2012: The Year of Conversing Dangerously

Mashup

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.

Critical thought.

Citizenship.

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.

(Acknowledgements: Blogging. What is there to say? Special thanks to Daren Foster, Trish Hennessy, Jude MacDonald and Edward Keenan for inspiration, moral courage and curmudgeonliness.)

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4 thoughts on “2012: The Year of Conversing Dangerously

  1. An outstanding post, Sol. You raise issues that many of us struggle with on a daily basis. While I do think far too much attention is paid to the muckrakers, racists and misanthropes who troll the comment pages on news sites (one of the main reasons I don’t read them very often anymore), I try to make it a practice on my own blog to deal with commentators who fall into any of those categoriess with restraint, simply because I have come to realize that sniping back serves little purpose. And of course for those who make a sincere attempt to disagree with me with reason and facts, I treat with the utmost respect, open to the very real possibility that I can learn something from them.I guess our job as progressive bloggers is to keep up the effort to inform people and encourage them to acquire the tools with which they can become critical thinkers and evaluators of what passes for ‘the truth’ these days in the mainstream media. Probably a Sisyphean task, but one which I don’t think we have any choice but to engage in.All the best in 2013, and keep up your excellent work!

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  2. You didn’t appear to be a model of conversational promotion when you tweeted this to me in 2012:@Quillspiller So predictable. Here’s the thing, Concern Troll: The debate’s already happened. Your side lost. Rest of the world’s moved on.Quite the opposite, in fact.

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  3. Pingback: Reviving the #PublicGood, part 2: Winning back the words | #TOpoli #onpoli | Pressed by Sol Chrom

  4. Pingback: ‘Free trade,’ the weight of history, and the illusion of democracy | #cdnpoli #elxn42 #TPP | Pressed by Sol Chrom

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