The Canadian Imagination

What it means to be Canadian; examining and reworking Canada as a nation.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The politics of emotion

Many years ago, we had a bit of fun in an upper year English literature class about censorship by holding a mock debate between those who abhorred Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses and those who believed in absolute freedom of speech. In many cases, we were not arguing our own side of the issue. For us, the point of the exercise was to discover the motivations, beliefs, and arguments on both sides of the issue, not to prove who was right and who was wrong.

Almost immediately, we learned that the issue was not nearly as black and white as it seemed. Different people found vastly different reasons for supporting or opposing. To our surprise, not one but two arguments turned out to be the most polarising. We expected the question of shirk (blasphemy) to be absolutist: although there was some difference of opinion as to whether, as a declared atheist since attaining the age of reason, Rushdie was in fact subject to shirk.

Curiously, the argument which turned out to be the most polarising of all was in sole support of free speech. It admitted of no shades of gray. Either one supported free speech in all its forms, or one opposed free speech. There could be no middle ground.

Possibly as a consequence: we found that the calmer and more rational every other argument, the more emotional became the argument in favour of absolute free speech. By the end of the exercise, every single person who was arguing in favour of some degree of restraint was discussing the issue in a calm, level tone -- and some had drifted over to that side in spite of themselves, very nearly in sheer self defence against the increasingly vehement stance of those supporting absolute free speech. A few of us began to wonder which one was the religious argument.

When watching the leaders' debate tonight -- or what passes for a debate -- I was struck by the sharp differences in delivery: Stephen Harper and Gilles Duceppe in moderate, level tones, Michael Ignatieff and Jack Layton with strong emotion.

Some will see the moderate, level tone as a sign of Harper's willingness to convince others to a rational path. Others will notice that what was said in that calm tone had not itself conceded a thing.

Some will see the raised emotions as a sign of Ignatieff's ego speaking, or possibly his desperation. Others may read him as genuine.

Yet Ignatieff and Layton are also those most frequently stymied by the current methods of Stephen Harper's Conservative government. Duceppe knows that the Bloc will never hold power, but in this government, the Bloc frequently held the balance of power. Even the Bloc's very existence forces every would-be government to promise more to Qu├ębec than they would otherwise. Who wants to risk losing so many seats?

And Harper, of course, already has power, the most elegant type of power: the freedom to take credit for success and to blame failure on not having even more power.

This much is certain: there is no will here to compromise, by anyone. There is only the will to a majority government (by the Liberals and Conservatives) or to a minority government (by the Bloc and NDP). The point is not to run a working compromise. The point is for each to achieve his own agenda without compromise. Not one of these leaders is going to be able to work together with the others for long.

Harper, of course, knows this. Being currently so close a majority that he can taste it, he is open about this -- from the Conservative perspective -- and thereby hopes to sway enough voters to his side to make his the majority which does not have to compromise. Carefully left unsaid is that a Liberal majority would also effectively accomplish a working parliament which would not be shackled by compromise.

(It occurs to me to wonder whether emotion in our class debate would have been reversed, had the religious fatwa not already been issued and set in stone, with free speech seen to be under threat. It is an easy thing to remain calm when one's primary objective has already been reached and is unassailable.)

Who won? I am not even certain that is a valid question. As in the extreme positions of our classroom debate so long ago, each leader was engaged in his own separate debate: which only rarely intersected with the others at all. Although each leader aimed to sway voters to their side, those arguments will never sway a voter not already poised to believe.

Perhaps an election result of a similarly hung parliament should be read, not as failure by the voters to elect a working parliament, but as a refusal to mandate any of the current leaders.

Prior to this series of parliaments, the last minority parliament which could truly be said to be functioning was that of Lester B. Pearson: which brought in more substantial legislation over a shorter period of time than all of Harper's governments put together. It even managed a unanimous vote to bring in a new Canadian flag: but only by first trashing Pearson's own personal preference and bringing in an entirely new option, one on which the entire House could compromise.

Somehow, I rather doubt any of the current leaders would be willing to do the same.

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