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Hackett: Decline of political discourse


We’ve lost our way.

Somewhere along the line, respectfully disagreeing, particularly politically, became extinct.

The other, or those we disagree with, are now the enemy. Vile, crass, hurtful individuals who look to score cheap points by taking cruel shots at those they disagree with.

The rise of the internet certainly played a part in this discourse becoming more commonplace. The ability to hide behind a screen, to not take even an extra second to ponder the impacts of an insult before hitting enter on the keyboard, has allowed all kinds of cruelty into our world that didn’t exist 10-15 years ago.

Just this week, the Mayor of Gatineau resigned, citing toxic conditions in public service.

“I really questioned the price paid to accomplish this demanding work in a context — let’s say it — that is often hostile,” an emotional Bélisle told reporters.

According to a Canadian Press story, Quebec solidaire municipal affairs critic Étienne Grandmont said Bélisle is the latest in a list of 741 municipal officials who have resigned since municipal elections were last held across the province in 2021.

“The situation must change and quickly,” he said. “We are currently experiencing an epidemic of departures that are a symptom of neglect on the issue of harassment and intimidation and that constitute an important risk for our democracy.”

Earlier this month, the Mayor of Wetaskiwin took to Facebook to shoot down a number of ridiculous social media rumours that had been floating around about various aspects of his tenure in the position. It was surreal to watch him deconstruct the lies.

Public officials have a less than-enviable role in our democracy. That’s the way it’s always been. They have to make choices on behalf of a group of citizens, not all of whom agree with one another. They have to make a choice for what, in their view, is the best for everybody.

That’s not to say they shouldn’t be held to account for decisions they make that end up hurting the community or minority groups. Critical analysis of those decisions is necessary to move democracy forward. Wasting time and energy name-calling and hurling insults online does nothing to promote a positive future or productive democracy.

Public officials shouldn’t be immune to criticism. It is part of the job. But there are lines, and in recent years, those lines have become blurred by the easy access citizens have to public servants.

And citizens, for their criticism, shouldn’t bear the full brunt of this because they are simply following the lead of federal, provincial and municipal politicians.

I’m sure long before Donald Trump, politicians made a name for themselves by hurling insults at whoever they felt might challenge their position, but Trump took it to a whole different level.

He essentially made his political career out of it and people thought it was funny and entertaining.

That’s filtered down to all levels of politics. Because, again, it works. It catches people’s attention. You probably know the name Marjorie Taylor Greene, even if you barely know who that is or what she represents. Simply because she followed Trump’s lead.

Federally, Pierre Poilievre has adopted the similar scorched earth, tear down every opponent attitude, and it’s worked brilliantly for him so far, even if we are two years out from an election.

Danielle Smith pulls no punches when name-calling any liberal federal politician, whether it be the Prime Minister or the right’s latest target, environment minister Steven Guilbeault.

They do it because it works, and it works because of the social media-obsessed environment we live in now. Policy doesn’t sell anymore — short, sharp jarring sound bites catch people’s attention and keep them entertained.

Society is so entertainment-driven and that’s all most people see politicians as now. Entertainers who vote on things, but don’t ever get anything of consequence done. By things of consequence, I mean real, tangible things like making gas, groceries, cellphones or airfare cheaper. Making sure I can get a doctor when I need it. People are obsessed with instant gratification and they expect the politicians to deliver on their promises in the same way.

And when they don’t, the claws come out on social media in ways that just weren’t acceptable a decade ago. Because you had to phone a person hurl those insults or you had to mail a letter. Those cruel words had to linger in your head and to your hand or mouth.

So, despite a lack of good examples of candor and respectful dialogue, I think we should all try and be a bit more mindful of how we behave towards those we disagree with.

Maybe it won’t fix everything all at once, but it’s worth a shot.

Byron Hackett is the Managing Editor of the Red Deer Advocate and Regional Editor for Black Press Media.