Sometimes it Really IS a Matter of Semantics

Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter seems like a decent guy.  He served four terms on the city’s council, where he never became part of the inner-circle, decision-making group but eventually emerged as a maverick who surprised nearly everyone by pushing through a number of badly needed reforms of city government.  He then launched what seemed like a quixotic campaign for mayor against several better-known, better-financed candidates.  He was diligent and persistent, slowly overcoming the advantages the other candidates enjoyed and defeating them in a hotly contested campaign for the Democratic nomination in a city in which winning that nomination has meant automatic victory in the general election since the Truman administration.

As mayor, Mr. Nutter has been a bit of a disappointment.  On several occasions, Philadelphia’s desperate financial struggles have presented him excellent opportunities to reshape city government, or at least some aspects of it, and not only has he not succeeded in doing so, but a reasonable argument can also be made that he never even seriously attempted to do so.  The opportunities were there, but Mr. Nutter never seized them.  He has had some good ideas but seems to lack some combination of the political fire, political savvy, and political will to turn his ideas into reality – or even to try.

One of Mr. Nutter’s greatest frustrations has been a continuing epidemic of violent crime.  He took office pledging to reduce the city’s murder rate and for several years succeeded in doing so, but in the year that just ended the rate increased just a little.  Then, shortly after the new year – still less than three weeks old – Philadelphia had a new rash of killings and Mr. Nutter’s anger rose.

As this clip shows, Mr. Nutter lashed out at the perpetrators of these violent crimes and – with television cameras rolling –  called them “idiots and assholes.”

This was a poor choice of words.  The thrust of Mr. Nutter’s message is for people to have greater respect for one another, and for life, to avoid violence and address differences in a more constructive manner.  He is, in other words, preaching civility – but doing so with unusually uncivil language.

The word he chose, moreover, is especially egregious.  In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell detailed how a study found that particular word to be especially offensive and provocative and likely itself to lead to reactions that rise to the level of violence.

But this isn’t just about the word.  Mr. Nutter’s reaction was understandable – a combination of frustration, exasperation, and anger.  But he’s supposed to be a leader, and leaders lead – they don’t diminish themselves and forfeit their moral authority with a few thoughtless, ill-chosen words uttered in the heat of the moment.  In using this kind of language, he’s sending a mixed message to a population that clearly resists any messages at all.  You can’t plead for civility using the language of incivility.

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  • Peaches Shimmerdeep  On January 20, 2012 at 9:23 pm

    I think you’re probably right about some of this, and in hindsight, he probably wishes he had spoken without profanity, but I have heard people discussing this who strongly felt that Nutter became more relatable after he showed his passion, dismay, and even disgust through his words. They know him to be the voice of reason, most commonly shown in an educated and well-articulated response. They were outraged and so was he at what had happened–they felt his pain.

    I don’t think anyone would consider him credible if he spoke publicly in this way as a matter of routine, and I don’t think he would. There are many who GOT the message because of how he spoke; as you rightly point out, it can be a population that clearly resists messages. His message wasn’t mixed–it was clear as a bell. And forfeiting his moral authority? Far from it. My 82 year old mother (who never says more than “hell”) cheered him. I think this time she was right.

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