Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Mow down the hyperbole

Rhetorical excess diminishes powerful words -- and the events that spawned them

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Between 1502 and 1853, an estimated 12 million Africans were taken from their homes and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to work as slaves in the Americas.

At least a million didn't survive the voyage due to cramped conditions in hellish cargo holds. Upon arrival, many millions more died of disease, malnutrition, exhaustion and violence at the hands of their owners.

The list of indignities and atrocities associated with the transatlantic slave trade includes intentional starvation, deliberate dehydration, beatings, rape, torture, castration, mutilation, infanticide and summary execution.

Nowhere in the historical record is there any reference to anyone being asked to mow the grass on the boulevard alongside their home. Such an act, it would appear, was too heinous for the slaving era -- but not too heinous for contemporary Winnipeg, at least in the eyes of an Island Lakes resident named Rick Hykawy.

Earlier this month, Hykawy attracted the attention of many Winnipeggers for refusing to mow the boulevard alongside his Island Shore Boulevard home. Although the city's Neighbourhood Livability Bylaw requires all homeowners to maintain the boulevards alongside their homes, Hykawy refused on the grounds such a demand is a violation of his charter rights.

He'll have his day in court in June 2013.

But in the meantime, he's already guilty of an entirely separate offence that doesn't appear in any official legislation: the crime of extreme hyperbole.

Instead of simply arguing the city's bylaw goes too far, Hykawy resorted to the sort of rhetoric that's familiar to American talk-radio audiences, but thankfully heard not very often here at home.

In short, he made modern-day Winnipeg the moral equivalent of plantation-era Carolina Colony.

Earlier this month, Hykawy told the Free Press he was going to challenge the city "because what they're doing is slavery. It's out-and-out slavery."

He later said he would agree to pay higher taxes to fund municipal boulevard maintenance but surmised the city would refuse "because they want free labour. They want slaves."

To people in my industry -- the daily news media -- a guy like Hykawy is a godsend. In an era when public officials offer only the most sanitized of statements, colourful quips from ordinary people are like gold.

But there comes a time when even ordinary people must be held responsible for their rhetorical excesses. So Rick Hykawy, the media godsend, must face some degree of censure for comparing his own plight to that of slaves.

When the state demands you cut your boulevard, this is at worst an inconvenience. You may disagree with this requirement on ideological or philosophical grounds, but it would be more than intellectually dishonest for you to compare such a demand to being stripped of all your rights as a human being.

Even in today's extremely impolite world, the flippant use of the word "slavery" is equivalent to the indiscriminate use of "holocaust" or "genocide." Simply put, this form of hyperbole is inexcusable.

Language, as any texting teenager can attest, tends to change over time. Ergo, the repeated use of the most horrific of terms to signify something far less than horrific undermines the concept behind the terms.

In short, what Hykawy has done is cheapen the concept of not just slavery, but the struggle for human rights over the centuries.

In addition to being intellectually repugnant, this sort of rhetorical faux pas also has the secondary effect of offending people directly affected by slavery over the ages, which is a good chunk of the planet. That said, today's rant is not about political correctness; I could not care less whether Hykawy has actually offended anybody.

What concerns me is the watering-down of language that occurs when people misappropriate extremely powerful terms such as "slavery," "genocide" or "terrorism" to score cheap political points.

And this does not just happen on American talk radio. Even though Canadian political rhetoric tends to be less extreme, intellectually lazy sorts on both the left and right have committed similar crimes against semantics.

A couple of years back, the Manitoba wing of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation compared the struggle of ordinary Canadians to free themselves of the burden of high taxes with Martin Luther King's struggle to rid the United States of overt racism.

In this view, there's some sort of moral equivalence between enforced segregation in the U.S. South during the 1960s and taxation levels in Canada today. The suggestion is not just ridiculous, but repugnant.

A few years earlier, the Ontario wing of the Canadian Union of Public Employees passed an "anti-Zionist" boycott motion that recognized the "apartheid nature of the Israeli state," suggesting moral equivalence between pre-democratic South Africa and what was, at the time, the Middle East's only multi-party democracy.

This sort of rhetorical game is dangerous, but seemingly irresistible on both sides of the border. Just ask Mike Pence, the Republican congressman from Indiana, who in April compared upholding Obamacare to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He quickly apologized for the remark in a contrite statement that made overt reference to the danger of rhetorical excess.

"I certainly did not intend to minimize any tragedy our nation has faced," Pence told politico.com .

Or ask senior Manitoba MP Vic Toews what was going through his head when he accused opponents of the Conservative anti-surveillance bill of siding with child pornographers.

Toews didn't quite apologize, but did have the sense to remark to CBC Radio a few days later he was prepared to accept the judgment of "fair-minded Canadians" if they felt his comments "were not appropriate."

Nobody's asking Rick Hykawy to apologize. Simply excoriating him for his remark should be enough.

It's a testament to Winnipeg's insulation and isolation from the horrors of the rest of the world when one suburbanite feels comfortable comparing his plight to that of a slave.

If only Alex Haley was alive to document the rest of the story.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 19, 2012 A8

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott.

Bartley appears every second Wednesday on CityTV’s Breakfast Television. His work has also appeared on CBC Radio and in publications such as National Geographic Traveler, explore magazine and Western Living.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives
Email: bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

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