Conversations toward a healthy democracy

By Leslie Campbell, October 2013

Empathy, facts and logic are needed to protect the public square.

As I write I am having one of those days filled with miscommunication. Even the email I sent asking a friend “A or B?” came back saying “sure.” It seems many of us are too busy these days to listen carefully to each other—myself included, I realize, as I repeat a question to David, having forgotten to listen the first time he answered. Time to slow down and hear each other!

This was one of the themes I heard at The Walrus Talks event at the Belfry Theatre in mid September. The topic under discussion was “The Art of Conversation.” On the bill were six speakers, who each offered up pearls of wisdom around what doesn’t work and what could—in communicating with each other, reinvigorating the public square, finding common ground, and reconciliation.

Author Robert Wiersema drew from his experience teaching dialogue—one of the hardest things to teach and a challenge for many writers. After explaining how it involves an exchange, or dance of ideas (as opposed to monologue), he said, “It’s world-changing!” He asked us to imagine how different things could be if parents—or politicians—really engaged on this level. We certainly don’t learn much from our own monologues.

CBC’s Shelagh Rogers told us a hilarious self-deprecating story of how as a young reporter in the early 70s she almost blew it interviewing one of Canada’s cultural icons, writer Robertson Davies—on live radio. She had got it into her head that he was a war hero, not a Governor General’s Award-winning writer. When he gently enlightened her, well, what could she do? She realized she knew nothing so simply said, “Tell me about yourself.” 

The experience taught her not just to avoid entering conversations with preconceived ideas, but also that “Tell me about yourself” is the most powerful phrase there is—“it’s wide open and neutral.” This is why the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been so compelling in her view. “Tell me about what happened to you…These are stories that will heal Canada, if we just listen,” she said.

Jim Hoggan—who runs the influential website Desmogblog and is the author of Climate Cover-Up: the Crusade to Deny Global Warming—is a PR professional who dedicates himself to fighting misinformation especially around issues like climate change. But his mission on September 16 (and the subject of his forthcoming book, Polluted Public Square) was to urge us to protect the state of public discourse. Just as we can pollute the physical environment, we can pollute the public conversational sphere. We do it when we brand one another as “foreign-funded radicals” or call tarsands oil “heroin.” We do it when we shout at each other instead of focusing on the data. We do it when we say “I’m right, you’re wrong, let me tell you what to think.” These are conversation stoppers, linguistic strategies that turn people off so they don’t participate in public discourse. 

Mr Hoggan, a trustee of the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education, was able to ask the Dalai Lama how he would advise those engaged in public discussions. “We must speak out against injustice but not in a way that causes more hatred,” answered the Dalai Lama. Thich Nhat Hanh, also interviewed for Hoggan’s book, told him: “Speak the truth but not to punish.”

Yet one could feel Hoggan’s frustration around the climate change issue: “Why is it that despite all the information from scientists, we are doing so little to fix serious problems?” he asked. He blamed it on mistrust and apathy—generated by toxic public discourse which implies there are no facts or logic from which to judge. To clean up the situation, it seems, we need both greater empathy for one another and greater respect for the truth.

Respect for the truth is definitely lacking, argued the next speaker, as many media don’t appear to care about the facts anymore. Samantha Nutt, a medical doctor, award-winning humanitarian (she founded War Child Canada) and best-selling author (Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, Armies and Aid) cited Fox News, Sun Media, and pundits like Glenn Beck and Sarah Pallin as reckless with facts. The NRA, she noted, advocates for more guns despite irrefutable evidence from different countries that guns increase death. Such disregard for the truth, she lamented, has limited our opportunities to engage in healthy public argument—argument that exposes assumptions and tests facts and logic.

If people don’t value facts and evidence-based, logical argument, we certainly do have a problem. All the climate science in the world is not going to have real impact. As a former philosophy instructor, I am all for nurturing a citizenry that cherishes intellectual debate, that embraces Socrates dictum: “We must follow the argument wherever it leads.” And some empathy and respect for our opponents is a good thing.

There were more insights into the art of conversation that evening. After the formal talk, audience members seemed animated and inspired to put into practice their lessons in dialogue. One activist I know even challenged herself to converse with someone who would normally be her nemesis: the spokesperson for the Canadian Petroleum Producers Association (the CPPA sponsored the Talk—a topic in its own right).


ELEVEN DAYS AFTER THE WALRUS TALKS, I attended another event. The Sunshine Summit dovetailed with one of the concerns raised by Dr Nutt and Mr Hoggan: that for public discourse to flourish, we need to start with facts. This mini-conference addressed our access to government records—facts we need, in the words of Beverley McLachlin, Chief Justice of Canada in a 2009 speech, to check government’s tendency to “despotic secrecy.” 

As you may surmise, the day was more alarming than inspiring. Held during “Right to Know Week,” it was full of ominous examples of the erosion of our rights to both privacy and information. On one panel, Focus’s Rob Wipond enumerated no less than 11 strategies employed by government officials to delay or deny his access to information (his column this month discusses some of them).

The keynote speech at the Sunshine Summit was given by Darrell Evans of the Canadian Institute for Information and Privacy Studies and a founder of BC’s Freedom of Information and Privacy Association. He described the fight to know as “an epic struggle—the struggle of the age: Who has access to information, who has control of information?…These are at the foundation of the political struggles that are happening in the world today.”

Unfortunately, as Mr Evans pointed out, since the introduction of BC’s access to information legislation 20 years ago, not only has a culture of openness not been achieved, “we have lost ground on information and privacy rights.” The BC government has passed “damaging amendments,” but mostly, he reported, the problem lies in the ways our rights to information are circumvented as government resists sharing what it knows with citizens. “In a democracy,” he said, “information management becomes the government’s most important tool for controlling their agenda, for building a reality, for manufacturing consent. They talk a lot now about the social licence—‘we’ve got to go to the public and at least pretend we’re consulting to win this social license thing.’”

The good news is there is a global movement, including some highly talented people locally committed to helping us get the facts we need to engage in those important public conversations that keep our democracy flourishing. (And over our 25 years, Focus has proudly worked with many of them.)

Leslie Campbell is the founder and editor of Focus—which with this edition is 25 full years old! Please join the conversation by emailing us your letters for our well-read “readers views” department to Subscriptions encouraged too; Please see page 19 for details.