with Boris Johnson.
At present, when we are watching a country in Eastern Europe fighting like lions to preserve their lives and liberty, due to one man’s belief that it has no right to exist, the claims that the Canadian PM is a monstrous tyrant seem wrong-headed. Trudeau does come across as an incompetent politician. But the cries of “dictator!” and “tyrant!” seem jarringly bizarre. Let’s also think back to the protests that raged across North America in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. As Matt Lewis for the Daily Beast pointed out, if the measures Trudeau had taken had been against Black Lives Matters protesters, those same conservative writers would likely be nodding approvingly. And, judging from recent comments made on social media about the Extinction Rebellion protests outside oil refineries in the South East, those same commentators in the red tops and no tops would love it if the tanks rolled into to remove them. Then Trudeau’s methods would not be seen as those of an authoritarian strongman, but rather an effective leader who deserves support. But I guess it depends on whose side you’re on.
People are jumpy in the wake of the Covid pandemic. People’s lives and livelihoods were curtailed to an astonishing degree. This has led to concerns about where government powers can lead and how protected our rights actually are. But as Lewis pointed out, there is a big difference between calling out actual encroachments on liberties and an elected official trying to stop acts that were spiralling into lawlessness. And it is also notable that words posted online could have had extremely serious consequences. American conservative writer Candace Owens went on Twitter demanding that the US “invade Canada” to free the country from this unspeakable tyrant. Think about that. An American went on Twitter demanding the US government invade its neighbour (and I’ll just add this was a week before Putin actually did decide to order his troops to invade Russia’s neighbour.) But it’s all online, right? Really? Imagine if, in the real world, someone took her at her word, went over the border, and actually did assassinate Trudeau or nearly succeed in doing so. That is an act of war, and as Canada and the US are both NATO, that’s NATO invading itself, and oh, as the Canadian Head of State is the Queen, well, that’s us dragged in as well. Many denounced Owens, telling her to mind her own business. But when a thought like that is put in a public arena, in this current fevered atmosphere, how long before someone actually decides to take her (or others) at their words?
Let’s get this straight. An actual dictator is Putin – a man who has dispensed with elections, tells the citizens of his country what he wants them to hear, invaded a peaceful neighbour, and has been condemned by the ICC and UN for engaging in unspeakable war crimes. Justin Trudeau is an elected PM who let a situation drag on for three weeks before he decided to act, put the proposals before an elected Parliament of MPs to vote on them, and as soon as the situation ended, revoked the powers he’d implemented. Oh, and the Canadians can vote him out, if they wish, at the next general election. Which is not a dictator. A ditherer, definitely. But what this exposes is ignorance over what words mean and their context is rife. And there are those who are only too happy to exploit them to drive their own agenda. The question is, are people going to arm themselves with knowledge, or carry on being useful idiots? Let’s hope, in light of current events, it is the former. Let’s hope.
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