It’s Time We Decriminalize Political Discourse

By | April 4, 2017

Originally published as a column on CFJC Today and Armchair Mayor News on April 2, 2017. 

If I had a dollar for every time I was part of a conversation that had people purposefully steer away from subjects such as politics… well, you get the idea. It’d be a good chunk of money.

I know conversations that venture into politics can turn contentious, but that’s the nature of the beast. It doesn’t have to be all ugly though. Like with everything else, there is a learning curve that eventually can help us get to the place where we can engage in healthy dialogue that does not turn friends into enemies.

It seems we are inching the other way. Political conversations will get you a raised eyebrow in many circles. That, I dare say, is a threat to democracy itself.

We are soon to be immersed, as a province, in the thick of the provincial elections campaign. There will be news stories about parties and candidates, ugliness included, platforms to read and understand, and many will experience the campaign fatigue that comes from all that information pouring over our heads like incessant rain.  Come May 9, we will have to make our choices. And they’d better be good, is what most of us think to ourselves. But what’s good for the gander will not be good for the goose, or so we think.

The ‘good’ – in whatever sector we’re talking about – will not be the same for everyone, at least not in the details. The basics are the same for most of us: a good education system, medical needs taken care of no matter your social status or age, decent jobs and minimum wages that allow people to live rather than barely survive from month to month, the list goes on. It’s a long one. Then come the specifics. That’s where what’s good for some may not work for others and things like climate change-adapting economy proves too big a conversation to start. The specifics can turn healthy dialogue into ugly word exchange.

Scary as that is, if people aim to give it a decent makeover to the point of making political dialogue at any level possible, we’d all benefit from it.

That cannot happen though when so many of us are shying away from talking politics, considering it boorish and aggressive. It can be, but it doesn’t have to. Public discourse is what keeps democracy alive so it makes sense to have one brewing at all times. People staying away from political conversations at a time when they are most needed – prior to elections – has no positive outcomes whichever way you look at it.

If children and youths learn that talking politics is a dirty deed, they’ll be hard to convince to step up and vote when the time comes. That is a recurrent issue not just in British Columbia and Canada, but in many countries around the world.

When people start asking questions, exchanging information, debating, and engaging in public discourse that makes their concerns visible, that forces the political parties to pay attention and tailor their values to match those of the people they represent.

I get it. Political garb is far from the entertaining stuff that pours from social media platforms, sitcoms, reality shows, or whatever else people flock to these days. Getting past the gagging and learning what each party stands for or lack thereof in some cases, discerning through the promises that have the potential to become reality or fall flat on their faces, that can have some seriously uplifting down the road. Literally.

We usually read about developing countries dealing with corruption and people having to bear the effects of it, be it environmental disasters caused by loose industry standards, subhuman living conditions and treatment of vulnerable population groups, prosecution of people who dare challenge the system, to name but a few. The buffer zone between here and there allows us to touch on those topics or shake our heads disapprovingly while counting our blessings that come with living in a democracy.

As it turns out, those issues pop us everywhere, including Canada. One way to keep them at bay is having people engage politically – from the level of their living rooms to barber shops to public rallies and talks – so that knowledge can be shared, views can be challenged and wrongdoings turned into good decisions and deeds for the community.

It’s about time we decriminalize political discourse and instead focus on making it civil and constructive. There are tomes written on the art of conversation. An almost lost art, I’d say, that can be revived.

Public comments that follow online articles are often vitriolic in their nature and quickly turning to personal attacks. Many use fake names rather than their real ones, which adds to the volatile nature of the present political discourse, making it look ugly and boorish.

By decriminalizing political discourse, we can bring back something that often gets lost in today’s hurried life: a society where everyone has a voice is a better one. Though we call the hunter and gatherer societies primitive when we compare them with our present one, there was one thing that somehow the ‘primitive’ mindset included: everyone contributed to the well-being of the community, that ensured more than their well-being. It ensured their survival.

One facet of it nowadays could be the willingness to engage in educating ourselves politically, engaging with open minds in dialogue that will have us know more, challenge more, be humbled or bold when the situation calls for it, and most importantly, change what needs to be changed when the time comes to cast a vote. A privilege that cannot be ignored.

That our children will follow our example and be grateful for leading the way towards a better future, I have no doubt. That too is a privilege we cannot afford to ignore.

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