The race is tight, the stakes are high, and the rhetoric is heating up. With BC’s provincial election officially upon us, here is my plea (from my editorial in the Spring 2017 issue of the Spin) for candidates and citizens alike to bring civility to the election process.
I’m not a worrier by nature; I tend to be an optimist. But lately, I’ve started to worry more and more about, well, us. And by us, I mean society.
With a provincial election looming in May, it is society to which I am addressing this appeal for the return of civility to our democratic processes. In recent years, truth has become less precious, and “alternative facts” (lies or deliberately irresponsible misrepresentations of truth) have become increasingly influential. Today, everything has to be presented in extremes just to get our attention, and respectful exchange of ideas and contrary viewpoints has been replaced by highly personal attacks that incite hate, shame, division, and fear.
All of this is serving to undermine civil society. Our rich diversity of opinions, ideas, cultures, and abilities is no longer being celebrated and harnessed for its strength; instead, it is being used as an excuse for cowardly attacks and division.
Governing a democracy is a tricky business. There is always a delicate balance between representing the best interests of society versus those of individuals, and between addressing the needs of the people and the money available to meet those needs. These are not easy equations to balance and different political ideologies take different approaches to them. As a result, government decisions rarely please everyone. This is as it has always been and likely always will be.
What is different in the current era is the way that many of us are expressing our displeasure—not just with government decisions, but also with those elected to represent us. Personal, vitriolic, and unrestrained attacks on politicians are being launched by constituents and interest groups, primarily through social media. British Columbians with disabilities and formal and informal disability advocacy groups are very much amongst the offenders.
This isn’t to say that their views are wrong—there’s a lot that requires improvement in BC when it comes to disability supports, accessibility and inclusion. What I take issue with is the way some people and groups are choosing to express their concerns—very personal, often inaccurate, hateful and even threatening attacks on individual politicians that often transgress into their personal lives. Politicians often don’t do themselves any favours, as they increasingly use highly charged, often abusive rhetoric, innuendo, and “alternative facts” to get attention or to score cheap political points. The media feeds off it all.
Why is all of this important? Because when we aren’t constructive and respectful, we can create more barriers than we’re trying to remove. After all, it’s hard to fight for respect when being disrespectful. If we want to move disability issues forward and promote a society that is accessible and inclusive, we require that society to be civil. We require it to be open to new ideas and be willing to change attitudes and stereotypes. We require it to listen and be reflective. We require it to challenge what we think is wrong and unjust but to do so in a constructive way that is respectful of people, encourages the progressive removal of barriers, and promotes greater inclusion.
It’s okay to disagree with government. In fact, it can be healthy—disagreement is often at the heart of progress. This is true for science, which teaches us to be objectively critical and to challenge theories and hypotheses for which there may not yet be enough evidence to support. Mostly this happens in a way that isn’t personal and does not devolve into deeply offensive hate talk or threats of personal harm. Instead, scientists embrace constructive criticism as a way to improve their work and ensure knowledge and innovation progresses in a competitive yet collegial environment. In other words, scientific progress depends on a civil academic society.
Politicians, the media, interest groups, ordinary citizens— we are all causes of an increasingly uncivil society. As with most elections these days, the upcoming provincial election is sure to get personal and nasty. So instead of being the cause, let’s turn the tide and be the cure.