What makes a leader?

There’s passion and determination and the ability to inspire similar passion in others. A belief in doing what's right and the willingness to do that, even though it isn't popular - the recent healthcare debate in the US is one example. I saw another example somewhere within the past week about same-sex marriage and how a certain percentage of Americans is against it. And then, in the very next sentence, the piece I was reading mentioned that at the time interracial marriages were made legal in the US, over 70% of the population was against it. So yeah, leaders do not lead by what the polls say, but by doing what is right. Even if it makes them unpopular at times.

Another thing a leader should do is to be thoughtful, in word and deed and this is where I start to get to today's point.

In the next municipal election in Toronto, we will be electing a new mayor and the race is already getting weird. Partly because of the characters involved, or more specifically, one particular character named Rob Ford. He has a reputation for shooting from the hip, speaking before he thinks and I'm pretty sure he carefully nurtures this image of being a scrapper. As many such people, he's prone to saying things that other politicians wouldn't dream of and one of his latest brilliant moves is to include a quote regarding signage around open bodies of water. To wit "[y]ou’d have to be retarded if you can’t see frickin’ water in front of you".

Subtle, he ain't. Wise, he also ain’t. Offensive, he most certainly is. On a couple of levels, one being the level of idiocy with regard to public safety, but it's the other one that leaves me breathless. You all know how I feel about that word and its current prolific status in our culture. Everybody uses it, not just teenagers and it makes me wince, every single time. Dave Hingsburger works for a community agency called Vita Community Living Services, serving people with intellectual disabilities. This brilliant agency has launched a campaign called Words Hit and they distribute information about just that word (more information here). Because that word hits and anything remotely similar applied to any other minority group would be considered hate speech. Yet, outside the disability community, it isn't. To such a point that one of our mayoral candidate thinks nothing of proudly including it in his campaign material.

And so, Dave asked for our help. To blog about it and that, I gladly do, because I think it is appalling that someone who considers themselves a serious candidate for public office would use this word. And Dave also asks that we e-mail, both Mr. Ford and another of the candidates, George Smitherman, who is using that quote as part of his campaign material, but because of the stupidity of it, not because it defames people with disabilities. And one more, to e-mail our local TV news station that didn't cover this from a disability perspective.

And seldom have I felt more invisible, because in this one, all of us who have disabilities, regardless of which kind it is, are together. I can't help but wonder what would've happened if Mr. Ford had used the N-word. Bet it would have been all over the news.

Leaders lead by example and if our leaders think nothing of tossing out derogatory terms for various minority groups, I don't want to think about the kind of government or city they'll be building.

Therefore, I'm asking you to help us by writing the candidates expressing your feelings about this (contact information available over at Dave’s blog). Even if you don't live in Toronto or Canada and feel strongly about this, please write. This reflects on our reputation and the more outrage that is poured their way, the better.

It’s too bad we have to pressure them to become the leaders we deserve.


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Jocelyn said…
As a linguist, this is a point i make to my students over and over again.  There are times when words are actions, and the use of hate speech is most definitely one of those times.  One of the difficulties, I find, is convincing people that these words are hateful when there is no such word that can be applied to the groups to which they belong. (How I hate the argument I occasionally get from white students that they've been called "honky" and not gotten their feelings hurt; I could (and do) go on and on about the problems with that line of reasoning; I suppose the good thing is that I get the opportunity to do so when they say that.)
Dave Hingsburger said…
Lene, you write so beautifully, I'm thrilled you wrote this an hope that your readers will follow by example and let our politicians know that we are no longer a 'silent minority' that we have voice and we have power. Awesome post.
AlisonH said…
Thank you so much for this! And Jocelyn, for teaching your students--even if they resist your point of view at the moment you say it, I'm hoping they most likely will be repeating it themselves to their own children one day.

People who use ugly language thoughtlessly are the ones who are trying hardest not to believe they could ever be (reduced, in their mind, to being) part of that group. The ugliness comes from fear, from rebuffing the very possibility, although they would never admit it. Since they refuse to learn on their own, they have to be given consequences for not learning.
Trevor said…
It's a shame that over the decades the word retarded became a slur.  In it's (formerly) proper use, it was a well-understood word that described the condition and everyone understood it.  Now we use phrases like 'intellectual disability', 'developmental disability', and various other phrases that people don't always understand.

As for the mayor's race in Toronto?  This is the only reason I'm glad I don't live in Toronto anymore.  Rob Ford is leading in the polls and would be a complete disaster as mayor.  He's an incredible buffoon and has no concept of how to get people to agree with him, and that's not how a mayor can operate.  George Smitherman, well, he's a nice guy one-on-one, but he's also notorious for his temper.  Again, not a good trait to have if you're going to be mayor.  I was really disappointed when John Tory wimped out of running again.  I'd have voted for him.
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