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Caroline Elliott: Let’s harness dissent, not hide it

Commentary

Writing about America in the early nineteenth century, French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville might easily have been characterizing public discourse today.

Tocqueville was observing an era of turbulent change, provocative pamphlets and raucous in-person debates, nearly 200 years before social media and cancel culture emerged as features of our own political conversations.  

He observed a “formidable circle” drawn around thought: “Inside those limits,” he wrote, “the writer is free; but unhappiness awaits him if he dares to leave them… for those who blame him express themselves openly, and those who think like him, without having his courage, keep silent and move away.”

Today, as liberal democracies all over the world grapple with issues related to the limits of tolerance, the (un)acceptability of offensive, insensitive and extreme perspectives, and the bounds of free speech, Tocqueville’s words are perhaps even more apt today than they were nearly two centuries ago.  

Recent polling by Public Square and Maru/Blue shows about half of Canadians believe radical ideas should be censored for the public good. A similar proportion believe those who express offensive ideas should lose their jobs. 

With such views commonplace across western societies, the “solution” to disagreement too often involves the pursuit — or imposition — of a kind of moral consensus that banishes contrary or marginal perspectives in the name of a tamer, tidier ‘truth.’

This process usually involves setting boundaries on the freedom of expression, through the de-platforming of those who use social media to share controversial views, the legislation of anti-hate speech laws, and the general shaming and punishment of those who voice opinions deemed at odds with received wisdom. 

Extinguishing unacceptable perspectives inevitably leads to what John Stuart Mill called the ‘tyranny of the prevailing opinion.’

As Tocqueville put it, the dissenter ultimately yields, “he finally bends under the effort of each day and returns to silence as if he felt remorse for having spoken the truth.”

With uncooperative views effectively banned from polite public discourse (not eliminated, of course, just tucked conveniently out of sight), the idea seems to be that the more reasonable among us can collectively participate in acceptable discussions within emotionally safe bounds. 

Views that fit within these confines are considered legitimate; those that do not, are not. Today, as in America in the early 1800s, this narrow approach sits uncomfortably with society’s inherently pluralistic nature.

It ignores the fact that disagreement, even on deeply moral grounds, is a fundamental and integral part of our political and social life. It is an ineradicable product of the diversity of cultures, religions, values, and experiences that shape us as individuals and citizens. 

Extinguishing “unacceptable” perspectives is not only futile but harmful, inevitably leading to what John Stuart Mill called the “tyranny of the prevailing opinion.”

The second we start drawing lines around acceptable thought, the whole exercise of free expression is at risk. In the absence of objective delineation between “good” and “bad” opinions, all we can rely on is subjective judgements. Someone, somewhere, is bound to be offended by just about anything. 

The fact is, our accepted truths — including those we hold most dearly — need to be constantly tested and proven in order to be kept alive. Even if we have every reason to believe that a particular opinion may be true, we ought to consider Mill’s argument that “if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.”

Mill points out that the greatest victims of stifled dissent are not those being silenced, but those doing the silencing. “If the opinion is right,” he wrote, “they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

Historically, ideas deemed too radical or offensive for the societies of their times included the belief that women are equal to men, the idea that the people have the right to govern themselves, the notion of religious freedom, and the assertion that the earth orbits around the sun. Yet in every case, these dissident views allowed for the exchange of error for truth and instigated incredible social, political and scientific progress.

It is exactly this kind of progress we put at risk if we censor the radical and offensive ideas of our time, something half of Canadians would have us do. We must be open to the fact that such thinkers may be among us, conceiving of ideas too abstract, too bold or too overwhelming in scope for us to readily accept. 

It is true that for every great innovation in thinking, there may be a thousand more opinions that are wrong, and even some that set us back. But allowing all of these perspectives to be expressed is the cost of an ideas-tolerant environment with progress as its goal. 

We cannot, nor should we want to, eliminate disagreement in our conversations, and instead view it as a productive, celebrated element of a truly democratic order. Not only is contestation a means of keeping our most precious truths alive; it clarifies them, bolsters them, and in some cases even corrects them. It is the very foundation of societal progress.  

We must embrace dissent in our discourse, even when — especially when — the views in question sound unreasonable or make some of us feel uncomfortable. To fail to do so is to invite tyranny itself.

Rudyard Griffiths: The pandemic is tearing up our social contract

Commentary

At the core of every society is a contract between the governed and the governing.

The essence of the contract is a bargain between the two groups. On the part of the governed, it is a willingness to give to the governing group the resources — human, economic, cultural — that they require to lead and shape the society as a whole. In turn, the governing group is expected to provide the requisite security and prosperity that encourages human flourishing in its broadest sense.

What distinguishes one social contract from another is the balance both groups strike between risks versus rewards of their system. Some societies have higher tolerance for risk individually and collectively, assuming this will lead to greater rewards, personally and as a group. Others calibrate their laws, regulations and mores to mitigate individual and shared risks. Their assumption is that while this may lessen the dynamism of their society, it is worth forgoing some gains in turn for more stability, predictability and hopefully, steady, incremental growth.

When we look around the world today it is easy to group nations according to where they land on the risk versus reward calculation embedded in their social contracts. America is the quintessential example of a country whose social contract is based on a higher tolerance of personal and collective risk. This tendency has created remarkable growth, power and prominence for the U.S. while exposing it economically, culturally and geopolitically to turmoil, inequality and uncertainty.

Canada is indicative of polities that chose to strike a different balance in their social contracts. Here the preference is for risk mitigation over dynamism as the governed look to the governing for what our constitution masterfully summarizes as “peace, order and good government.” We have chosen to forgo exploring some of our full potential individually and collectively to instead privilege moderation, equality and incrementalism in our politics and society.

These social contracts and the assumptions embedded within them are incredibly enduring and powerful. They are the mythos of modern societies encapsulating our founding, our evolution, and the futures we contemplate together. Because of their centrality, we believe they are inviolate, enduring, unchangeable.

Or at least I thought so, until COVID came along.

The sorry litany of botched policies and outright incompetence matters acutely for a country whose social contract is about good government.

There is a fascinating, possibly profound, reassessment of social contracts underway right now because of COVID, especially in Canada.

When the pandemic emerged last year, it represented a once-in-a-generation test of the social contract. Our initial response conformed to our longstanding propensity to control collective risks by curtailing personal freedom and expanding the role of the state; a kind of POGG on steroids.

And for the pandemic’s first wave, this approach worked. Canada saw lower per capita infections and deaths than many peer nations and enjoyed a broad social consensus about how to limit the virus’ spread.

But flash forward to a year after the arrival of the pandemic’s first wave and Canadians find themselves in a very different place. As a third wave breaks over the country leaving death and misery in its wake, it is becoming starkly evident that we have failed just about every major public health test of the pandemic. We have come up short everywhere from timely vaccine procurement to mass rapid testing and contact tracing to protecting long term care homes to keeping schools and business open to effective border controls to efficient mass inoculations to surging ICU capacity. We also, to our enduring shame, subjected some of our most vulnerable communities to the full brunt of virus forcing them to bear disproportionally the human costs of sustaining a locked-down Canada.

This sorry litany of missed opportunities, botched policies and outright incompetence matters acutely for a country whose social contract, at is core, is about the governing delivering “good government” to the governed.

One can already detect a new, harsher, almost incredulous tone seeping into the national dialogue as the variant-fueled third wave gathers momentum.

Supporters gather as a fence is put up around GraceLife Church near Edmonton. The church has been charged with refusing to follow Covid-19 health rules. Jason Franson/The Canadian Press

As the demonstrations in Montreal yesterday reflect, more and more Canadians are questioning why they should settle for less freedom, less opportunity, more collectivism when they are demonstrably not being protected by the state from this once-in-a-generation risk? Just what did each of us get for trading away our personal liberties for collective security? Certainly not protection from the virus nor its containment. Meanwhile the Canadian state, despite its serial failure, has blithely assumed truly awesome pandemic powers over the economy, individual rights, business, family life, etc.

This skepticism is made worse by what we are seeing right now in countries with social contracts that put greater emphasis on individual and collective risk.

Americans struggled, precisely because of a social contract based on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, to contain the early spread of the virus and as a result suffered horribly. But what a difference a year makes. Their private sector ended up producing some of the world’s most effective vaccines. They were distributed, as expected, haphazardly, but on a truly massive scale blunting the pernicious effects of the third wave. They have mass rapid testing, schools and business fully reopening, and some states are enjoying today a return to a way of life that resembles America before COVID.

The striking object lesson here is that an openness to risk taking, a bias against state control, a social contract weighted towards individualism, ultimately ended up being a very effective risk mitigation strategy when confronted with a complex and evolving threat like COVID.

Where does all this leave Canada and our social contract? The Ottawa consensus seems to be the best way to salvage the credibility gap between what the governing promised and the pandemic failures they delivered is to increase the scope of government. Basically, a doubling down on POGG and the promise that next time, with more powers and prerogatives, the state will, in fact, deliver.

Politically, this may work. The upcoming federal election will be a critical test of the “more government” hypothesis. Again, the currents of history and shared experience that underpin social contracts run deep. They are exceedingly hard to disrupt.

Equally though, it is impossible to deny the pandemic has planted in the minds of many Canadians, myself included, an uncomfortable and unavoidable seed of doubt about the current terms of our social contract.

At a moment when we most needed “good government” our state and its political leaders failed in profound ways costing us thousands of lives and sowing a tremendous amount of uncertainty, confusion and fear.

This will not be soon forgotten. And it may encourage some of us to start contemplating a different calibration of the social contract. One that could give us greater scope for personal freedoms and opportunity while fostering a national robustness capable of meeting the next great test of the social contract which we will undoubtedly face.