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Weighing words

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I find the power of words fascinating. Not only can they be mightier than the sword, but they can bring down governments, uplift populations, denigrate or venerate entire peoples.

The rape and torture of children

In the last week, the word "abuse" has held centre stage in the media. In Saturday's Toronto Star, for example, two pages were papered with stories, each with "abuse" in the headline, subhead or in the lede.

The Roman Catholic Church continues to be in the spotlight over the sexual assault, rape, or torture of children by priests. Note the words I chose: "sexual assault", "rape" and "torture". Abuse can mean assault and rape, but its other definitions include: improper usage or perversion; physical or verbal maltreatment; an unjust practice; or coarse speech.

The definitions of "rape" and "sexual assault" are obvious. With respect to "torture", according to the United Nations, torture is any act by which "severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental; is intentionally inflicted on a person; for such purposes as...intimidating or coercing him/her". When you listen to the survivors of sexual assault by pedophilic priests, there certainly is pain, suffering and intimidation.

"Abuse" in other words, has other meanings and can be employed to describe situations or actions that are relatively mild compared to the sexual assault, rape or torture of a child.

The Vatican and the Pope (who may be complicit in these crimes against children through inaction or cover-up) understand the power of words. Either by omission (not a mention of pedophilic priests) or by making scurrilous and odious comparisons: Reverend Raniero Cantalamessa said that the "accusations" of child "abuse" against the Church were like the "collective violence" experienced by Jews and that these "accusations" reminded Cantalamessa of "the more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism".

The criticism of this deluded and oleaginous statement was swift and Cantalamessa, realizing the lunacy of his words, beat a hasty retreat.

Canada's National Anthem

When the Conservatives had nothing to say about women in their March Throne Speech, they decided to throw in a short few comments about amending the national anthem to remove "sons" from "all thy sons command" (when I was a child, I must have had astronomy on the brain because I thought this line was: "in all thy suns command").

A number of Canadians were demanding the anthem be left as is. These conservatives (in the true traditionalist sense of the word) may not appreciate that when "sons" is uttered, it excludes half the Canadian population. Indeed, ours is an outdated anthem in need of revising; for example "native land" and the reference to god (which god? Or no god).

This proposal was one of the few good ideas served up by the Conservatives in their Throne Speech but was retracted faster than a Cantalamessa sermon. The Conservatives crumpled before their ornery base. Yet those who demanded the anthem be unaltered because we shouldn't quibble over words were unwittingly victim to the power of words; the same power that should urge us to make our national symbols and songs inclusive.

Taxes and Strikes

When the media discuss increases in taxes, they employ words such as "hit" ("hit with a new tax"). As if raising taxes is tantamount to physical assault (abuse?!). How can citizens have a serious discussion about taxation when the words used to describe taxes are preceded by words suggesting violence? Would our dialogue on taxes be different if we turned down the Fraser Institute rhetoric and said that Canadians are about to be granted a tax increase or delighted with tax increases?

Occasionally the word "plague" precedes union "strikes". I cannot understand how workers fighting for rights or a new agreement can be compared to the population-decimating bubonic plague (The Pest). Of course, this is an effort, even if done subconsciously (or as is the case with some reporters, unconsciously), to portray union action as a virulent affliction that must be stopped.

Words matter

Indeed they do. And the media, where words are its bread and butter, know this. I encourage you to be on the lookout for how words are used, why they are used, and what is trying to be achieved through their usage.

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