It’s been a consistent theme this year, that whole discourse thing. I’ve spent a lot of time wanking on about the importance of raising the conversation, of critical thought, of engagement. I’ve tried, with limited success, to be clear about the underlying reasons; the words we use to communicate with one another, to ascribe value to ideas, to analyze, are the most basic currency of democratic citizenship.
And it’s for that reason that I keep harping on about the meanings of words, and in what may be a futile course of self-delusion, obsessing about reclaiming genuine principled conservatism. There’s no terrific insight in observing that part of the contemporary right’s success is predicated on stripping words of their meanings and repurposing them for its own ends. One of the most important tasks for us, therefore, is in safeguarding words and their definitions; we can’t have productive debates or a meaningful civic life if the language is debased and subverted in the service of some anti-social agenda.
That’s why the quality of the conversation is fundamental. At the beginning of the year, I touched on one of the most persistent and troubling challenges to that: ignore the trolls, or engage?
I don’t have a definitive answer yet, and I’m not sure I ever will. I’d be less than honest, however, if I didn’t admit that the needle has swung both ways. Over the last couple of months or so, I’ve come to think that public discourse might be best served by marginalizing and consigning to irrelevance those who seek to poison it.
I can’t say for certain how long that resolve’s going to last, however, because there’s also an argument to be made for standing up to the purveyors of hatred, division, ignorance, and bullshit. How is the public good served by allowing them to spew their garbage unchallenged? Isn’t it risking the possibility that the Big Lie will come to dominate the conversation? Not like we haven’t seen that happen before. Just look at the staying power of vapid memes like “ethical oil” or “right to work.”
Moreover, for the conspiracy-minded among us, it’s not hard to draw the lines between that and the possibility that there’s a deeper purpose being served: misdirection. Distraction. The Shiny Object. Never mind the consistent abuses of power from Ottawa to Washington to New York to Toronto, or the steady whittling away of our privacy and civil liberties — those damn public-sector unions and special-interest groups are Living It Up On Our Tax Dollars! Justin Bieber! Royal babies! Muslims! Hot lipstick colours this season! We’re all familiar with the formulae, and it doesn’t take much to discern whose agenda is being served thereby.
So yes, one has to recognize that there’s value in thoughtful and ethical engagement, in the manner of John Noble’s civil and well-reasoned response to one of the corporate media’s worst channellers of untrammelled id. But it’s not as if the “writer” in question is going to stop the flood of verbal vomit; clearly, someone thinks it sells papers or boosts page views, and it also helps enable the Fords, Bushes and Hudaks of the world. And it doesn’t say much for us or the state of our public discourse when we have to spend so much time and energy responding to and debunking this kind of crap.
From here, it’s back to the larger question. Yes, there’s value in correcting the record. At some point, however, we have to stop throwing good effort after bad. (Once again, I’m reminded of Bill Maher’s comparison of right-wing gasbags and 14-year-old boys. Step 1, be a giant dick. Step 2, there is no step 2.) The poo-flingers are going to continue doing what they’re doing as long as someone figures it’s profitable. Let ’em squeal. They’re just preaching to the knuckle-draggers, enabling the misdirection, and celebrating belligerent ignorance. It’s got nothing to do with civic engagement, citizenship, or critical thinking.
And bluntly, it’s those three Cs which are, ultimately, a far greater threat to the current order — the neoliberals, the corporate agenda, the “free trade” crusade. Would Stephen Harper have such an easy time selling us to Beijing if he had to contend with an engaged, skeptical citizenry? Is it a coincidence that anything challenging the established narrative is automatically suspect and seen as a threat? Just count off the manufactured narratives: Foreign radicals hijacking our regulatory processes. Climate change is an elitist left-wing conspiracy. Special-interest groups. Anti-semites.
Combine that with the FBI functioning as the de facto private security arm of the banks during Occupy Wall Street, and the wholesale corporate colonization of the apparatus of repression and control, and one sees the coercive measures being deployed in defence of privilege. Then recall the way the Occupy activists were demeaned and demonized. Is it a coincidence that the Idle No More movement is being subjected to the same kind of smearing?
I don’t have an easy answer. There are years of momentum and countless resources behind these unhappy and destructive currents, and keeping people misinformed and distracted is a big part of the strategy. Ultimately, it’s up to each of us, individually and collectively, to base our resistance on our own ethical compasses.
Traditional, principled conservatism.
Thoughtful, respectful engagement.
In my naiveté, I continue to believe that’s where the answer lies. It’s someplace the trolls will never go. It’s never as easy as retreating into cliché, laziness, name-calling and shallow disengagement, but that’s all they’ve got. Genuine citizenship demands more, but ultimately the payoff is incomparably greater.
To 2013, then, and to raising the conversation.
- Ignore the trolls, or engage? Mudwrestling with pigs and other dilemmas for 2012 | #cdnpoli
- Ford or no Ford, let’s reclaim the conversation | #TOpoli #onpoli #cdnpoli
- Politics, decency, and finding common ground: the restoration of civility | #TOpoli #cdnpoli
- Robert Reich (We the People, and the N
ew American Civil War)
- Global Toronto | Union influence on Ontario elections is ‘dangerous,’ Hudak says