Conflict, controversy, provocations sell…

THE TRUCKER CONVOY earlier this year changed politics in our country.

By comparison, a prior protest in 2019 was mostly a yawn; the nation’s capitol slept through it, but this convoy in the dead of winter set Ottawa’s hair alight. The truckers flipped a switch on their modus operandi and boom, things went for a crap. Suddenly bouncy castles were a threat. Airhorns took on a greater meaning. And the prime minister shaken (as one is shook not stirred) invoked Emergency Measures to calm everyone the beeeeep down.

Savvy folks, the truckers. They learned how to score from behind the net. And that got everyone’s attention.

Pissing people off has its rewards. Greenpeace-style antics in Canada, alongside railway blockades by self-appointed activists for weeks on end, are examples for how ‘direct action’ works (especially if you’re on the right side of public opinion). Hell, you can even get to be a cabinet minister in the federal government of Canada by climbing tall buildings and unfurling banners! That says a lot, doesn’t it? Not to mention the money to be made.


The Economy of Attention favours disobedient actors, fuelled by grievance (pick your poison) and provocative scenarios designed for maximum effect (like pornography, you know it when you see it).

This column will alert you to the triggers: the who, what, the wise (sic), and how a language of provocation is designed to grab your attention, retain it, and advance the script in favour of the provocateur. Oh, and that kerching you hear in the background? That’s the cash register. Pissing people off can be very rewarding these days.

Think for a moment more about that oafish-looking guy in Grande Prairie who verbally ambushed Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland. What was his game plan last August?

Conveniently shot to look spontaneous, the mobile phone video was posted to social media platforms. Of course, it went viral, helped along by mainstream media pointing to it, without so much as a thought that the video was monetized. Outrage sells. It’s a business plan. It might even be winning politics.

Recent case: our premier-in-waiting Danielle Smith has a solid grasp of the language of provocation. The messaging from her UCP leadership campaign shines bright beams of light on the paths of those who feel betrayed by status quo politics. Again and again, Smith hits their hot button, characterizing the federal government as illegitimate. Smith may (or may not) be trying to dial back the message on this all (the centrepiece of her leadership platform, the proposed Alberta Sovereignty Act) but she well understands how to whip up an electorate and is using it to full advantage.


The language of provocation can be confusing because it speaks several dialects—new ones like the cross-country trucker convoy to old saws on sovereignty-association spun by politicians. To avoid manipulation, you need to discern what’s being said and sort out what’s hidden behind the curtain.

Often, the language of provocation is shrill and in your face. The trans-gendered teacher with an over-sized breast prosthetic, booby-trapping parents and school boards in Ontario, is a superb example! But like a river that goes underground, only to pop up in unexpected places, there are ‘hidden persuaders’ that also alter public opinion. Artists, in particular, have the ability to rouse our emotion with gentler, more soothing manipulative stuff. But it’s provocative, all the same.

Country singer Corb Lund used the power of a great song to push back against attempts to revive coal mining along the eastern foothills of the Rockies. Lund’s voice is influential and he’s unrelenting; here’s one of his latest Instagram posts:

Hey Alberta. The provincial UCP leadership race is under way as we speak. Why are these candidates not talking about the coal development issue? It’s the one decision that will have permanent implications for our mountains and water. The people who think they want to lead our province should tell us their position on new coal development in Alberta — and we should vote accordingly. 80% of Albertans have already said NO to more coal. Please share this.

The language of provocation requires the limelight. Nothing is too silly or off-key. Justin Trudeau’s recent karaoke-like trilling of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody in a posh London saloon is an excellent example. He was in town for a Royal funeral, and grabbed international attention. As a veteran world leader, he later performed perfunctory duties for the BBC, intoning as he does about the state of the world as Rome burns at home.

Trudeau (the younger) and his fellow travellers are actors. They exemplify a principal rule of the successful deployment of the language of provocation: I don’t care what you say about me, as long as you’re talking about me. Me is money.

Nature can also speak in a language of provocation. The recent floods and droughts and killer weather-systems (Atlantic Canada is taking a beating at the moment) tell us, something extremely serious is unfolding. 

It’s self-evident we’re now living in a topsy world. You’re going to need to better understand the intent of stories you consume before they consume you. There will be actors who pretend they know what to do if you give them your power. The language of provocation will suck the air out of your room—if you let it.

Ask questions like, Why am I so angry? What is it about this or that media that gets my goat—every time (are you being gamed by an algorithm)? And who or what benefits from my attention?

Stay tuned. More to tell in the next column…

This column is the consensus opinion of the writers Donna Kennedy-Glans & Don Hill. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to BEYOND POLARITY — scroll down on your phone or tablet, or look to the right in the panel beside this post. Enter your email to FOLLOW, a wheel spins, hamsters get fed.

3 thoughts on “Conflict, controversy, provocations sell…

  1. Donna, I started an incredibly detailed (and very boring) response that was an agreement with your overall thesis and a point by point rebuttal of “well, of course…” “those dirty rascals caused…” and before I knew it I was illustrating precisely your point. I, of course, was responding to the various provocations based on my own perceptions [all reasonable and eminently correct, of course].

    In other words, your column worked. At least, it worked to me and on me. So, good on you.

    On the other hand, while I agree with your overall thesis, is this a new thing?

    After all, if we look back through our Canadian history don’t we see that slogans about actual / perceived provocations in the past / present / future have been a part of virtually all elections? We can look from the “National Policy” to “Neither truck nor trade with the Yankees” right through to “they’re all racists and misogynists.”

    Any election campaign is oriented to picking issues and then hammering those issues home to differentiate your campaign from that of your “hateful, despicable and unworthy” opponent. Perhaps the only way in which it is new is that it is occurring within the overall populace between election campaigns and so many of today’s provocations are oriented to splitting society, all in order to “earn” something, be it money or fame or power or some other goal.

    Always has and always will disgust me.

    1. Thanks for your honesty! What’s changing is the language used and tactics. Who would believe a truck convoy would deliver the message it did?

  2. Okay, I accept your comment about language – and completely agree with it. However … [Isn’t there ALWAYS a however?]

    Unlike a sweet young thing such as you, I am of “a certain age” as used to be said. I find that I hear – and myself use, to be sure – language that would have caused my parents to smack me upside the head, and downside the head too, if they had heard such language in my youth. And that is simply in everyday discourse. And if my grandparents could hear…!

    Language is always changing and typically the vernacular becomes, if not proper usage, it becomes common usage. I believe that currently we continue to see the evolvement of language but now it is evolving toward anger.

    Again, your point of provocation. And, again, my point of this provocation being an ongoing sort of thing not simply what might have occurred on a periodic basis.

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