I’m coming to the #elbowgate party a bit late. All the same, it’s too glittery a rhetoric issue for me to ignore.
If you haven’t heard of Elbowgate, here is a brief summary:
While votes were being gathered in the Canadian House of Commons on a contentious bill, a brouhaha was created when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau barged across the floor to usher Conservative party whip Gord Blair to his seat. Following the fine traditions of politicians acting like schoolyard bullies, some members of the NDP party were physically blocking Blair’s progress to his seat, preventing Blair from initiating a vote – engaging in what MP Elizabeth May so accurately called “some mischief.”
Trudeau, apparently fed up with the scene, crossed the floor, grabbed Blair and attempted to usher him in to his seat. In the process, he bumped into MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau, elbowing her in the chest. Brosseau performed beautifully, taking a dive that would have made an Italian pro football player weep.
All hell subsequently broke loose, with fumbling apologies from the Prime Minister and histrionics from the Opposition and NDPs. Accusations of manhandling, assault, and so forth rained down in the House of Commons that day, the media gleefully picked up on the story (it really is gold), and #elbowgate trended internationally on Twitter. The melodrama is at once both delicious and eye-rollingly bad.
(If you want a wonderful take on how absurd this whole thing is, I strongly recommend checking out John Oliver’s breakdown of the situation. It might not be a Canadian show, but he does capture what most Canadians seem to be feeling.
Now being who I am, I believe that #elbowgate represents an excellent opportunity to teach some of the nuances of rhetorical appeals. Yes, folks, we’re getting into Ethos territory here.
Ethos is a person’s credibility, reputation, and character all wrapped up into one. It is extremely important in politics, and is often attacked by political opponents. While I think it’s great that Trudeau basically called the MPs on their childish behaviour when he broke up that little shove-party they had going on, I also acknowledge that his move was damaging ethos-wise.
The problem is one of Trudeau’s age, youthful appearance, and inattention to some of the finer points of Parliamentary tradition. By crossing the floor in the manner he did, Trudeau invaded the territory of the non-governing parties. This is a symbolically aggressive act in a place where the architectural tradition was intended to prevent MPs from skewering each other with the swords they used to carry back in the days of Ye Olde Britain.
Trudeau’s move of ushering an MP to his seat is also patronizing, and sets him up as more authoritative than the other MPs present. It must be remembered that this is not the case. While the Prime Minister is the Head of Government, it is the Speaker – elected by secret ballot by the MPs – who presides over the House of Commons. It is up to the Speaker to maintain decorum and enforce rules and traditions as an impartial monitor. For a PM to take matters into his own hands is an upset to Parliamentary tradition in place to ensure democratic process and avoid giving ruling parties an undue amount of power. Maybe that tradition is more symbolic than anything else, but symbols are important.
Then there is the matter of Trudeau’s tender years. Physical aggression by Prime Ministers isn’t unheard of in Canada. Trudeau Sr. wasn’t always the model of self-restraint, and former Prime Minister Jean Chretien famously wrapped his hands around a protester’s throat. But where their dignitas and age lent a sort of amusing admirability to their antics, Justin Trudeau’s youth acts against him, making him seem immature and impetuous. By disrespecting the etiquette and traditions of Parliament – trying to take charge himself instead of calling for the Speaker’s intervention – he showed a sense of entitlement and swagger unbecoming of the ethos of a Prime Minster.
But as polls have shown, most Canadians don’t really seem to care about #elbowgate. But at this point in time, it isn’t the opinion of average Canadians that matters. Remember – you are performing to your audience, and at that time in the House of Commons, Trudeau’s audience wasn’t the voting public. It was his fellow politicians. We are too far away from the next election for this incident to really be a decent PR issue to the voting public – it’s unlikely that it can make good attack ad fodder in three years’ time. But he did give the non-governing parties the opportunity to follow another fine political tradition: stymieing proceedings by creating uproars over trivial or irrelevant matters. And oh, how they rose to the occasion! Histrionics flowed, outrage was hurled, apologies were stammered, and the clamour continued for days. Trudeau allowed his ethos to be openly attacked by his fiercest critics, which allowed for other rhetorical tactics such a distraction and deflection to be used without restraint, preventing the business of the government from taking place.
This whole incident may be an excellent example of the childishness that imbues politics, but it also demonstrates some of the deeper meanings of behaviour and tradition that should be observed. While I hope our PM will learn a couple of things about restraint and forethought and some other MPs learn something about schoolyard tactics, I strongly doubt that will happen. In the mean time we should just sit back and enjoy the flap while our elected representatives milk it for all it’s worth.