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B.C. VIEWS: A toast to civil debate in the new year

Not only is name calling juvenile, it is unproductive

With another Christmas behind us and a new year ahead, thoughts often turn to the future.

Most resolutions never see the end of February, but if I have one hope for the new year it is a return to civility – both in politics and everyday life.

This is not a new call, and most leaders echoed the thought in their year-end addresses. Prime Minister Trudeau urged Canadians to take better care of each other; Queen Elizabeth reflected on a “bumpy” past year; Governor General Judy Payette called on Canadians to “stand up against hate and violence and to work together hand-in-hand for the common good.”

Noble sentiments, all. But too often they get lost in the din of acrimonious debate.

We see it at council meetings, in the legislature, and most particularly, online.

Discussion has been replaced by diatribe. Argument has devolved into puerile name-calling that should have been left on the playground long ago.

That’s not to say we must agree on every point. Debate is the essence of our democracy. We’ve even institutionalized it with official opposition parties whose job it is to question and critique government policies and priorities.

Nor does it mean we cannot have strong opinions. Not only is it our right to question opinions held by others, it is our responsibility to challenge them if they infringe on the rights of others.

We have some real challenges in British Columbia this year that demand our attention. Yes, our economy is strong, but our forestry sector is in peril, threatening those communities who count on it. Housing affordability in our urban centres remains a critical concern. And the health and welfare of our most vulnerable – including a growing number of seniors – needs long-term answers.

Crafting these solutions will take teamwork and consensus. However, in the past few years we have seen an erosion of this middle ground. Polarization has become entrenched. Inflexibility is a strength, concession a weakness, and suspicion a virtue.

We see it most blatantly online, where personal insults and name-calling have become the norm, and even physical threats have prompted police action.

But we’re also seeing it in our public meetings. A recent Surrey council meeting could hardly be held up as a model of democratic decorum. Not only were councillors shouted down by an angry and vociferous public, the city’s mayor was accused of stifling debate by ramming through his contentious budget.

Former Surrey mayor Dianne Watts called the performance, “disgraceful.”

READ MORE: Surrey budget passes as loud crowd fills city hall

But worse, it’s not productive. That kind of divisiveness undermines confidence in the process, making us skeptical of the results.

We have complicated problems in this province that cannot be solved by yelling insults across the aisle.

It will take reasoned and fact-based debate – but exercised with respect and acknowledgement for other points of view.

The new year is a great time to take stock of where we’ve been and where we want to go. Sure, let’s lose a few pounds, eat more vegetables and exercise more often.

But let’s also do a better job working with each other.

Greg Knill is a columnist and former Black Press editor. Email him at [email protected].


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