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  • Terry Wigmore

How Did We Get Here: The Abandonment of Civil Discourse and the Pursuit of Self-Interest

Updated: Feb 22

The emergence of a politically motivated religious right rooted in the Bible-belt of the US, and in Conservative/Republican fund-raising organizations with money to throw around to influence both politics and the courts, has been a troubling trend. This movement has certain relevance to Canada and the West as a whole (Tucker Carlson will do an interview with Alberta's UCP Premier). It is the journey of faith falling to politicking, yielding the gospel of the New Testament to the social gospel of cultural battles, and packing up the Suffering Servant image of Jesus while unveiling the militancy of Evangelical Dogma in a strange brew of aggressive confrontation with liberal and institutional norms that have developed in the 20th and 21st centuries in Western democracies.

This is a reactionary trend. It is loud, confrontational, and hell-bent (irony noted) on overturning established progressive domestic and foreign policies, by electing officials to positions of public service in governments (local, regional and federal) as well as trying to impact school boards via parent groups (Moms4Liberty) and direct election of school board members, funding dissent and protest via the likes of Harlan Crow, Koch brothers, and the Murdochs in the US.

There is a strong thread of victimization and grievance at the core of these trends. This seems to be a reaction to feeling that culture has moved away from a Christian foundation to a more secular and liberal view. People who support this effort to recover what they believe is the abandonment of the biblical foundations of western democracies (and at this point I am only considering Canada and the US, specifically), seem to believe that Christianity was the founding principle in the formation of these democracies. I'm not sure that this is an accurate perception, especially in the US where the country was a refuge for those who were persecuted in Europe for their non-conformist beliefs. The case is less clear in Canada, where the emergence of British North America was closely aligned with the established Church of England.

Liberalism brought significant progress to democratic countries in the 19th and 20th centuries. It may be argued that it was the the teachings of the bible and Jesus' words, that brought these changes through growing social programs to support the marginalized of society. Policy-makers wrestled with questions of how to best promote a more compassionate, equal, and just society where the down-trodden are lifted up, and where human dignity is nurtured and protected, regardless of one's belief, colour, gender, orientation, or education.

It has been the goal of most democracies to include and assist as many citizens as possible, to create a Big-Tent political and social landscape in which more and more people could find refuge and representation, and reach a greater potential as individuals and ultimately create an even better society through collective participation. This is the heritage of the Enlightenment philosophers, perhaps even more than it is being a by-product of the Christian church. In fact, at some point (post World War II) progressive policies in democratic governments began to reach beyond the embrace of the church, as issues such as homosexuality, gay-marriage, women's rights, pay-equity, labour, race and diversity became more of a thorn for many Christian groups.

Embracing change is what keeps democracies vibrant and alive. Staying stuck because of a claim to narrow dogma is the death knell of a civilization. It is one sign of a culture that has passed its peak when it begins to fall apart from the stresses created by competing claims to know what is best for the country. Some claim to know what God wants and look back to the past, to some period of time when their beliefs where in a position of influence and esteemed. Some look to a future where even more change is demanded. This seems to be where we are now: a polarized society in which democracies appear to have become too progressive for some, and not progressive enough for others. If this was all just the stuff of a civilized debate in the theater of politics, I think this could have a positive outcome, and I am hopeful that this civil discourse may yet prevail.

However, my concern, in this tumultuous time, is that civility has been abandoned. Instead, attacks, verbal and physical, seem to be the order of the day. Intolerance, not tolerance seems to be on the rise. Protests are becoming more volatile, chants are becoming more angry and, at times, there is a palpable hatred being fostered in some quarters. Though this may be expected in some political arenas, it is arising even from religious groups now too. Hatred, in any guise, is hatred. Hatred, being taught in children, is indoctrination and it creates inter-generational hate. There will be no solution for political and social turmoil if HATE, not LOVE, becomes the operating principle and grounding for dissent. When hatred, expressed in "From The River to the Sea" chants at Pro-Palestinian rallies, to antisemitic attacks individuals and businesses, to increasing Islamophobic rhetoric, succeeds in "otherizing" parts of society, we are all in trouble, and the Big-Tent anchors are being pulled up. The result is predictable because it happens all the time in history: civil disruption and increasing violence leading to collapse of democracy itself.

To bring this back around to the ideas introduced at the top of this post, I am concerned by witnessing the January 6 attack on the US Congress, and I am concerned by watching the convoy descend upon the streets of Ottawa. However, I am more concerned that these major eruptions of social disruption were painted by some as "peaceful" or "a picnic". But we all saw and have the tapes. Just as, recently, we saw Russia's unprovoked attempt to annihilate Ukraine portrayed as an anti-Nazi "special operation" that Putin justified. But we saw the tapes ourselves. And we witnessed the attack on Israel and the horrific slaughter of Jews, and some Palestinians celebrated. We have the tapes.

Is social media to blame for spreading hate, or are we to blame for the media we choose to listen to and watch? What is an appropriate response when we feel our views are not heard? Is it ever violence or civil war (the rise of militias and growing numbers of mass-shootings in the US suggests this may be in the future - and in Gaza, is the same outcome is unfolding)? Where has social progress in democracies gone? Why are the voices of anger rising? Has civil discourse fallen to growing perceptions of victimization? Have we lost the interest and ability to resolve differences peacefully? Russia's invasion of Ukraine suggests this is true. Hamas' attack on Israel suggests this is true. The rise of authoritarian politicians around the world suggests this is true. There can be no civil discourse where hatred and violence are substituted for words.

How did we get to this place? Too much social media? Too many claims being made without evidence? Not enough people studying history? Too many self-interests all competing to write a narrative of victimization? We got here, not in one moment, but as a result of a series of choices made over a period of time. Some moments were created by design and intention (wars are seldom without purpose, even if misguided) while others were created unintentionally (shortsightedness through serving self-interests and losing compassion for others). The solution is not the abandonment of civility and discourse, choosing violent rhetoric and actions, but through civility and open-minded discourse, with eyes firmly fixed on helping others, and not finding creative ways to keep others from creating better lives for themselves.

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