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Public figures can't expect offensive tweets to stay private for long

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Of all the offensive words you can actually publish in a newspaper, "whore" is among the most problematic.

Even though it's just a noun, whore comes with all sorts of connotations, none of them pleasant. The word is inherently sexist, as it's almost always applied to women and there is no equivalent pejorative term to describe a sexually promiscuous man.

Nonetheless, infamously verbose Winnipeg Centre MP Pat Martin could claim his recent use of the term "rat-faced whores" was intended to be gender-neutral. On Wednesday night, when Martin used his now-defunct Twitter account to hurl epithets at his Conservative colleagues, an argument could be made for the use of "whore" to mean somebody who compromises his or her values.

The intent of Martin's rant -- to chide the federal Tories for funding the Youth for Christ Centre in downtown Winnipeg -- suggests that was the NDPer's intention. But even Martin wasn't arguing semantics on Thursday when he apologized for his rant and deleted his Twitter account.

Resorting to semantics was how Martin got away with calling elected officials in Winnipeg "retarded" in 2007 after city council passed pesticide legislation the MP considered toothless. "They're so retarded as an institution," Martin said at the time, insisting his use of an offensive adjective was justified by one of its uncommon meanings -- something that is slow to develop.

This is only one of Pat Martin's outbursts over the years. There's always been something calculated about them, both before and after the proliferation of social media. Like other outspoken individuals who happen to live a public life, Martin has enough media savvy to know a pithy, sharp-tongued comment is way more likely to generate a prime-time TV sound bite or a newspaper clipping than any of the bland and banal statements politicians typically utter in an effort to avoid actually saying anything.

In what's become a symbiotic relationship, reporters have come to rely upon these sorts of outbursts -- from Martin, Transcona Coun. Russ Wyatt or anyone else brave or stupid enough to court attention -- to add colour to routine stories.

But even deliberate provocation has its limits. Martin finally crossed over his own ill-defined line during Wednesday evening's rant, which mostly focused on Youth For Christ funding but also included references to the personal life of senior Manitoba MP Vic Toews.

In the harsh light of a Thursday morning, Martin told Free Press Ottawa bureau chief Mia Rabson his rant was not intended for wide consumption.

"I was just private-tweeting to my followers," said the 15-year MP, a veteran of six federal election campaigns and untold hundreds of TV, radio, print and online media interviews during his time in office.

Of course, nothing you do on Twitter is private. Any tweet you ever make can be read by anyone, not just those who sign up for your Twitter feed. And even a so-called private tweet -- a direct message on Twitter -- can and will be shared if it's offensive, much the same way a private email can and will be shared, as Conservative cabinet minister Tony Clement discovered after calling a Parry Sound, Ont., teenager a jackass.

What Pat Martin would have us believe is after using Twitter for several years, he suddenly has no idea how Twitter works. This is akin to getting pulled over for a speeding ticket and telling the traffic-patrol officer you weren't actually certain how to use that gas-pedal thingy on the floor of your Volvo.

Thanks to some sort of cosmic joke, Martin became the second Winnipeg public figure to make this incredible argument in less than 24 hours. On Wednesday, Winnipeg Jets winger Evander Kane told Free Press hockey writer Ed Tait he tweeted a picture of himself clutching several wads of cash on a Las Vegas balcony as a private joke to boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr.

"I just reached out to Floyd as a joke on Twitter. It really wasn't meant for anybody else except Floyd, but it kinda just blew up and took off," said Kane, who had 110,463 Twitter followers as of Thursday afternoon.

Apparently, a "private tweet" is a term used by public figures to describe a message or series of messages they regret making in public. The message is clear: I am so deeply, truly sorry you happened to notice that thing I just did in front of thousands upon thousands of people.

There are those who would argue Pat Martin and Evander Kane are actually dumb enough not to know how Twitter works. That sentiment, however uncharitable, still amounts to apologism.

Celebrities crave attention for a variety of psychological reasons that range from low self-esteem to a desire to feel powerful. Getting that attention, of course, comes with all sorts of unpleasant side-effects, not the least onerous of which is intense public scrutiny.

The real whores in this story -- in the sense Pat Martin did intend -- are the public figures who seek our acknowledgement, only to shrink away when that attention turns out to be something decidedly less rewarding than love, adulation and acclaim.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 21, 2012 A4

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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 and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

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


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