05/07/2012 12:13 EDT | Updated 07/07/2012 05:12 EDT

Why is Our Public Discourse Aping Shock Jock Talk Radio?


The challenges were immense, but I took it on as a task of goodwill. We had been asked to assist in the peace negotiations between North and South Sudan, held in Kenya, and mediated by a very able and respected Kenyan ex-general.

It had been Africa's longest-running civil war and everything was on the table -- religion, tribalism, race-relations, oil, the rights of women and so on. There were to be three rounds of negotiations held over a couple of years -- extensive, frustrating and exhausting. Vitriol, obstinacy, blame, harsh words -- all these eventually gave way to what was ultimately a peace deal.

But what else was Canada going to do? We believed in democracy and supported United Nations efforts for decades in countries around the world. It's what we did best, and everyone knew it. We assist countries unfamiliar with democratic debate, finding the commonalities, or striking a compromise, and remind them that peace and citizenship matter. We have been world experts at it. This is democracy in action -- messy, guided, open, but eventually respectful and more dignified than enemies had experienced.

How is it, then, that in Canada we are actually moving in the opposite direction? I was in a meeting recently in which an MP accused the government and Stephen Harper of being "evil" and "the enemy." I have heard the Prime Minister use that language himself on more than one occasion. The hurling of insults across the aisle of Parliament has now become a pandemic -- no respect, no dignity, no results.

And this week in our own City Council chambers, one respectful group of citizen protestors watched in dismay as another group took to catcalling, jeering and threatening because the politicians didn't vote their way. It was shameful conduct for any public space. As was a certain councillor's delivering a flyer showing Adolf Hitler, and likening the Third Reich to people who supported fluoride in the water.

What is going on in Canada? Some will call it rebellion, others will call it change, still others will label it some kind of necessary adjustment. I agree with all three, but when we stop treating fellow citizens or politicians as ends in themselves and only as means to our ends, then we have lost our way as a people.

In one of his more memorable speeches, John Kennedy stated,

"What is objectionable, what is dangerous about highly opinionated people, is not that they are extreme but that they are intolerant. The evil is not what they say about their cause, but what they say about their opponents."

I've been in public life a long time and I have never seen the public space so tainted by intolerance and the loss of personal dignity. Yes, politicians have refused to lead by example; but then again, citizens are doing the same. There is now the feeling afoot in this once-more peaceable nation that we have to yell louder, act more stridently, cast dignity and respect out the window if we are to get a hearing or make change.

Many of the people holding to this view have turned their back on Martin Luther King Jr.'s advice to keep away from the cycle of violence and hatred, because it will be inevitable that one terrible deed or word will only bring on more of it. This was also one of the main tenets of Gandhi's life or Mandela's creed.

Are we now at the place where such examples no longer have the power to refine our national character? Are we really so empty as to present them with titles and honourary citizenship and yet refuse their advice?

Canada is quickly becoming a chamber that echoes the voice of the strident over the quiet more modulated tones of Canadians still respectful of the public space and its importance. Unless those citizens arise and engage in the national dialogue it is only a matter of time until everyone will think everything is hopeless.

We will become a stalemate nation rather than a progressive one. We will reach the point where our ears will become eclipsed by our voices.

In my global experience, only those willing to speak and act respectfully, despite years of war and disappointment, were able to eventually find peace for their people. The irony of Canada passing from a peaceable nation to one consumed by wars of words and disrespect is to turn democracy on its head and slam it into reverse.