We all know that actions speak louder than words. But it’s important to remember that all actions start with words. Whether spoken, written, or tweeted, words matter, especially those from the mouths of prominent leaders.
During these strange times, language is the critical tool used by leaders to persuade, compel, cajole, and dictate to us how we might collectively cope with COVID-19. Amplified by media and social networks, words can pacify populations and placate capitalists, or they can do the opposite. As leaders face unprecedented challenges, some seek guidance from historic texts, the utterances of generations past, and laws that set out the parameters for action.
Canada vs. America
When it comes to the Coronavirus, the differences in wording between the Canadian and American Constitutions reveal a curious contrast in how each country’s governments have responded to the current crisis. Section 91 of Canada’s Constitution contains the phrase “peace, order and good government” to define the Parliament’s lawmaking authority in relation to provincial authority. America’s famed Declaration of Independence refers to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as unalienable rights.
Specifically, there are two words in the above phrases that reveal much about the psyches of these countries: “order” and “liberty”. The more I think about it, the two seem the opposite of one another. The former is about control and alignment under the direction of authority. The latter implies free will and the right to do as one wishes.
Order and Following Orders
As we all find ourselves in the ‘New Abnormal’, we have a Canadian Prime Minister (with a minority government) doing his best to combat the crisis, with the Premiers (responsible for healthcare in the provinces) toeing the line and respectfully doing what needs to be done, according to medical and public health experts. At a business level, large Canadian companies were quick to respond to the crisis with emails like the following (sent on March 22) from the head of personal and commercial banking at the country’s largest bank, assuring clients that they will follow government’s lead and be guided the advice of medical experts:
“These are trying times. But you can take comfort in the expertise of our public health officials, the coordinated response of our provincial and federal governments and the strength of our financial system. We’re here for you and will be in the days and weeks ahead. We are committed to helping Canadians get through this.”
Sounds like order and unity to me.
Liberty and Liberating Neo-liberals
Contrast this with the U.S. President who, in addition to vacillating between denial, blame, and outright untruths, has lashed out against the WHO, put forward supposed cures, entertained conspiracy theories, and claimed that his country’s economy will soar “like a rocket ship” once the coronavirus pandemic is over. America’s governors and mayors in some of its biggest states and cities continue to plead and fight for support in the face of misinformation and — some have argued — inadequate support. Due to the slow response of their federal government, efforts to thwart the coronavirus were impeded, and now several states are now bandying together to try and rectify an untenable situation.
Last week, Mr Trump reposted a tweet suggesting it was “Time to #FireFauci”, referring to the federal government’s top infectious diseases expert. On the same weekend, one of America’s largest pork processing plants shut down, but only after 238 workers tested positive for the coronavirus, more than half of the active cases in the state of South Dakota, where the factory is located. And this week, it seems that the term “liberate” has taken on a whole new meaning as mixed messages continue to be tweeted from the White House, fomenting sections of the population to fight for their Second Amendment rights and question the authority of their state officials.
Honesty, Humility, Empathy and Grace
Fortunately, there are leaders who continue to stand tall, understanding the nuances of liberty and the importance of respectable order. On Tuesday, former U.S. President Obama released a video in which he endorsed Joe Biden as the Democratic party’s top candidate for the 2020 Elections. In an elegant speech he shared these poignant words:
“…if there is one thing we have learned as a country from moments of great crisis, it is that the spirit of looking out for one another… has to be reflected in our national government, the kind of leadership that is guided by knowledge and experience, honesty and humility, empathy and grace.”
Let’s hope these leadership attributes soon return to America’s highest office.