I had a marvellous day at NorQuest College this week, where I was given an open door to engage with students who are seeking new paths in life.
Invited to convene conversations about my new book, Us, I wanted to test if it is possible for all of us to talk with one another with authenticity and purpose. To share feelings. To exchange views without fear of attack. To actually support one another’s right to express our most cherished thoughts, without fear of being shouted down.
To my delight, NorQuest’s answer is a firm and resolute Yes. It is a place whose core value is treating people with integrity and respect. To empower and encourage risk taking. To celebrate commitment, contribution and accomplishments. In essence, to create a safe harbour to build our common future.
The college is a place where indigenous Canadians mingle with the newest newcomers, and everyone in between. It is in its own way a lived experience of sharing all we have and are, with respect and dignity.
Indeed, the deeply moving and meaningful experience of engaging with the NorQuest community, affirms all I had dared to imagine for the journey of Us.
The wondrous atmosphere our discussions evoked– people finding support among their peers to share the most intimate and personal aspects of being and belonging — is all the more welcome, in an age where anger and invective seem ever more prevalent in our public discourse.
The lesson NorQuest teaches us is this. By better knowing and understanding one another, we establish the trust and respect that is at the heart of building communities that endure.
This is so important to remember, at a time when Canadian political dialogue is bordering on toxic, seething with frustration and rage that is deeply unhealthy to a civil society that belongs to us all.
The NorQuest experience is a healthy reminder of a basic truth. When we focus on ways of actually being with and belonging to one another, our focus changes. It becomes apparent that civil conversation, the bedrock of a well-functioning democracy, is about accommodating differences.
It is about finding the compromises necessary so that people from very different backgrounds, raised with divergent experiences, each one’s version of “truth” shaded by the perceptions that have made them, can find a way to share a society.
The model of sustainable coexistence among many realities is really one of pluralism: a way to acknowledge and accommodate disagreement.
This has been the great virtue of modern Canada, our ability and capacity to mingle many streams of the human experience into a rich and dynamic national identity.
And it will wither away, unless we nurture it.
It is in peril, as annoyance is amplified into rage. And fed by the recirculation of inflammatory information. Much of which would not stand the scrutiny of facts and evidence.
One of the main reasons for the decline of civility, to which there is no easy path to clarity, is the demise of print journalism.
What passes as print newspapers today, at least in Canada, is the palest reflection of the vigour that prevailed in the last half of the 20th century. When legions of journalists with ample budgets to support them, could actually seek out truth, and speak it to power.
What we have lost, perhaps for good, is an appreciation for the value of curated news. And perhaps our willingness to search for the trade-offs we are willing to make, until we emerge with shared values.
Trained reporters and editors know how to “referee” the flow of information: to offer accounts that are verifiable with facts, to bring balance and perspective and context. Even to opinion writing, which, in the heyday of print, had to be grounded in a bias readily discernible to the most casual reader.
For trained journalists, as my friend and longtime colleague Marc Horton puts it, “citizen journalism” is rather like performing surgical procedures at home. Possible, yes, but is it really desirable?
For the inescapable reality is this. We have gone from curated news (even within the strictures of corporate media) to the anarchy of social-network driven “information.”
This incitement is fed by deeply subversive outlets like the reptilian Rupert Murdoch’s money-minting Fox News: spouting glossed up propaganda with ranting presenters who are the antithesis of responsible journalism, while having the audacity to claim it is fair and balanced.
In this world of propaganda masqueraded as objectivity, there are no filters, no curation, no editing: anyone is free to make the wildest accusations entirely ungrounded in reality.
This is how “freedom of expression,” the great hallmark of democracy, actually becomes a cancer eroding the very health and vigour of democratic discourse.
As social media algorithms herd users towards “information” that confirms their biases, the civic space for reasoned public dialogue diminishes.
And given the vicious nonsense spouted by cowards hiding behind the cloak of anonymity on comment sections and message boards, it takes a brave person indeed to even attempt to speak truth to power.
This adds another challenge to the quest for pluralism and respectful dialogue, which are at the heart of the civil society we should seek.
Yet as I learned at NorQuest this week, there are ways forward. Sometimes, we need to put down our screens, and actually be with one another. To see and hear one another as we are. With authenticity, not anonymity.
The interactions of the NorQuest community shows us the elements we need to be with, and belong to, one another. We need safe harbour. We need to support one another. To speak and listen to one another with acceptance. At home. At work. And yes, in the public sphere. To learn together. To share together. To accept human frailty.
And above all, to find common ground by exploring our disagreements. With respect. With dignity. With empathy. To build community for all of us.