Challenging the enablers of a hostile discourse
This week the Trudeau government added the Proud Boys and three other extreme right-wing groups to its list of terrorist organizations. The decision comes days after a unanimous House of Commons vote in favour of such a move, put forward by the NDP.
The decision also coincides with a join statement from civil society leaders under the banner of Civil Dialogue, which was supported by PeaceQuest. The project organizer, Christopher Holcroft, is himself a frequent target of far-right groups because of his work promoting gun control.
What follows is his reflection on recent event in the United States, and here in Canada.
Challenging the enablers of a hostile discourse
Among the many cautionary tales from America recently is this: a discourse of dishonesty and disrespect leads to chaos and cruelty.
Canada, a fundamentally serene country, is at risk of complacently following a similar path.
Our country may be the proverbial smaller pond, but we too have an ecosystem of ignorance and intolerance that is breeding online and threatening the country. Former Attorney General Allan Rock recently warned of the similarities to, and consequences of, a Donald Trump-style discourse in Canada through “the general coarsening of the language used in public debate (and) the frightening aggressiveness on social media”. I can attest to this vileness having been likened to a Nazi propagandist by the gun lobby for my advocacy work.
Desirable though it may be to dismiss these voices as simple “trolls”, it would also be naïve.
It is critical that leaders and citizens with platforms of credibility sideline the worst of online rhetoric. Instead, too many have become, through wilfulness or neglect, enablers in bringing that brand of discourse mainstream.
Once serious publications are now repeating the paranoia of a government “takeover” and warning of a “clear and present” danger to Canadian democracy. In his speech at the federal Conservative convention, outgoing leader Andrew Scheer urged party members to embrace alt-right news sources – the same sites that accused Canada’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Theresa Tam, of “fealty to a corrupt organization”, and declared the misogynistic slur scrawled on the constituency office of Cabinet Minister Catherine McKenna to be just an “opinion…shared by many Canadians”.
As academic Yascha Mounk makes clear in The People vs. Democracy, such language is a precursor to authoritarian powers and the undermining of individual rights.
Canada’s struggles with civility pre-date Donald Trump and our experience with the transmission of dangerous rhetoric to violent acts is not new either – see Toronto’s Christie Pitts riot attacking Jews in 1933, the October Crisis in Montreal in 1970, and the Quebec City Mosque shooting in 2017.
Nor are the threats to our discourse detached from the imperfections of our democracy, the injustices in our society, or the uncertainties created by the pandemic and climate change.
Yet the communication tools available to bad actors have never been more sophisticated, and making people feel good about their anger is an increasingly successful political strategy.
Take the debate that followed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent comments on free speech and civility. However pedantic, the political and punditry outrage was palpable.
Sadly, no such outrage accompanied an attack by the Canadian Taxpayer Federation on the value of public school teachers. That missive arrived just as classrooms were re-opening and governments and parents were asking teachers to educate our children while keeping them safe from the COVID-19 virus.
The dangers of exacerbating political tensions while weakening social cohesion is part of the lesson from America.
Proactively, there are policy responses that our governments can take now, from holding social media companies responsible for the content published on their platforms to investing in our schools and institutions as a bulwark against hate and misinformation.
Canadians can act directly by demanding a discourse worthy of an engaged citizenry and rejecting the enablers of division. In fact, some already are, see Civil Dialogue.
As worrisome as this moment is, I am of the belief that we can reconnect to the most persistent and hopeful strains of the Canadian character. Our country can still be, in the words of philosopher John Ralston Saul, the ever-widening circle of the Métis tradition.
Like many countries around the world, Canada is in a battle between ignorance and intelligence, selfishness and kindness, intolerance and openness. It is vital that we win.
Christopher Holcroft is a Montreal-based writer and Principal of Empower Consulting – firstname.lastname@example.org.