Welcome to the two minute hate: Canada-style

“As for politics, well, it all seemed reasonable enough. When the Conservatives got in anywhere, [Judge] Pepperleigh laughed and enjoyed it, simply because it does one good to see a straight, fine, honest fight where the best man wins. When a Liberal got in, it made him mad, and he said so,–not, mind you; from any political bias, for his office forbid it,–but simply because one can’t bear to see the country go absolutely to the devil.”
― Stephen Leacock, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town

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References to certain features of George Orwell’s 1984 are common; I have used them in my own musings on more than one occasion. Today I’m thinking about the “two-minute hate”, that detail in Orwell’s novel where members of the party are invited to watch a two-minute video on their enemies and summon up as much vitriol as they can and direct it at the screen. As with so many of the features of the book, it might seem improbable in its details but, in its observations re emerging trends in politics, I’m not sure how far off the mark it really is.

I’m referencing the response I tend to hear from any number of friends when the subject of our current Prime Minister comes up. At the mere mention of his name, or even a general reference to the federal government, I’m liable to hear “I hate Harper” as a preface to whatever is to follow. Chances are the face twists into a frown and a certain real passion is evident as a brief elaboration on all that is wrong with Steve follows. Mind you, I’ve learned not to ask for details. The response seems to be largely visceral, a generalized abhorrence not necessarily connected to anything specific; rather, it’s a felt sense of “something wrong”, that some fundamental core principle at the heart of Canadian democracy is being violated constantly. “Dictator” seems to be a favourite word when summarizing the overall impression of the man himself.

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This bothers me, not because I’m a defender of Stephen Harper and his government, necessarily, but more for what it says about the regard we have for the system in which Stephen Harper operates. If you’ve followed my recent blogs regarding the niqab and Bill C-51, you would know that I’m not some right-wing conservative ideologue trumpeting the majestic achievements of our current federal government. At the same time, I am appalled at the readiness with which otherwise rational people suggest that Canada is on the verge of descending into a morass of failed democracy, a disenfranchised population, and a place where fundamental freedoms are sacrificed on an altar dedicated to the establishment of a secret police equal to those found, either currently or previously, in various authoritarian regimes.

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The thing is, I can’t pretend that I’m surprised. I started this blog to counter what I see as the rampant oversimplification of a cornucopia of complex issues in the world today. The “us vs them” mentality – and a very stark version of it – dominates public debate (or the reporting of it, at the very least) whether it is environmentalists vs pipeline builders and supporters of hydraulic fracturing, liberals vs conservatives, criminals vs law-abiding citizens, pro-life vs. pro-choice, etc. I’m sure you could add a few more if you wanted to. In almost every case, the rhetoric is heated and the arguments tend to the “my way or the highway” version of debate which, to my mind, really isn’t debate at all.

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But real debate requires thought and careful consideration and we are not designed for that these days. When complex events are boiled down to the 2-minute newscast or, even more, the “tweet” that is delivered with breathtaking immediacy, a mentality takes hold that, I suspect, is unavoidable. We are buried in an avalanche of unfiltered information. Is it any wonder that, out of a desire to be heard above the noise, those with a message would feel compelled to boil it down to the memorable phrase, regardless of how much such a phrase might fail to represent the nuances of a position/theme/subject? We live in an age of slogans and acronyms, anything that will stick in the mind and deliver the “essence” of whatever we are being asked to consider.

I believe this is poisonous. When we seek to understand the often-rancorous proceedings of the House of Commons, the NB legislature or, for the most appalling example, the United States Congress, we need some introspection. The political class in Canada – a country where our sitting Prime Minister could be turfed this year and would, without question, bow graciously and congratulate the inheritor of the position – behaves as it does because we have made it that way. Having sat as an MLA not so long ago, I can’t help but ask: when your awareness of the business of government is garnered largely from the 2 minute clip of question period, a feature which lasts one half hour out of a six to eight hour legislative day, how informed are you? Also, if those participating in Question Period know that this “proceeding” has the greatest potential for shaping people’s opinions, is it any wonder they would seek to use it for greatest advantage?

Stephen Harper is participating in Canada’s political sideshow, one that people mistake for the actual business of government. Go ahead and disagree with the policies and laws that his government has instituted. Even better would be speaking up and critiquing those laws and policies, but without the stridency that has become the hallmark of so much of what we see and hear. And finally, if you look beyond the “show” that is conducted and the extremes of positioning that result, please recognize that Canada is a remarkable country that is, by and large, governed better than or, at least as well as, any other country in the world.

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A great deal of hand-wringing occurs when it comes to voter turnout in the country, especially when it comes to the young. Ask yourself: how attractive can voting be when the loudest voices consistently condemn our political system as broken, as undemocratic, and your vote as a waste of time because nothing changes? I’d like to hear some voices raised celebrating a system that is, certainly, imperfect but that has, nevertheless, given us 200 years free of war within our own borders, a standard of living surpassed by few and better than 80% of the rest of the world, and a culture that is largely tolerant, compassionate and welcoming of all. In the meantime, it’s time to cancel the two-minute hate, no matter who is the target. Today it’s Stephen Harper. Next? Get in line.

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