Language, leadership and setting norms

“High thoughts must have high language” Aristophanes.

If this is so, then we are in big, I mean huge, trouble.

I can barely stand to  listen to the news these days because the Presidential race has debased itself so much. I am shocked at how easily news outlets repeat inappropriate language – or people at the water cooler for that matter. It’s so prevalent, people feel brave yelling “F- her in the P-” to female reporters when they are broadcasting. It has become a strange source of pride.

Let’s be clear, it’s not that I’ve never heard bad language or that I am a prude. The reason I am concerned is I believe in the power of words to inform, to persuade and to create emotion. More importantly, I believe that the type of language used and accepted establishes norms around what’s ok to say to people, to think of them and to do to them. It is very well established that action follows language. If I think of you as an “it” or an “other” then I can justify treating you in a way that I would ordinarily find appalling.

So at the same time as people are normalising “p—y” there is backlash on the use of Indigenous slurs for sports team names. So misogyny is ok but racism is not. Can you imagine a presidential candidate using the N-word in 2016? Why don’t we just say no to both?

And, instead of empty hand wringing, diminishing bad language by calling it “locker room talk” or deflecting by saying there are larger issues that need attention, leaders need to call it out and put a stop to it. In the RCMP, in the Canadian and US military, on university campuses, in organisations and families everywhere  we need to denounce language that demeans. Period.

I found this image on It provides a far better conclusion than I could and frankly… I am speechless. We need to alter where we are going and quickly.



Published by Dominique O'Rourke

Public Affairs professional, City Councillor, MA Leadership graduate, problem solver and lifelong learner.

6 thoughts on “Language, leadership and setting norms

  1. To classify people as an “it” or an “other” does in the minds of many justify atrocities and allow for limitless scapegoating. In the case of our election, it makes for a kind of debased entertainment that the media is only to willing to absorb. And it’s ironic that a television industry that has purported to respect our children by establishing a rating system, would allow such behavior on prime time. Perhaps, we should establish a definite behavior code for all candidates in a televised debate.

    1. Isn’t it deplorable though that you would even have to reestablish that as a norm? These people are supposed to be role models. They, and others, are eroding trust in the democratic process. It’s a tragedy.

  2. It is deplorable, but for me the role models for moral behavior are parents, grandparents, teachers, mentors. Growing up, I never saw one of our political leaders as a model for morality. I think this expectation has been fostered by a media that is almost like a fourth branch of government. I do expect from my politicians good leadership, a skill in diplomacy, an ability to draw others together in an international sense, and to be astute problem solvers that remain calm in the wake of a crisis.

  3. You are spot on Dominique!

    It seems as the years go by our society becomes more and more lenient/permissive/less caring about the kinds of words we find acceptable to use in everyday life. As technology and media have come to dominate our culture, 30 second sound bites and 140 character tweets have become the norm of how we communicate. We should strive for so much more, and our leaders (in all realms) should be the ones modeling the way.

    My best,


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