Jeremy Roberts: Our public discourse will suffer until our civic culture improves

People respond to easy frames that tap into their moral frameworks
Protesters opposing COP15, the UN Biodiversity Conference, demonstrate outside the venue in Montreal on Wednesday, December 7, 2022. Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press.

Last week Ontario Progressive Conservative government introduced changes that will allow more surgeries to be done outside of hospitals, including at private and not-for-profit health-care centres. It’s a move that was, as expected, met with a significant reaction from the public.

On the one hand, there were those that saluted that move as a common-sense change to how we deliver health care to patients in the province.

On the other hand, it was hailed as a dangerous change that will lead to further privatization of health-care services. The opposition parties have already started a petition to “Stop the Privatization.” 

Where exactly is the truth?

Many writers will debate the merits of this policy. In fact, my colleagues at The Hub have already done so. This piece isn’t exactly about that.

What I’m more interested in is the fact that we, as a society, cannot have a critical discussion about issues like these. Our civic culture promotes a polarization effect, whereby issues harden into twin choices. Our political actors work to shape those choices.

In this particular debate, you are either: (1) for reducing wait times or against it; or (2) pro-privatization or anti-privatization. Those are the frames that will be played out in the coming weeks. Expect the temperature to rise when the Legislature resumes sitting in February.

This practice of framing is done by all (successful) parties. Why? Because it works. And it’s backed up by data. 

In our era of busy lives, people respond to easy frames that tap into their moral frameworks. 

If I were still in politics, it’s what I would do too.

But herein lies the problem. How can we as a society have substantial conversations about critical policy issues like this without putting aside this framing?

On a broader level: can we change our civic culture to better foster dialogue?

This health-care debate is just one example. There is growing agreement across the country that our health-care system isn’t working how it should. We need to be willing to have a dialogue that moves beyond simple frames because this isn’t a simple problem. Engaging with an issue means looking at what other jurisdictions have done. What has worked and what hasn’t? What do the academic and think tank literature say? Do we have data on outcomes? Are solutions cost-effective?

These are some of the criteria that we should judge our complex policies with. Not frames, but real information.

If we look at climate policy, we see the same thing happening. Like health care, climate change is not a simple policy challenge. But almost all policy discussions are subjected to framing before the policies get a real thorough discussion. Are you for or against carbon pricing/tax? Are you pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear? We can’t move past the frames and have a substantial discussion.

So, I return to my question on whether we can change our civic culture.

It seems an insurmountable task. But I had a glimmer of hope recently.

I had the chance this month to speak to a group of students at the Munk School for Global Affairs and Public Policy. The students are in their twenties and, believe me when I tell you, many of them have strong opinions.

But what struck me was, despite their strong opinions, they were willing to listen to each other. They engaged on points of policy. They made concessions where they saw new evidence and worked to persuade where they felt their own cases were stronger.

Obviously, this group of students is self-selected. These are young people who chose to study public policy in a graduate setting. 

But despite growing up in a civic culture that promotes polarization, they were able to look beyond that.

I’ve written here before that I believe strongly that better civic education is the key to solving some of society’s challenges. I remain convinced that putting faith in our youth is the key to breaking free from these sorts of societal dilemmas.

And my experience with these students helped reinforce that view.

We can start by teaching kids about these frames and why they happen. We can also provide young people with the tools needed to critically analyze issues, which should be a fundamental objective of education anyways. 

And we’re fortunate in Ontario to have many brilliant organizations operating at the national, provincial, and local levels that want to help foster these skills. CIVIX, the Samara Centre for Democracy, and even our very own Hub

To readers, I ask this: when a new issue comes up, pause and acknowledge the framing, then move past it to engage on a deeper level with the policy.

And to parties and governments, I would offer this: let’s consider how to best equip youth to be better citizens and improve our civic culture in the long run. 

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