The final days of the campaign are ticking down and there's no clear winner in sight. As the polls pull back from a possible Conservative majority (but don't swing towards a Liberal victory), the debates are starting to get a little heated. You can see it on BlogsCanada's Election Group Blog, even though all of the posters are doing a good job of keeping their tempers in check. Their heated remarks underlines the excitement of the campaign. It also, however, illustrates the bitterness of passions in conflict.
Individual supporters of all parties and even some candidates (with the exception of the Greens, who will smile even if the party ends up with just 3% of the vote and no seats) have started to get swept up in this excitement. In the thrill of the election game, when it is clear that nobody will win but a lot of people will lose, they have started to lose their perspective. They are no longer in a debate with other Canadians about Liberal, Conservative or New Democrat visions of the country; rather, they are at war. And those who oppose them are not only unCanadian, they are deviants who cannot rightly be called human beings.
You all know somebody that fits this description. You've all seen trolls come onto newsgroups and hammer away at Liberal "criminals", Conservative "racists" or NDP "commies". Their raison d'etre has ceased to be a positive debate of the issues; it has transformed into attacks on individuals, triumphalism, crowing and general rudeness. I may be making far more than I should of these small individuals, but I think it highlights in us all of the temptations we have to forget that those who disagree with us are as human as us.
The reasons behind such bitterness is understandible. Nobody likes to lose. More than that, as the election is all about the conflict of ideas in a public forum, to find yourself on the losing side of the numbers' game feels like a national rejection of one's personal views. This allows me some sympathy when some voters have called others "sheep", "idiots", "rednecks" and "mouth breathers". Some sympathy. As the contempt that some disaffected voters show to their fellow man increases, I fear for the loss of their own humanity in small, piecemeal ways.
In many cases, this attitude can be traced right to the top. When Paul Martin labelled Stephen Harper "unCanadian" and when Jack Layton accused Paul Martin of complicity in the death of homeless people, their statements became the talking points of the supporters beneath them. It was outright permission for Liberal supporters to call Conservatives traitors to Canada, and for New Democrats to call Liberal supporters murderers. The nadir was reached when a Conservative party press release accused Paul Martin and Jack Layton of supporting child pornography. Although the accusation was confined to a hastily rewritten headline questioning Liberal and NDP voting records, the Toronto Sun made this accusation explicit in a particularly odious editorial: Liberal and NDP supporters are voting in favour of child pornography, it argued.
During a (vain and fruitless) attempt to keep the invective of Internet flamewars from destroying the usability of online newsgroups, some longtime posters proposed the creation of Godwin's Law (akin to Murphy's Law). It noted that many of the more heated shouting matches on the Internet, no matter how innocently they started, usually got around to evoking comparisons to Hitler. Hitler tried to ban guns, you know? You can't take away my rights; you're just like Hitler. Hitler liked cheese! And whenever that point was reached, sometime immediately before that all hope for a rational, logical debate of the issue was lost. So, as soon as you hear Hitler raised in an argument (excepting this one), pack up your bags and leave the thread, because there is no intelligent life left to be debated here.
If it's not already, paedophilia should be the Godwin's Law of Canadian politics. I mean, who here seriously supports paedophilia? Absolutely nobody! And most everybody knows this. Once somebody goes around and accuses you of doing unspeakable things to babies, all hope for an intelligent debate of the issues has vanished. The person making the accusation is not interested in discussing matters as two human beings with legitimate differences; that person no longer views you as a human being, and you're not going to get anything remotely intelligent out of this person in the near future.
I'd like to say that the paedophilia comments are an aberration of the process, limited to a minuscule minority in one party, but it's not. The number of people who have succumb to irrational hyperbole may still represent a minority of the electorate, but no party is immune. While some Conservatives are content to defame the CBC as the "Communist Broadcasting Corporation", too often have I heard otherwise rational individuals across the ideological divide label Conservatives in general as "fascists". I know a number of Conservative party supporters, and this term does not in any way apply. The number of people reacting to the Conservatives with outright and irrational fear is discouraging to me. By all means, criticize the Conservatives' all you want on their policy, but don't personally impugne the character of their hundreds of thousands of supporters, who are perfectly normal human beings who are supporting their party for their own honest reasons.
A friend once told me that it was about time that those on the left side of the fence finally stood up and got as in-your-face as the Ann Coulters and the Rush Limbaughs in the continuing degredation of political debate. My reply was "what is more wrong? The tactics being used against you, or the people using them?" I remain a firm believer that the overwhelming majority of the voting public are kind, rational, normal human beings, and that's not such a stretch, surely. It is possible for someone to disagree with me without being seen as a fool or a rogue for doing so. Some people, including the angry editors of the Toronto Sun, see such individuals as being more than fools and rogues; they see them as the scum of the earth. I'm frankly surprised that the Toronto Sun editors didn't follow up their defamation and call for the rounding up and arrest of all Liberal and New Democratic Party supporters. Since, in the Sun editor's eyes, such people are no better than pedophiles, I'm sure that the Sun editors believe that all Liberal and NDP supporters should no longer be entitled to have an opinion.
And there's the rub: they've just disenfranchised half of the electorate. They've made themselves a bigger dictator than Mussolini. Worse than that, they have said to one in every two people they meet on the street "you don't count anymore. you're nothing to me. I hate you."
Not only is that a lot of hate but, frankly, I find it to be an unChristian attitude. Christ's Sermon on the Mount explicitly states that you owe everybody you meet some level of respect as a human being, even those who would slap you across the cheek ("turn to them the other cheek"). That means not infallable in your arguments, and not seeing your opponents as enemies to be destroyed rather than debated. I may be speaking for myself as an Anglican, but I believe from the people I meet that most people in most religions, and even and especially those who profess no religion, that they understand that every human they meet is not to be written off.
In our quieter, more rational moments, we understand that we are all entitled to our disagreements, and while we are free (obliged, even) to argue facts and opinions, there are lines which we should cross rarely, but which we cross all too often.
Well, I suppose it could be worse. We could be campaigning in America.
More Godwin's Law In Action
- From the CBC: MTtis leader apologizes for comparing Tory to Hitler