Democratic norms, respectful political discourse, and faith in institutions are fragile things.
This January we saw an attack on the very heart of democracy in the United States. This attack was not unsurprising; it was the natural conclusion of the divisiveness, polarization, conspiracy theories, and outright falsehoods that have permeated U.S. politics, especially during the last four years. The new U.S. president, Joe Biden, has a monumental task ahead of him in trying to repair the damage left by his predecessor.
The attack on the U.S. Capitol building was shocking, leaving a trail of death, destruction, and injury in its wake. Those images have since made me stop and reflect on our own politics and wonder about our own vulnerabilities to that type of violence. Canadians can often be smug about our system, especially in relation to what is happening south of the border, but we would be foolish to think we are immune from what happened on Jan. 6.
A brief look at comments on social media posts by any party leader in Canada will quickly disprove the myth that we are much different than our American neighbours. Supporters of every party are quick to demonize the supporters of another party and conversation quickly moves away from politics. Personal attacks replace policy criticisms, and there are more who are seeking a “gotcha” moment as a means with which to score quick points.
When we are no longer able to talk to each other about important issues in respectful and civil discourse, it allows those issues to fester, eroding our sense of community and of togetherness. While the freedom of opinion and expression is expressly guaranteed in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it is important to remember that it is subject to reasonable limits as can be justified by a free and democratic society.
The hatred and calls for violence that we see online will eventually manifest into real action if allowed grow and persist; I personally witnessed the extremist signs and speeches in front of Parliament in early 2019 during the Yellow Vest protests. This is a time when we as a country need to reflect on how we discuss politics and other issues of importance with our neighbours and families. We must learn from what we witnessed in the U.S. and commit to doing better.
I find the farewell message from former NDP Leader Jack Layton is even more profound in light of this month’s attack on the Capitol building: “My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So, let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”
Hopefully, that is something we can all commit to.