Jagmeet Singh is not very good on live TV. Yet.
The newly and soundly elected Leader of the federal New Democratic Party looked a tad uncomfortable as the TV cameras focused on him and his family after his victory on Sunday. Just a teensy bit awkward. A confident man, he was, briefly, bashful. The thing about bashful is that a lot of people find it adorable.
That lack of instant facility with live television will change. Singh is simply masterful with imagery and visual signals. It's his thing, not policy, so far. He understands the power of images and the role of social media in a way that few politicians do and whether that skill is intuitive or learned doesn't matter.
What emanates from him is cosmopolitan masculinity, virility, style, confidence, ease with himself and empathy. He has sex appeal. Cast around on social media for clues to Singh's appeal, as I did, and in mere minutes you can find uninhibited avidity for his looks and physique. I found this on Twitter from a young woman: "Listen I know it's hypocritical to ogle male politicians but I'm sorry, Jagmeet Singh has the chest of a Disney Prince." He is, to a lot of people, especially millennials, a dreamboat.
Yet it is a bit more complicated than raw sex appeal. It's a matter of semiotics – analyzing how meaning is communicated through signs, symbols and linguistic clues to create meaning. There's nothing arcane about it. We all interpret signs and symbols every day. We just don't think about it much. Singh sure does.
Figuring out Singh and his appeal is best done visually and linguistically. Look at the video in which Singh handles a heckler who assumes he's Muslim and berates him on the matter of sharia law. Millions around the world have already seen it since it went viral. Yes, it's that rich in meaning and fascination.
The first thing to note is who tries to protect him from the heckler. His team instinctively tries to shield and safeguard him and they are all young, mostly women. The second thing is what exactly is spoken by Singh. He chuckles and just keeps unleashing positivity. "We believe in love and courage," he says several times. He bursts out with, "Economic justice for everybody!" He says to the heckler, "You are wonderful." Then: "A round of applause for diversity." He keeps on chuckling, unfazed, and says, "We don't want hatred to ruin a positive event. We welcome you, we love you, we support you. Everyone in this room loves you."
And he also says, in case anyone is worried about him, "It's no big deal."
What is a big deal is his skill in using seemingly vague language that has impact. Singh tends to use the same type of nebulous, imprecise words on social media (his Instagram account is a treasure trove of meaning) but precisely the sort of words that carry weight.
A recent study by New York University's department of psychology found that, "Tweets about political topics that include moral and emotional language are more likely to spread within the ideological networks of the sender." What Singh was saying while heckled is exactly that – "moral and emotional language." The words might seem imprecise, but they are calculated to have maximum impact. That's the linguistics part, and those who find it hard to get a handle on Singh's policy platform might do well to remember that.
Examine the visual signals of Singh and they are even more meaningful. There's a reason he was featured in GQ magazine for his style – many of the photos of Singh that circulate online are posed and rigorously thought out to convey the message of cosmopolitan man.
When he poses, bearded, of course, in suit pants and vest, wearing a frock coat or stylish sports jacket, on a vintage bicycle, he's got everything that many millennials cherish covered – the bike, the assembly of disparate clothing items to create personal style and panache. Look at the precision of the look – remember, Singh was appearing in online fashion blogs as an icon as long ago as 2012 – plus the array of items, and the turban on his head is almost invisible. Your eyes are drawn to everything else.
Singh's audience and followers are sharply attuned to what he represents. He's a blank slate onto which all sorts of positivity can be projected. Believe in him and it validates your Canadian-ness. In a culture that is drenched in a deluge of visual signals online, Singh's signals stand out. He is an entire narrative unto himself, detached from previous political narratives, and the signals in his speech and the images he transmits convey precisely that. He is youth, he is the future.
While it might seem unfair to focus on it, it is the dreamboat thing that stands out. He is, to many admirers, adorable. So Jagmeet Singh is somebody's worst nightmare. That somebody is your boyfriend, and if your boyfriend is Justin Trudeau, the nightmare is under way.