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When words become weapons, repression follows

Erna Paris's most recent book is From Tolerance to Tyranny: A Cautionary Tale from Fifteenth-Century Spain.

It appears we can become accustomed to anything, provided it's repeated often enough. What may have appalled us last year, or the year before, eventually loses its edge and is rendered normal. Think of the way highway speeding ratchets up as drivers accelerate to maintain the faster flow of traffic.

Something similar happens with language. Words accelerate. Without thoughtful restraint, they are like speeding cars, prone to accident.

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Before Sept. 11, 2001, there existed a tacit consensus in Western pluralist societies that generalizations about race and religion might be destructive to the public good: the living memory of 20th-century atrocities largely sufficed to keep the most extreme animosities in check. These unspoken taboos were frequently breached, but racist speech was ordinarily frowned upon and usually did not sink deep roots. When the protective umbrella of taboo failed, as in the former Yugoslavia after the death of Josip Tito, for example, predictable violence ensued. Words matter, especially when they emanate from people in high places.

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Since 9/11 and the advent of "the war on terror," open, or dog-whistle, anti-Muslim rhetoric has increased exponentially as taboos have loosened. In the immediate aftermath, governments in Russia, China and elsewhere were happy to label their troublesome minorities "terrorists," thus whitewashing repression. It became common to hear insinuating generalizations about Muslims.

Just last month, Statistics Canada reported that hate crimes against Muslims rose 60 per cent in 2015, alone. This is not surprising. That year encompassed Stephen Harper's niqab and "barbaric cultural practices" initiatives. It was also the year of the failed Quebec Charter of Values that directly targeted Muslims.

With his darkly nativist rhetoric, U.S. President Donald Trump has upped the ante. He need not attack directly; in order to communicate his discriminatory message, he need only exact a travel ban on people from six predominately Muslim countries, or make atavistic speeches about the decline of Western civilization, as he recently did in Poland. We don't yet know where his unfettered rhetoric will lead. What we do know is that he has opened Pandora's Box – the place where we have historically guarded our protective taboos. From his White House perch, he has liberated people who used to keep their prejudices to themselves, if only for fear of social reprobation.

Citizens in liberal democracies expect their leaders to wield power responsibly and – excepting the rhetorical opportunism of Mr. Harper and others, such as Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch – Canadians in high places usually do. That's why it was particularly troubling to see Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard fall into a trap last month when he said, with regard to a terrorist act perpetrated by a Quebecois: "Unfortunately, you cannot disconnect this type of event – terrorism – from Islam in general." Since Mr. Couillard is said to be a history buff, it is odd that he did not understand the import of language that conflated the entirety of Islam with the acts of a few. Wouldn't he have known that the biblical texts of all three Mosaic religions contain writings in support of both war and peace, depending on one's preference? It is not a defence of violence to note that, across history, all three religions have traversed periods of extremism, such as the Spanish Inquisition (Christianity) and, more recently, the fanatic Jewish settlers in Israel's Occupied Territories whose religious claims to the land eschew the rights of others.

Mr. Couillard claimed to be echoing a speech made by French President Emmanuel Macron, but the situation in France is not comparable. France has miles to go before there is trust enough to enable co-operation between its Muslim population and the country's political leadership, while in Canada, mutual co-operation already exists to a high degree. When Mr. Couillard held Islam and the Muslim community responsible for the acts of some of its members, he accelerated the traffic on the rhetorical highway, encouraging bigotry.

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My husband, Tom, likes to rail about the damage that's been done across time by the little word "all" – as in "all Muslims are 'X'" or "all Jews are 'Y.'" He's right; words are not innocent. We are each responsible for maintaining the civility of public discourse, but people in positions of leadership hold a special trust. They set the rhetorical standard. And they must be held accountable.

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