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Weekend reads: On civility
We must pull back from the brink
If you read this newsletter, you know that things aren’t going too well in Canada. When it comes to the direction of travel, there’s plenty of things to worry about — from heavy-handed Internet regulation bills and unscientific vaccine mandates to the use of the Emergencies Act during the trucker protests. But one issue that I keep coming back to is the fundamental lack of civility in our public discourse.
It’s deeply concerning, and I thought about it a lot this summer while I was away.
Though I am certainly not the first to say this, it’s worth stressing that Canada is more divided than I’ve seen it in my lifetime. The public square is increasingly vitriolic, and increasingly rage-filled. We are increasingly unable to negotiate basic policy disputes with even a modicum of decency.
In short: We have lost respect for one another.
We have lost patience with open debate — that slow and arduous engine of democracy.
We have lost the ability to acknowledge the humanity of the other side, to imagine ourselves in their shoes. We have lost curiosity about other people’s experiences, and the complicated reasons they may have for taking opposing positions.
Instead of debating, or discussing, we dunk. We launch ad hominem attacks. We double down on contempt.
More and more, we push each other towards the brink.
On this, there’s no shortage of blame to go around. I hold Justin Trudeau accountable for the ugliness he unleashed when he smeared unvaccinated citizens as racists and misogynists, turning neighbour against neighbour in a way that I have never before experienced in this country.
What a thing for a leader to do.
But those who shout obscenities at Liberal politicians in public, or write vile emails to left-leaning journalists, are not without responsibility either.
A problem this urgent, and this complex, no doubt has many causal factors. One of which is that we have uncritically imported America’s hostile culture war.
The dynamic that I’m describing dates back, in part, to Trump’s election in 2016. Left-leaning North Americans viewed the norm-busting President as such an extreme existential threat that they convinced themselves that the standards of liberalism — free speech, open debate, viewpoint diversity — no longer made sense.
That, indeed, they needed to be thrown out. On both sides of the border.
Journalists took this line of reasoning and ran with it. As journalists, our old role — gathering facts, aiming for accuracy, neutrality, and balance, and dispassionately relaying what we discovered to the public — was seen as woefully inadequate to the task of this historic moment. And perhaps even immoral.
The New York Times announced this vibe shift in an opinion piece from Jim Rutenberg titled “Trump is Testing the Norms of Objectivity in Journalism.”
There are multiple problems with this approach. But here’s one glaring one: Guardrails exist for a reason. Rules of engagement exist for a reason. Journalistic standards exist for a reason. If you abandon them, you risk unintended consequences.
Like losing the trust of the public. Or incentivizing the other side to abolish norms too, further fuelling democracy’s death spiral.
I understand that many people are very angry, and that there are very real grievances that must be hashed out.
But we don’t want to live in a country where the spectre of violence haunts every interaction. And civil debate is what stands between us and the abyss.
We must return to civility. We must pull back from the brink.
I was reminded of all of this this week, watching a segment on The Agenda, on university mask and booster mandates.
This is an important, if contentious, topic. I commend Steve Paikin, his producer, and his team for tackling it.
I have been on this show in the past and I have much respect for its staff, who are dedicated to representing a range of viewpoints on topics that are often, at other outlets, considered too hot to handle.
Steve Paikin is an impressive and informed interviewer who asks tough questions in a fair and generous way. This takes skill and heart — particularly in the current climate.
All of this is why I found the segment below troubling.
The episode features a debate between an Ottawa family doctor (and school board candidate), Nili Kaplan-Myrth, a critical care doctor and acting medical officer of health in Ontario, Matt Strauss, and a Western University bioethicist, Maxwell Smith — all whom took different positions. And all of whom Steve Paikin challenged in different ways.
You can watch and decide for yourself, but my view is that Kaplan-Myrth disregarded the norms of respectful debate, which the other three were scrupulously adhering to.
After the taping, the situation escalated, with Kaplan-Myrth taking to Twitter to call out Steve Paikin, his show, and, apparently, his wife.
In the wake of the show, Kaplan-Myrth reported receiving antisemitic hate mail and violent threats. These threats should be investigated by police, and whoever is responsible should be held accountable.
We should all follow in The Agenda’s footsteps in denouncing such threats — unreservedly and unequivocally.
I strongly disagree with what Kaplan-Myrth said on the program. But I defend her right to express any view without fear of retribution.
Having said that, I must also say this: The kind of overheated rhetoric she’s been engaging in is destructive, and helps no one.
We must turn the temperature down. We must get back to dispassionate, evidence-based debate.
We must pull back from the brink.
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