In an era of anonymous noise, what hope is there for real public discourse?
If you had to pick a word of the year for 2017, “Boondoggle” would surely make the shortlist. “Boondoggle” was seemingly attracted to every tongue and attached to everything above ground. Companies and construction projects were boondoggles, the weather and roads were boondoggles, and even people were called boondoggles. Premiers past and present, CEOs of public companies past and present, all slinging their favourite witty bon mots.
Fast forward to the end of the G7 summit last month, in La Malbaie, Charlevoix, Quebec. The American President would insult our Prime Minister for being “very dishonest and weak.” The humour not lost on anyone pertained to the fact that the insult of weakness was delivered via Twitter while the American President was leaving our country.
More insults followed, a top American government aide said on TV that our Prime Minister deserved “a special place in hell.” And what did our Prime Minister do to warrant eternal damnation, you ask? He said that “Canadians will not be pushed around.” The nerve of that guy. Note the distance in all of these interactions. This is an environment where reason goes to die.
Distance removes accountability, and the mask of anonymity, whether real or perceived, dumps toxicity into public life. Oscar Wilde wrote, “Give a man a mask and he’ll tell you the truth.” If he were alive today I’m sure he would add; but since most people have no truths to tell, they’ll be hateful instead.
Insults in politics are, of course, nothing new. The epidemic proportions of bile at every level of public life, however, is very new and here’s why you should care. This constant barrage of loathsome vitriol is by no means confined to politics but is finding its way into all of our daily interactions, from our schools and our work places to how we treat one another passing in the street.
I can’t remember ever witnessing anyone yelling abuse from a car at someone walking down the street growing up, and now I see it happen at least once a month. That’s a sickness which is played out in every which way. At the time of writing this column a sad example was being exposed within the ranks of the Ottawa Senators, where a disturbing campaign of mental torture was being visited upon one player’s wife by one of the other player’s fiancée.
Denials have been made and it is still unproven who was responsible but whoever it was went so far as to use the death of their infant child to cause them emotional pain, unrelentingly for well over a year. It was all done at a distance, and anonymously of course. This was an extreme case, but not unique, and exposes a real need for healthier interactions.
Healthy public discourse creates room for new ideas, progressive policies, solutions to shared problems, and previously unrealized innovations. In short, good public forums allow for growth. What we increasingly have is a hateful corruption of that public sphere and the mental space which would allow ideas to meet is now filled with emotional daggers and societal atrophy.
Newfoundland and Labrador will face significant challenges in the coming decade and we will need every scrap of public forum just to avoid the wildfire. We desperately need to leave the boondoggles and easy insults of this world in the past. We need to work to allow ideas to meet.
If not, if we allow disembodied proto-speak and craven amoebic reactions to dominate public life, we have to wonder what possibilities for understanding would remain, and how we could possibly meet the challenges yet to come.