Civility in Political Discussion


In honour of our mothers, who seem to spend a lot of their time trying to teach us to be polite to each other, today’s post is a call for more civil discourse on the Internet. 

It used to be a rule that politics and religion were not de rigueur topics for polite dinner table discussion. This was probably a good rule. Why? Because you discuss ideas. You can’t discuss beliefs. The whole point of a discussion is to come to agreement where possible and agree to disagree with respect where you can’t. The common error is to think that you can use logic to persuade people to change their beliefs: impossible, frustrating, often leading to anger.

During the Proportional Representation debate last summer, a conservative friend of mine argued vociferously for First Past the Post. But he ended the discussion with a hand on my shoulder and the comment that he disagreed with my ideas, but he was proud of me for taking a stand and doing something about it. 

I have ended many similar conversations with the agreement that no matter how we disagreed, what we were doing was democracy in action. Those were discussions.

And Then There Is Now

Lately I have heard several comments from my American friends that the “No politics at dinner” rule no longer applies. Sounds like a good thing, yes? As it happens, no. It seems that people from the two opposing parties don’t go to dinner with each other anymore. So talking politics becomes another echo chamber exercise, where you sit around and talk, but all you hear is a self-congratulatory repetition of your party’s propaganda. Which isn’t discussion either. And that’s both parties. 

But Canada is Above All That

Are we? Well, I have a couple of friends, people I have known and respected for many years, who are of a different political leaning from me. No problem. We still hold discussions on Facebook, usually disagreeing, but not always. 

However, recently I have received different responses from them, which saddens me. I have had my opinions on the rising cost of living denied because my lifestyle is funded by an indexed pension. In the first place, while I’m sure many of my readers know enough about me to guess my financial situation, it is common courtesy not to spread personal information of that sort around the Internet. But the more important point is that the moment you start judging the validity of a person’s argument in terms of the arguer’s personal situation, you stop discussing the topic at hand and start judging the person. At which time it stops being a discussion. (Note that this rule does not apply to politicians. By virtue of their occupation, their opinions are always suspected of bias.)

When I took issue with an inflammatory and inaccurate political cartoon another friend had shared, I was informed that this is a democracy, and all have the right to their own opinions. When I tried to explain that it wasn’ the opinion I disagreed with (as it happens the subject of the cartoon is not one of my favourite politicians, either) but the illogical and derogatory approach of the cartoon, the response was, “If you don’t like what I have to say, you can un-friend me.”

To which there is no possible response. You don’t just “unfriend” a friend of twenty-five years over the quality of a political cartoon. 

I Like Facebook

Believe it or not, I do. I have a lot of very bright Facebook friends who post thoughtful, silly, endearing, sometimes politically incorrect but usually entertaining posts. I do not unfriend people whose opinions differ from mine. I unfriend people who are boring. But I reserve the right to catch you up if you thoughtlessly share hateful or hurtful posts. I hold my Facebook friends to the same standards I would in face-to-face conversation.

So use your imagination. Next time you’re tempted to Share that nasty cartoon or flip out that derogatory response, see yourself sitting across the dinner table from your mother, and notice her look of shock and disappointment. Then decide whether you really want to spread that kind of garbage around. 

The Internet is a great venue for discussion and a great place to meet people with differing ideas. Let’s keep it that way.

Do it for your Mum.

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