In James Hoggan’s book I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: the Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean it Up, he suggests that one of our most pressing problems is “the pollution of the public square, where a smog of propaganda, adversarial rhetoric, and polarization is stifling discussion and debate, creating resistance to change, and thwarting our ability to solve our collective problems.” If you were anywhere other than under a rock this past federal election you know exactly what he’s talking about.
Hoggan interviewed thinkers from across the globe in order to gain perspective. He talked to Noam Chomsky, Thich Nhat Hanh, and the Dalai Lama among others, and he collected their thoughts in one enlightening volume published in 2016 (available on our shelves at 302.2). In 2017 he came through Nelson as part of a speaking tour and addressed a packed house at the Nelson United Church.
Of course the respectfully listening audience was predisposed to civil discourse, and yet heard some surprising takes on this timely topic. I took notes, bought the book, and applied its lens to our municipal election last fall and to our recent federal election. And I heard more of “I’m right and you’re an idiot” through the course of those two events — from electors and candidates, both — than I’d have wished.
I’d like to think we are a little kinder when it comes to local politics, yet Donna Macdonald, who served 19 years on Nelson city council, talked about the need to “combat miserablism” in her memoir Surviving City Hall. She talks about all the places where boundaries are crossed — including 2 a.m. calls from disgruntled citizens — and she has good advice for anyone running for elections and those who elect them: listen to one another.
We are less kind in federal elections, when we feel a distance from our “targets,” which unfortunately gives some folks license to verbally abuse candidates (and the candidates to abuse their rivals). A current case in point is the threats and misogynistic graffiti aimed at Catherine McKenna, who was environment minister during the Liberals’ last term of office.
This state of events could, in part, be spillover from the U.S. climate of toxic discourse, but also the fallout of social media anonymity. In the book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle (302.231), the author posits that when we turn to our devices instead of one another, the cost is loss of empathy.
There’s an event coming up at the library that’s set to test our civility, and I hope we can hold ourselves to a high standard — something more like: “this is what I think; what do you think?”
On Thursday, Nov. 21 at 7 p.m. Nelson at Its Best and the Nelson Public Library present a follow-up to last year’s “candi-dating” event, in which voters were invited to sit down with municipal candidates for illuminating micro-conversations. Council-dating: Checking In, One Year Later is an opportunity to check in with Nelson city council to see how the first year of office has gone.
This kind of event invites civility, encourages listening, and is founded on respect. It recognizes the working relationship between our elected representatives and ourselves. There will be “speed-dating” conversations as well as a chance to hear from councillors as they respond to audience questions. The evening includes an overview of the city’s strategic planning process.
Participants can write congratulatory or critical “apples” and “onions” on sticky notes, messages that council can take for feedback information — keeping in mind the inherent gentleness of these fruits and vegetables. Because at the end of the day we all need a good diet of civility.
Anne DeGrace is the adult services co-ordinator at the Nelson Public Library. Check This Out runs every other week.