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Brian Bird: To save our public discourse, we must reclaim the art of critical thinking

Commentary

I have been thinking a lot about public discourse in Canada and beyond. I suspect I am far from the only person who thinks it is in bad shape. Today this vital sphere of human activity seems like trench warfare.“According to polling conducted by Public Square and Maru/Blue and exclusively provided to The Hub, 77 percent of Canadians polled either somewhat or strongly agree that they are angry. Seventy-three percent of respondents strongly agree that “society is coming apart.” https://thehub.ca/2021-04-12/canadians-are-angry-so-what-can-we-do-about-it/ It has felt this way for a long time, but lately, it has felt even worse. It increasingly seems like we don’t know how to speak to each other once the conversation moves on from the weather.

I have been thinking, more specifically, about why we are where we are. I believe one of the roots of our growing inability to have civil and reasoned debate on matters of import is that too many of us have become, in a word, sheep. Let me explain.

We have largely forgotten the value of independent, critical thinking. We too often allow ourselves to become wedded to the thoughts of others. We too often abdicate our capacity for critical evaluation of what those who are authorities on this or that matter—or those who wake up one morning and purport to be authorities on this or that matter—have to say. We too often unreflectively endorse the opinions of others. They have become shepherds and we have become sheep.

The rise in uncritical thinking has accentuated the rise in tribalism.“Data collected by Pollara Strategic Insights, and provided exclusively to CityNews, showed that 33 per cent of Canadians hold negative, intolerant, prejudiced or hostile views against at least one other segment of the population. This included those of different races, religions, sexual orientations, and gender identities.” https://toronto.citynews.ca/2019/06/24/canadians-generally-tolerant-toward-their-neighbours-tribalism-an-issue-poll/ Ideological opponents of your shepherd become your opponents. The sheep of other shepherds become your opponents too. We start to view others not as fellow human beings who share the same basic concerns and aspirations but as enemies who must be embarrassed and defeated—even if reason, evidence, and logic stand in the way. 

To make matters worse, as human beings we tend to cling to our core convictions so tightly that we at times lose sight of their objective validity or invalidity. These convictions, owing to their importance to our understanding of the world around us, become intertwined with our emotions. They can even embed themselves into our sense of self and our identity. For many of us, these convictions play a significant role in shaping who we are and what we stand for.

We accordingly dread the prospect of learning that our convictions are flawed. This revelation would require us—or at least should require us—to drop them and seek better ones. This is easier said than done given the link between our convictions and identity. Plus, should you abandon your longstanding beliefs on contested issues, your tribe may shun you. The other side may mock you. You may torpedo your career goals. You may even lose your current job. It is, in these circumstances, far more appealing to publicly hold on to these convictions even if you don’t sincerely subscribe to them anymore. 

But that scenario—pretending to believe what you don’t believe—may be the lesser evil. What seems to occur more often is that we manage to convince ourselves that we are still in the right even if the evidence suggests otherwise. We let pride take control instead of allowing the pursuit of truth to guide us. Sadly, this approach is incentivized today. In the tribal era, pride is applauded and truth is optional. Everyone is infallible and the fallible need not speak.

How do we break free from this paradigm? The first step is to admit that we are living in it. We have all, to some extent, allowed ourselves to be less robust critical thinkers in this age. With an overabundance of outlets and sources for the dissemination of thought and opinion and no filter for truth, we have far too often let others do the thinking for us on important issues. The temptation—one that may be confronting you right now—is to think that we are expert critical thinkers and that other people have work to do. This is false. We all have work to do.

The second step is to put an end to unthinkingly rubber-stamping the opinions of people we consider to be authorities.  A claim is not true simply because a particular person says it is true, because we wish it to be true, or because from our perspective it would be convenient or advantageous for it to be true. Claims must be supported by reason, evidence, and logic before we assent to them. Ideas with which we disagree are not false simply because they are expressed by individuals from another tribe. In a world increasingly shaped by the movers and shakers on social media, it is worthwhile to remind ourselves now and then that a person’s popularity on Twitter is no guarantor of wisdom.

The third step is to stop viewing our ideological opponents as actual opponents and as enemies we must defeat no matter what.“Little wonder then, that a significant segment of Canadians believe political discourse in this country is devoid of compromise. While just under half (48%) disagree, two-in-five (37%) are of the view that when it comes to talking politics, Canadians have retreated to their corners and are refusing to move. That feeling is strongest in Alberta and Saskatchewan, where at least two-in-five believe political compromise is lacking in the country, but at least one-third in all regions believe this is the case.” https://angusreid.org/canada-politics-government-division-disengagement/ Our conversations on pressing matters that call for solutions would be much more constructive if we viewed our interlocutors as counterparts in the search for the best or right answers. We must, in other words, detribalize our public discourse. We desperately need to transform our public square from a battlefield into a genuine marketplace of ideas.

Finally, we should be less dominated by political stripes and labels. I was struck when listening to The Hub’s interview with Globe and Mail columnist Andrew Coyne. When asked where he sits on the political spectrum, Coyne said that he doesn’t see himself as immovably sitting on a specific point on it. Coyne described himself in a way that suggested open-mindedness when he thinks about political and policy issues rather than robotically predetermining his beliefs through the lens of a particular worldview.“Well, people are always tending to pigeonhole people, and that’s natural, I suppose. We try to simplify things. What I don’t understand is why people want to pigeonhole themselves. So, when people ask me, I’d say sort of half-jokingly, I’m a conservative, liberal, libertarian, socialist. But I kind of mean it, because I’ve always felt that each of the traditions has something to teach us. There are nuggets of wisdom in conservatism and liberalism and libertarianism and socialism, and I don’t see why you have to sort of buy the package.” https://thehub.ca/2022-01-18/columnist-andrew-coyne-on-his-intellectual-influences/ These comments are refreshing. It is a pity that his approach seems to be the exception to the rule.

This guide to reclaiming the art of critical thinking does not imply that we should not form and defend our convictions. Of course we should. One would be hard-pressed to describe Andrew Coyne as someone who does not form and defend strong opinions on contested matters and controversial issues.

The key point is that we should not become so invested in our convictions that we become impermeable to thinking that they might be wrong. We should, in other words, always strive to maintain a critical posture toward our convictions. To adopt this posture is to respect and honour the end that our convictions are supposed to serve. That end is truth.

Shepherds are normally viewed in a positive light. Here, however, they have been negatively portrayed. But the key perspective is that of the sheep, and let’s be honest: we are fond of our shepherds. We follow, retweet, share, and trust. We are often quick to attack those who criticize them. We are delighted when we bring other sheep into the fold.

Rather than adding to the flock, it is high time for the flocks to disperse. I have heard the prescription put this way: think deeply, think critically, think for yourself.

We are not meant to be sheep when it comes to our capacity to think. We don’t belong in the sheepfold. It’s time for us—for you—to open the gates.

Sean Speer: Win for what? The cause of social mobility would resonate with voters

Commentary

At this stage in the Conservative Party’s leadership race, we’re starting to see the different candidates cohere around their respective campaign narratives. This political and policy positioning can tell us a lot about who the candidates are, what they stand for, and how they would lead the party. 

I’ve previously written about Pierre Poilievre’s gatekeepers narrative including how it might manifest itself as a public policy agenda as well as its potential political fecundity. At its core, though, the gatekeepers narrative is fundamentally values-based. It seeks to animate Conservative Party members with a diagnosis of Canada’s economy and society rooted in conservative ideas. 

The second major candidate, Jean Charest, has chosen a different approach. His overarching narrative, Built to Win, eschews a values-based appeal and instead relies on a pragmatic political case that he’s best placed to lead the party in the next general election. In simpler terms, it puts electability over ideology. 

Charest’s campaign is effectively encouraging Conservative members to set aside fundamental issues of ideology and values and instead make a political calculus about which leadership candidate can have the broadest appeal to Canadians. Implicit in this message is that Poilievre’s rougher ideological edges may turn off some swing voters and that his own moderate politics and temperament are more likely to reach them. 

There are two problems, it seems to me, with this assumption. The first is that although it’s a common view that Conservatives need to shift to the political centre to grow their support, it’s not entirely obvious that that’s the right diagnosis or solution to the party’s recent trend of electoral losses. The idea that there’s a bunch of Canadians who voted for the Liberal Party in 2019 and 2021 and remain open to the Conservative Party seems somewhat implausible. 

Perhaps it’s possible that the policy outcomes of the new parliamentary agreement with the New Democrats will be so fiscally profligate and economically damaging that they will shake loose a critical mass of the elusive “fiscally conservative yet socially liberal” voters that we always hear about. But at present there just aren’t enough Scott Brisons or Christy Clarks to sustain a new centrist version of the Conservative Party. 

There are, however, signs that one of the reasons that the party lost in the last election was the rise of the People’s Party, whose vote totals in 21 ridings were larger than the margins by which the Conservative candidates lost.“The PPC failed to win any seats in the Sept. 20 election, but gathered 5.1 per cent of the popular vote — up from 1.6 per cent in the 2019 federal election.” https://globalnews.ca/news/8212872/canada-election-conservative-vote-splitting/ This includes 12 ridings in Ontario, five in British Columbia, two in Alberta, one in Quebec, and one in Newfoundland. 

It may not be a perfect one-for-one—there’s evidence, for instance, that People’s Party voters were pulled from across the spectrum based on the politics of vaccines—but it seems clear that these political developments harmed the Conservative Party.“In short, PPC voters were not simply typical Conservative supporters leaning furthest to the right on a range of issues that include government spending, taxation, climate change and immigration. They were, on average, a unique cluster of voters who have rejected the overwhelming public consensus on the need to be vaccinated to contain the spread of COVID-19.” https://theconversation.com/who-voted-for-the-peoples-party-of-canada-anti-vaxxers-and-those-opposed-to-vaccine-mandates-171575 At a minimum, it suggests that Poilievre’s message of freedom may be more politically salient than a message of mere moderation. 

But, in any case, this question about how to grow the Conservative Party’s general election support isn’t the main problem with Charest’s narrative. That is the presumption that Conservative Party members are going to be responsive to a value-neutral message about electability. 

It’s far from obvious that such a transactional message will resonate with Conservatives who, if the party’s three previous leadership races are dispositive, will want to support a candidate who shares their values and priorities. The risk, therefore, is that the idea of Built to Win leaves many Conservatives feeling unsatisfied and unmotivated. 

Charest’s electability message needs to be matched with a political narrative rooted in conservative ideas. He needs his own alternative to Poilievre’s gatekeepers message if he’s going to connect with Conservative Party members. 

It can’t be manufactured or made up. A candidate needs to be personally committed to his or her campaign narrative or it’s bound to fall apart. Conservative members in particular, and Canadians in general, can discern insincerity. 

The good news for Charest is that his campaign launch speech may have presented a path forward. In those remarks, he argued that those of us who are born in Canada or came here through immigration have effectively won the lottery. The basic idea is that the country is home to a set of ideas and institutions that enable people to live out their values and aspirations with a reasonable shot at success however one defines it. 

Charest’s underlying point is that those foundational conditions that make Canada the equivalent of a winning lottery ticket need to be protected, sustained, and strengthened. Yet they have eroded over time due to various factors including the Trudeau government’s inattention to economic growth and dynamism. 

This narrative resonates with me as someone who has deeply benefited from the culture of intergenerational mobility and spirit of egalitarianism within Canadian society. I happen to think that it’s a powerful message that’s well rooted in conservative ideas and the conservative worldview. I’ve previously made the case, for instance, that Conservatives should prioritize intergenerational mobility as the basis of a “cause-driven conservatism.”

There’s evidence that such policy attention is increasingly needed. Although Canada’s record on social mobility is generally positive—we’re regularly in the upper tier of OECD countries—the mobility picture differs among places and groups, and there’s even new evidence that overall social mobility is declining.“Canadians born into high-income families tend to grow into high-income adults, and those born into low-income families tend to remain low income, Statistics Canada says. Middle-class Canadians have the greatest economic mobility.” https://www.advisor.ca/news/economic/statistics-canada-finds-less-income-mobility-across-generations/ People are sensing it too. Polling tells us that more than six in 10 Canadians are pessimistic about the future of the next generation. A 2017 survey showed that nearly 70 percent anticipate that today’s children will be worse off than their parents.

This feeling that middle-class progress has stalled is, according to Ipsos Public Affairs CEO Darrell Bricker, driving a lot of the frustration that we’re seeing expressed in our politics.Ontario 360 Transition Briefings 2022: The Issues That Will Drive The Next Ontario Election It manifests itself in thwarted aspirations about homeownership, growing concerns about job precarity and financial instability, and just a general sense that the Canadian equivalent of the “American Dream” is being lost. The Canadian lottery ticket, in other words, doesn’t come with the same odds as it used to. 

There’s a huge opportunity therefore to organize a policy narrative and accompanying policy agenda around the idea of boosting social mobility and renewing middle-class progress. As a matter of public policy, it would necessarily manifest itself across a wide number of policy areas including the economy, child care and other family policies, housing, education, criminal justice, immigration, mental health and addiction, and so forth. It could, in other words, knit together a set of seemingly disparate policies in the pursuit of an overarching cause that itself is a values-based expression. 

In terms of an overarching narrative, the idea of strengthening the Canadian lottery ticket and in turn renewing middle-class progress could appeal to Conservatives, particularly to the extent that it emphasizes an amalgam of economic freedom and a pro-family vision. It would also resonate, however, with the suburban swing voters who Bricker points out are increasingly pessimistic about their own futures and the futures of their children. 

The key point here though is that Built to Win is a necessary yet insufficient narrative. It fails the basic “why” question: Win for what? The cause of social mobility should be Charest’s answer.