Language Matters: Political Correctness and Barbarism

Justin Trudeau, an MP for the riding of Papineau in Montreal, Canada is the immigration critic for the opposition party and he objected to the use of the word "barbaric" in Ottawa's new citizenship guide that spells out Canada's stance on honour killings and other violence against women. Mr. Trudeau wanted this replaced with "absolutely unacceptable". He has since had to retract his request and there have been many discussions and editorials expressing our righteous use of this word to describe these acts. Many voices reiterate our intolerance of these acts in Canada and condone the use of the word barbaric in this context.

The words barbaric and unacceptable are adjectives and adjectives are used to modify nouns or pronouns by describing and identifying them. The difference between them is that barbaric seems like a judgment call – a higher moral character denouncing a lower one. The word unacceptable is more of an action word in that it states this line shall not be crossed. Using this as a basis for consideration of the comment made by Justin Trudeau I conclude that his argument is a just one and makes good language sense. The immigration citizenship guide is a government publication and not an editorial; where judgment and denunciation of these acts would be appropriate and welcome by most. The words barbaric or savage are judgment words based on personal or cultural interpretations of the actions or beliefs of others. The use of these words could be viewed as argumentative to those who act in ways we view as barbaric or savage, enabling them to justify their behaviour privately or publically and attempt to get away with their beliefs and actions.

Cannibalism seems barbaric to me. But a person who grew up in a cannibalistic culture where eating human flesh was normal, they would not see it that way. By telling him I think it is barbaric and then explaining my list of good reasons why; human life is sacred, it is morally repugnant, we don’t believe in that here etc. I set myself up to have to hear him tell me why I am wrong and why it is okay for him. He becomes convinced that he need only convince me. However when I tell him this behaviour will not be tolerated, is absolutely unacceptable and if he continues he will be charged under the criminal code, deported or jailed, there is no room for argument. While he may never agree with my reasons why it is barbaric, he might be open to changing his diet as it will mean loss of freedom and/or leaving his family. As long as I continue to try to convince or judge him I end up in a verbal and moral quagmire and perhaps even in his stew pot!

Many years ago I attended an assertiveness workshop where it was explained to me that ‘no’ is a complete sentence. When I did not want to do something or have something done to me I should not quantify my answer with explanations, just make refusal firm and clear. I was told that by explaining my reasons I left myself open to being convinced or coerced. While the use of the word barbaric; certainly an apt adjective for acts such as honour killing (what an oxymoron), female genital mutilation etc. it just muddies the waters. It makes our moral judgment clear but does not state unequivocally that we have zero tolerance supported by the government and the laws of Canada. Absolutely unacceptable and punishable to the full extent of the law means we don’t care why you do it, we don’t care if it is culturally acceptable where you come from, here it is wrong and you are not allowed to do it. Period.

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