Opinion: Marginalizing dissenting voices is bad for our democracy

Categorizing protestors as an unacceptable fringe minority will have lasting negative consequences
A protester waves a Canadian flag in front of parked vehicles on Rideau Street on the 15th day of a protest against COVID-19 measures that has grown into a broader anti-government protest, in Ottawa, Friday, Feb. 11, 2022. Justin Tang/The Canadian Press.

“The lesson for the Covid-19 police is that when you lose even Canadians, arguably the most law-abiding people on the planet, you’ve lost the political plot” – Editorial Board of the Wall Street Journal on Canada’s Trucker Protest.

While the “Freedom Convoy” may be, in the words of our Prime Minister, a “fringe minority,” the movement has clearly gained momentum because of accumulated frustration against draconian restrictions aimed at controlling the pandemic, restrictions that have been longer and gone far beyond much of the rest world and that has, almost as a point of pride, characterized our national response. Even a majority of Canadians who may dislike their tactics understand their motivation. The protests cannot be understood solely as an irrational outburst or an explosion of extremist politics but as an inevitable response to the current late stage of the pandemic amidst mass vaccination and better treatments. These advances make limits to freedom of movement and most restrictions, including vaccination mandates, no longer tenable.

Meanwhile, the Editorial Board of The New York Times and much of the liberal media has been more damning of the Canadian Truckers’ protests, associating them with hate groups and Trumpian politics. Yet, at the same time, the same liberal media recognizes the same new reality that makes draconian measures outdated relics of the pandemic’s early stages. The New York Times’ David Leonhardt points out the dogmatic quasi-religious slogan “follow the science” fails to provide clear directives and in a podcast argued for the return to pre-pandemic normal life. The Atlantic’s Yascha Mounk, an associate professor at John Hopkins who on March 10, 2020, demanded to “Cancel Everything”, now argues to “Open Everything”, saying “the time to end pandemic restrictions is now.” Ironically, the same publications denouncing the protests echo their core demand.

The New York Times and The Atlantic are classic liberal media. In fact, these two outlets helped set the standard for Covid-19 coverage, promoting expert-informed governance of the pandemic. Their current takes suggest a diversity of opinions amongst the liberal opinion-making class in the USA that stands in sharp contrast to Canada. A casual reader may ask, why do the opinions of foreign media outlets matter for understanding what’s happening in Canada? This matters because the diversity of opinions expressed in the United States is not present in Canadian counterparts. This has profound effects on Canadian political discourse and above all, may have unintended negative future consequences for the legitimacy of science-informed public health policy. A healthy debate requires a panoramic view of the issues that motivate citizens to put their lives at risk going to a protest in frigid temperatures and threatened, however haphazardly, with police enforcement. Protesting, right or wrong, takes serious commitment.

For the past few weeks, the Globe & Mail, The Toronto Star, the CBC, and many other media outlets have presented the “Freedom Convoy” as nothing less than a fringe movement made up of a string of problematic characters; science-denying, uneducated, politically illiterate, conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, white supremacists, racists, misogynists, and homophobes. A CBC host took the proverbial cake when she suggested that the protestors were Russian assets. These descriptions were used again against the protestors by Liberal party members during a heated emergency debate to end the protests. There is no doubt that the protests have included symbols of hatred, including swastikas and confederate flags, and there have been incidents of verbal and physical harassment. Although the protest appears to have originated more as a grassroots and autonomous mobilization against restrictions, several spokespeople and organized leaders have associations with hate groups with troubling antecedents. Clearly, hate groups have mobilized in support of these anti-government protests. It should go without saying, but both authors—a Jew and a queer man of colour who have both studied human rights social movements—reject and denounce expressions of hate in all manifestations.

Yet the fact that so many people are so disaffected and angered by restrictions to support the protests despite these associations goes to show how far our policy efforts have splintered society and backfired. To act as if the root cause of their grievance is not our onerous restrictions is an obfuscation. The protests would not be happening otherwise. A truly critical media would be able to help locate the line that separates legitimate protest from its illegitimate counterparts rather than blur the lines between them. This is important because the prolonged use of radical measures of social control have created opportunities for radicalization. Certainly, we understand this with terrorism in which social scientists attempt to understand its root causes and grievances without excusing atrocities.

In a similar vein, we recognize this kind of blowback is a product engendered over time by our unsustainable heavy-handed approaches, even amidst a nation that has been one of the most obedient to Covid-19 pandemic measures amongst liberal democracies. After all, we have the 7th highest vaccination in the world, albeit lagging human rights luminaries such as China, Cuba, and the United Arab Emirates. Meanwhile, before the Truckers, protests of Covid-19 measures in Europe have been larger, noisier, and taken more diverse political stripes, including the Communist Party. Even Dutch teenagers rioted against curfews by burning down a testing centre. It was only a matter of time before they hit here amongst a dominant expert and political class that have pushed restrictions. Unfortunately, our “slow and cautious” approach often seems like two steps back for every step forward and draws out ire and frustration.

Protests are invariably messy and unruly and often ugly, even ones we support. The main issues for the residents of the streets affected by the protests in Ottawa have been high levels of noise, incidents of harassment, and disruption and disorder caused by protestors. These are certainly issues, and both authors express solidarity and compassion with people affected by these behaviours. However, these are not uncommon issues that residents in visible political spaces in democratic societies, such as the streets that surround the parliament buildings, face at some point during their lifetime. It is a by-product and a reminder of people’s rights to protest—a sacred right even, or especially, if one disagrees with the case. If we only support the right to protest causes when we agree with the cause, then it is not an actual right.

We are now seeing the unfortunate consequences of our dominant media and political views on the protestors. Canadians wanting to see other perspectives on the protests are led to social media, Fox News, and Canada’s own Rebel News. Through these and other alternative media, Canadian citizens discover that many protestors are not white supremacists and Nazis and share many of their underlying concerns about restrictions. Neither are they all anti-vaxxers since many are vaccinated. However, they are anti-vaccine mandates. They want a return to the full exercise of civil liberties and serious consideration to the social, psychological, economic harms caused by lockdowns—harms that, at this point in the pandemic, are acknowledged by all public health experts. In other words, their positions are not so different from views expressed in The New York Times and The Atlantic.

Moreover, they are not so different from those expressed by many other progressive social democracies such as Denmark or in Democratic-controlled states in the USA that are currently ending mask mandates. If we are not engaging seriously enough with the long-term effects of restrictions, this is because our political leaders and the dominant Canadian media have accepted the necessity of indefinite public health restrictions with the threat of more lockdowns and school closures without offering clear and consistent timelines to removing them. They have also silenced critics of this approach with guilt by association with the extreme far-right.

Our approach may finally be changing, but in the absence of a more diverse engagement of ideas with a sizeable population that has lost all faith in established political and media sectors, we all lose. We are left more divided along ideological lines and, therefore, more polarized. Citizenship loses its value. This is bad for democracy. The splintering we are witnessing is a result of how the dominant media has largely aligned uncritically with the government’s position and has marginalized other voices that offer divergent visions for managing the pandemic. Unfortunately, the fallout will persist beyond the eventual loosening of restrictions or eventual declaration of the pandemic’s end. Like it or not, the protestors are our fellow citizens, and they are not going away.

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