Make Politics Polite Again

Make Politics Polite Again

I used to consider myself a liberal, a lefty or a progressive but looking at how polarized politics has become in Canada, I don't identify with any of the political parties anymore. Leaders all around have lowered themselves to cheap shots. There is no substance, no solutions in their messages, just attacks. Canadians too, have become angrier and less civil in general, especially on social media, resulting in insults and harassment rather than constructive debate and ultimately collaboration. We’re divided and it’s dangerous. 

I have found that many of my most left leaning friends and colleagues have resorted to intolerance, cutting off ties to family without attempts to find common ground or even listening to the other’s worries and fears. They are exhibiting the exact same behavior they are condemning in others. And they feel justified in doing so because they have such a strong belief in their ideology. This is not helpful. 

To be honest, I don’t agree with many conservative leaning political views. However, I do believe that we all want the same things, secure access to water, food and shelter, healthcare and financial stability as well as opportunities for growth both for ourselves and our loved ones. This means we’ll be able to find some things in common. We’ll certainly differ in our solutions despite having similar goals. I believe we must start focusing on those common goals so we can work together as people in a democracy are supposed to do. 

We have become so polarized that political discourse has become a bloodbath where everyone is a loser. While we fight each other over the details, our healthcare system is collapsing, post secondary education is out of financial reach for more people, childcare costs are forcing more women to leave the workforce, runaway inflation is making access to healthy food and secure shelter harder to obtain and transportation is becoming more and more unaffordable. This is all happening while we navigate a worldwide pandemic and climate change disasters unfolding all around us. Not to mention a mental healthcare crisis and now social unrest. It’s no wonder that more and more people are avoiding discussing politics at all. Voter apathy is another growing problem. In fact, recent elections in Ontario show how voter apathy results in dismal voter participation. We give away our democratic rights when we stop paying attention. Disrespectful political discourse is the source of this problem.

What we see in the media appears to be an increase in Canadians identifying with the extreme ‘left’ or extreme ‘right’ but in reality, most are still considered ‘centrist’. “In simpler terms, it’s not that parties or voters have moved away from the middle, but that we have moved away from trying to find middle/common ground.” We’re not even trying anymore. “The space of empathy and willingness to understand is decreasing at an exponential pace, as “1 in 4 Canadians hate their political opponents.” The polarized group is nearly evenly split between the right and left sides of the Canadian political spectrum; 47 per cent are Conservative supporters, 21 per cent Liberals, 16 per cent NDP, eight per cent Green, four per cent Bloc Québécois, and four per cent support some other party.  Too many Canadians have given up following politics in Canada as well. This has led to an erosion in collective decision-making and the main cause of the breakdown of democracy that we are seeing happening all over our country right now. 

Social polarization is essentially the segregation of society into different groups. This happens when factors such as income disparity, unaffordable housing and job losses result in the differentiation of social groups usually from high-income to low-income. Trust in civic institutions and the media erodes, thus making citizens less willing to value public debate. In Canada, we are able to see affective polarization unfolding where Canadians are viewing opposing parties negatively. In our case, it's the centrist left (Liberals and NDP) vs the centrist right (Conservatives). The interesting thing to note here is that both the left and right parties are still quite centrist, meaning that core values are similar because they are both leaning to the centre. 

Currently, the pandemic has exacerbated the problem of polarization. How to deal with income disparity, vaccine mandates, drug addiction, immigration and climate change have become all or nothing battle grounds. We must address people's fears and insecurities if we’re going to create public policy that solves these problems. We need to show more kindness and really make efforts to listen to one another. Being passionate in politics is crucial, as is anger. But if we’re going to have constructive debate here in Canada we need to keep the discussion polite and respectful. The Sumara Blog offers a few ways we can keep political discourse on track. First they suggest to lead by example. When people see civility, they show civility (and they stay on-topic). Second, police your own side, respectfully calling out bad behavior, especially of those on your own political team. Third, remind us of what we share, encourage people to think about the identities that unite us (like pride in having a universal healthcare system).  “So, when it comes to polarization, it's not disagreeing that's the problem — it's being disagreeable about it.”

We need to keep our emotions in check, limit our defensive reactions and assess the political landscape with thoughtfulness. Of course disrespect and harassment should be condemned as in the recent encounter of our deputy prime minister visiting Alberta. But that’s not enough. It will never be enough. There is a real disparity happening in our country. There’s a growing dividing line between the rich and poor that those in power have allowed to fester and that disparity has to be addressed. “People with low social status are particularly likely to feel threatened when they are insulted and are particularly likely to retaliate with aggression.” I’m certainly not justifying violent behavior but rather exploring how we might address the source of these entitled actions. We already know that income disparities between the rich and the poor create all sorts of negative tension resulting in increased crime, drug addiction and mental health issues. I can only imagine that these types of incidents will increase if we don’t start solving these problems with concrete solutions. This is going to take tremendous political will from our leaders but also us. We must hold them accountable and keep them on track, not let them digress to name calling and empty promises. But we can’t do this if we pick sides and perpetuate hatred between us. 

For example, I can’t help but notice how fixated we have become on vaccination. I watch the righteous left accuse anti-vaxxers of being selfish and anti-vaxxers claim their freedoms are being taken away, meanwhile our healthcare system is being gutted. I am vaccinated myself and know that vaccines can work to prevent the spread of serious disease. It's unfortunate that COVID vaccines are not as effective as we had hoped or we're all the mercy of big Pharma to produce them. If Canada was still producing its own, I wonder if this would have played out differently. I'll admit, like many of my friends and family, when COVID vaccines first came available many of us were distrustful of them. We waited as long as possible to get them to see what the side effects might be. I know there is a lot of fear and misinformation circulating about vaccines, and I think leadership could have done a way better job of managing those concerns. I'm pro vaccine and I had my doubts. If you're already against, that's a lot of fear to try and ignore. 

Yet, it seems ludicrous to me to focus on this one issue and not on doing everything we can to ensure our healthcare system maintains universal public access with efficient, reliable service. I'd rather have a system that can help everyone, even the unvaccinated. I want a system that has enough funding it can prepare itself to handle a pandemic. But, the fact that we are preoccupied with fighting each other as our governments let the system crumble and privatize essential services, is disturbing. We need to set our differences aside, unite and fight together to restore our healthcare system to what used to be the pride of Canada. This is what our taxes should be paying for. You shouldn’t be angry about paying taxes but rather you should be angry that you have to pay extra money for essential medical services, that you have to wait hours in emergency, that you can’t even get a family doctor, that you have to make an appointment at a walk-in clinic and that your tax dollars aren't covering this stuff. We should be questioning where our tax dollars are being spent. We should be demanding that those dollars are fully funding the essential services that we all rely on. This is one public service that I believe every Canadian, regardless of political leanings, can agree is worth maintaining. We have got to stop fighting each other and work together to hold our leadership accountable. 

Countering hate and division requires a lot of effort. We are going to have to help each other recognize the narratives we are clinging to and shift the conversation away from becoming defensive when they are challenged. Instead, when we encounter opposition we should ask about the values, fears, and interests that affect each other most. Share personal stories about similar experiences with the issue in question and compare the solutions you wish to see implemented. You are very likely to find some common ground. This will foster trust and build relationships of respect. For example, in a conversation about access to healthy food, you could encourage people to discuss how the rising cost of food is affecting them. Is it causing financial insecurity, how does it influence their health, are they worried about it, what kind of public policy would help increase their access to healthy food. Politely discuss possible solutions. Look at the pros and cons of each one. Work on a compromise that meets the needs of the most and ask leadership to implement it. Try to avoid jumping to conclusions until everyone has had a chance to speak. React with kindness. This is how a true democracy should function. Call out bad behavior when you see it. If people don’t feel heard and validated they will just become defensive. We can’t work together when we don't feel heard. 

Politicians will do whatever the popular opinion demands them to do. If you don’t speak up they’ll never know. If you stay divided they won’t know either. They’ll just cater to the loudest speaker and when voter apathy becomes widespread the loudest demands come from the elite and not the citizens. It’s in your best interest to stay informed about politics. It’s also in your best interest to work collaboratively when you encounter opposing views.  Listen to all sides, be creative. You’ll be surprised what can be accomplished when you set your differences aside. Together, let’s make sure our leaders spend our tax dollars on us. And above all, let's encourage our leaders to work together and set a good example of polite political discourse for all of Canada. 

Next time you come across someone you really disagree with, make it your challenge to hear their side and find solutions that will convince them to change their mind. Share ideas. Brainstorm. And do it with kindness. You’d be amazed how open minded others become when they feel their concerns are being heard. 

Who knows, perhaps you’ll change your mind too.

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