Robust debate, not silencing those with whom we disagree, must be a shared, respected and celebrated goal, writes Ken Coates.
By Ken Coates, December 6, 2021
We live in angry, intolerant times. The ideological battles of yesteryear seem downright quaint compared to the swirling mess that currently passes for public debate. Politeness and passion have been replaced with intransigence and condemnation from all across the ideological and cultural spectrum.
Nuanced political debates are reduced to black and white standoffs, with combatants on all sides eager to jump on even the slightest deviation from perceived wisdom. Anti-vaxxers critique defenders of vaccines as though they are unrepentant fascists trying to control all lives. Extreme environmentalists treat those holding more moderate views like they are uncaring planet killers.
As prominent a figure as David Suzuki can cross the Rubicon of rhetoric to warn of pipeline bombings before offering a delayed and mild walk-back of his disagreeable ideas. However, the outright dismissal of environmentalists’ positions is just as one-sided and narrow-minded, blinding those who rebuff extreme views of the insights and learning that can be drawn from thoughtful and committed activists.
And so it goes. Groups try to suppress speakers perceived to be pro-Israel, as though finding any value in that remarkable society is cause for condemnation. Politicians remove statues of historical figures – John A. Macdonald in Canada, Thomas Jefferson in the United States – with remarkable lack of historical subtlety or understanding. Edgerton Ryerson, one of Canada’s most effective educational reformers, is condemned with venom but little historical balance.
To critics of the modern university, these once venerable institutions of knowledge and provocation have become indoctrination factories, an absurd charge that ignores the ideological diversity and openness of most classes and the diverse contributions of scholars. Yet those with fixed ideas and unwavering minds try to silence commentary and debate, as though holding views that deviate from “acceptable” opinions is an intellectual crime.
But, while there are many scary aspects to consider in this relentless oozing of prejudice and anti-intellectualism, we must also acknowledge some merits of the current mood.
The emergence of powerful voices – LGBTQ rights activists, radical environmentalists, Canadian libertarians (an oxymoron until recently), Indigenous advocates of autonomy, western sovereigntists, and others – has broadened, sharpened and improved public debate. The country is undoubtedly richer for having to confront and square a wider range of perspectives and ideas about its past, present and future.
Forty or more years ago, women’s rights advocates, Quebec separatists, Indigenous leaders or gay activists seeking to disrupt the country’s political status quo were condemned for views seen as too radical, too dangerous. But most people would agree Canada is much the better today for having to deal with their ideas and confront their resolve. The same will be true as Canadians come to terms with ideas and values projected by current activists.
What then is the nature of the challenge with our current political climate? The problem is neither the ideas nor the charged rhetoric, but simply the blatant determination to silence critics.
There is nothing wrong with criticizing the policies of John A. Macdonald, indeed the “new” ideas being advanced by activists have been well-known among historians for more than a generation. It is the deliberate and ahistorical assault on the first Prime Minister’s legacy, as opposed to his politics, that stands out. Likewise for discussions about residential schools, and the roles of Macdonald, Ryerson and others. Autobiographies by Indigenous leaders and seminal scholarly works by J.R. Miller, John Milloy and others outlined the main arguments decades ago. Only recently have selectively incomplete historical commentaries emerged as justification for destroying monuments, memorials, and memory.
A chill has descended over the academy, journalism, and public debate, a disdain for expertise or nuanced analysis. Think of the attacks on Jordan Peterson, or the derision of vaccination mandate opponents, climate change activists and anti-racism commentators. The fossil fuel industry, essential to Canada’s fiscal stability and social programs, endures relentless emotional condemnation that oversimplifies and distorts what is a complex scientific, economic and social issue.
Stifling contrarian opinions won’t stop people from holding them. If anything, it entrenches them. There is evidence that people who are shouted down for questioning the ideas of aggressive commentators simply retreat into in-group discussions and the anonymity of the Internet, strengthening antagonism but perverting open debate.
Challenging the status quo is essential to a strong and honest society. Contrarian thought is to be celebrated, not feared. But when people are cowed into silence and assailed simply for expressing different opinions, the nation’s political vitality is gutted. Finding fault with the “sacred cows” of history and politics is essential to intellectual and journalistic pursuit, and the essence of political change, but we have fallen into an era of intense nihilism that assails open thought. As a result, Canada’s foundations are attacked without alternate views being heard.
Working with those who hold conflicting views should not be polarizing; supressing ideas rather than discussing our differences simply punishes us all.
Life is more nuanced and politics more complicated that most people think. Reflex aggression toward contrarian views is dangerously anti-intellectual, even if founded in a sincere desire for social justice. More importantly, stifling debate and insisting on a single view of our world and history takes the country further away from solutions and a tolerance that is needed to move forward.
Robust debate, not silencing those with whom we disagree, must be a shared, respected and celebrated goal.
Ken Coates is a Distinguished Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, and a professor at the University of Saskatchewan where he is Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation