Trudeau the Diplomat

In early 2011, Justin Trudeau got himself into trouble by denouncing the use of the word “barbaric” in the citizenship guide, something he had also done in 2009 when it was added. This time, however, under pressure from always effective right/left team of the NDP and the Conservative party, Mr. Trudeau apologized and was forced to retract his remark. According to then Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff: “If you want to use the word barbaric, use the word barbaric. Mr. Trudeau has already made a statement about that so the matter is closed.” And yet, here we are entering the race to replace Mr. Ignatieff over a year and a half later and we’re treated to the following from Andrew Coyne:

We don’t know a great deal about [Trudeau’s] character or judgment — though what glimpses we have been given raise doubts about both: his bizarre objections to a government document’s description of female genital mutilation as a “barbaric” practice; his scatology in Parliament; his musings that a Canada led by Stephen Harper might cause him to support the separation of Quebec, and his petulant performance when called out on it.

Leaving aside Trudeau’s separatism (which I will return to in a later piece), perhaps, with respect to Mr. Ignatieff, the “barbaric” matter is not fully closed. There are those of us who supported his remarks when he made them and continue to support them now; speaking on my own behalf, Trudeau’s retraction was to me, an offer of truce rather than an admission of fault. This government has proven itself, time and time again, completely and intentionally incapable of understanding nuance; Trudeau gave up trying to engage this government at the intellectual level required for this debate and relented. If this truce is not going to be respected, however, it becomes necessary to explain exactly why the use of the word “barbaric” in a Canadian citizenship guide is wholly unacceptable.

The offending line:

Canada’s openness and generosity do not extend to barbaric cultural practices that tolerate spousal abuse, “honour killings,” female genital mutilation, forced marriage or other gender-based violence.

Allowing myself to wade into the same “semiotic weeds” that Trudeau found himself in, I’m going to address the problems with this section in two parts: the structure of the passage and the word itself.

Rather than saying simply “female genital mutilation is barbaric”, as it has been implied, they structure this line in a much more problematic way. We are condemning “barbaric cultural practices that tolerate” violence against women, rather than practices that are violence against women. It is not the commission of those crimes that is forbidden in this sentence, but the tolerance of them. This is no less than the intentional indictment of an entire culture; in fact, because of the structure of the sentence, it cannot be claimed that “barbaric” here is used simply as a pejorative version of the word “cruel” (or, as in Trudeau’s comments “absolutely unacceptable”) because it is specifically making a judgement about the culture and its practices, rather than the crimes themselves. It is the culture that tolerates the violence and it is the culture the “neutral” citizenship guide is condemning.

Regarding the word itself, “barbaric” is obviously a loaded term but it’s worth exploring why. Just like “cold” cannot be defined except as the absence of “heat”, “barbaric” cannot be defined without a “civilized” reference point. Trying to pretend that Canada is the civilized referent when determining one’s achievement and levels of sophistication when it comes to women’s rights and violence against women is setting the bar too low. It bears repeating that ours is the government responsible for the maternal health initiative designed to reduce women abroad to a function of their biology and to deny them safe abortions. Even ignoring overt examples of discrimination, Canadian women still face so many examples of passive sexism in their daily lives that our culture tolerates. But, with the choice available of any word (abhorrent, cruel, etc.) they settle on barbaric, insisting on setting themselves up as the standard. Canada, even more broadly than the Harper Government, should be sufficiently cognizant of its own failings on women’s rights to avoid the implication that it is the civilized opposite of those barbarians.

Overall, this sentence positions Canada as a magnanimous, civilized nation warning the savages who wish to pollute our country with their barbaric culture that they will not be welcomed here. This sentence needs to be changed, first to condemn the acts, properly, rather than the culture and second to stop pretending that we have nothing to be ashamed of.

Canada’s openness and acceptance do not extend to cruel cultural practices like spousal abuse, “honour killings,” female genital mutilation, forced marriage or other gender-based violence.

In all of this, it’s easy to forget that the real issue is violence against women. Ironically, overshadowed in all of this was Trudeau’s plea that the government “introduce a national strategy to combat violence against women.” That he can do so without the racism and self-aggrandizement displayed by our government certainly tells me something about his character and judgment.

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