Friday, January 21, 2011


If there is one major difference between other times in the past in which political expression was an "ugly" business, perhaps it lies in the technology of our modern speech.

Journalist Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times commented just recently that we live in an era which is saturated with communications of all sorts. Something which though it has resulted in radically democratizing speech, has also lifted away the veil of restraint as well as previous standards of responsibility.

He explains that in the not too distant past, political rhetoric was somewhat buffered by the constraints of time and distance. But since the development of 24 hour television news in the latter half of the last century, and ever more so with the advent of "new" media; when the political discourse turns ugly it seems to be all around us...because it is. To quote Rutten: "The Internet has been a great enabler of incivility, not only because it so easily allows the anonymous or pseudonymous expression of the most violent or hurtful opinions, but because it reinforces the illusion of a virtual world in which there is nothing but speech."

There are enormous advantages to the technology which is changing the playing field of North American politics, but in this new environment the need for civility and restraint are being watered-down and may be darn close to elimination. These days it seems that the heated rhetoric and bitter divisive accusations no longer have to account for the actual consequences of a real (rather than virtual) world.

Sadly, it's little wonder that at a time when it may be most essential, politics looks very much like a business in decline as Maclean's columnist Andrew Coyne points-out in a recent post: "The figures are stark...voter turn-out in recent elections has hovered around the 60 per cent mark." Coyne notes that a generation ago the winning party in an election, Conservative or Liberal, could consistently persuade 30% or more of eligible voters for their support. In recent elections that's fallen to 22 or 23 per cent for the "winning" party. In the election of 2008 the total share of eligible electors who voted Liberal was 15%.

Any other business or industry experiencing such a catastrophic decline Coyne says would be turning itself inside-out trying to figure out what it's doing wrong. With the threat of a national election looming yet once more, it seems the best Canada's two mainstream national parties can muster is instead increasingly destructive negative advertising which as one pundit put it are..."so vicious they actually give attack adds a bad name." - The pundit by the way is Gerry Nicholls, an Ottawa consultant who from 1998 to 2002 was Stephen Harper's Vice-President when the Prime Minister led the "National Citizens' Coalition." - To be blunt Nicholls says..."they are nothing but mean-spirited, personal attacks that go way beyond the pale."

The problem with politics in which every question, issue, situation, mannerism and motive is framed in trite, abusive, angry and negative values is that it makes compromise impossible. Debate in politics demands respect and civility. When important relevant issues essential to the nation's future are worked-up into a virtual vitriolic blood-drenched confrontation; understanding and compromise become unattainable.

Instant information may be changing the world. But it is the "high road" of ennobling and balanced political rhetoric which will earn respect and resolve impasse. Regardless of how we communicate now or into the future, Canadians must demand and settle for no less than wise, respectful and humane discourse of their politicians and leaders.

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