An Unfinished Conversation

In the wake of the recent transition of power in the United States, we reflect on how the crucial conversation of national unity is being left unfinished.

We had something of a busy week in the news. MP Derek Sloan was removed from the Conservative caucus, and Julie Payette is stepping down as Governor General following a workplace review at Rideau Hall. However, the news cycle was undoubtedly dominated by the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States.

Biden’s Inauguration

The inauguration last Wednesday hit a few historical firsts. It saw Kamala Harris sworn in as the first female, Black and South Asian vice president in the history of the nation. Instead of the usual multitudes at the National Mall, it was a much more restrained event, due to the violent incidents at Capitol Hill on January 6th. For the first time since Andrew Johnson left the White House over 150 years ago, the outgoing president did not attend the inauguration. And in a minor but endearing first, Major Biden became the first rescue dog in the White House, earning his own “indoguration”.

The inauguration marked the beginning of what is already a very active Biden administration. And I hope that it closes, at least for now, what’s probably the most tumultuous transition of power in the history of the United States. To be sure, the post-electoral events and their aftermath will continue to monopolize the attention of the media, political experts and the general public for some time to come. And to an extent, this is rightfully so. I don’t have much to say about this. I’ll leave that to the experts. What does concern me is that this will introduce yet another delay in an ever-unfinished conversation – that of the continuing polarization and division of the United States.

Polarization Rears its Ugly Head

I think there are two levels or dimensions to this problem. One is the political leadership sphere, and the other is the lay people sphere. In the political leadership sphere, I’m pessimistic. I think there won’t be agreement on a number of issues. There will continue to be deep ideological divisions, which is expected, because they stem from radically different worldviews. What pains me is the way those worldviews are engaging in conversation, or rather, not engaging. I see few attempts to listen, educate, explain or debate the viewpoints, nuances and bases for specific actions or decisions. There seems to be no interest in considering diverse perspectives and having rich discussions. It really looks more like a mere exchange of actions and reactions.

Consider Biden’s inaugural address. It was centered on unity and reconciliation. However, that has been the case of numerous presidential campaign and inaugural addresses over the years. In practice, the new administration came out of the gates with a series of sudden and hard movements to the left of the political spectrum. And you could argue that that’s just the way politics work. It’s what power is meant for. But in the words of respected leadership guru John Maxwell, everything rises and everything falls on leadership. This way of doing politics from both sides of the aisle inevitably translates to animosity in the small public squares of the average American.

Polarized Conversations Be Like…

And that’s the second sphere I referenced earlier, and my biggest cause for concern. As a lay person looking in from the outside, political and societal conversations in America increasingly look like a bad technical support call to me. Let me illustrate. If you’re like me, you grew up with technology – unlike our parents and uncles and aunts. Which makes us our families' tech support, more often than not. Picture a relative calling you from out of town to get help with their computer, phone, Wi-Fi connected smart TV or any other so-called smart home gadget. These days, it’s easy to securely take over someone else’s device in order to provide support. But for this example, let’s suppose that all you have is a phone call, or at best a video call through FaceTime or similar.

Now, these calls tend to face two significant challenges. Let’s say there are two things that can go horribly wrong on these calls. The first one is a lack of clarity about the facts. Each person on the call may have different ideas on which step they’re on, what has been done, or what has not been done. Which files were deleted? Was the backup restored? Which version? Which app was installed? Were page numbers formatted before or after inserting the section break? You get it.

And the second thing is that there’s growing frustration on both ends, and with it a brooding temptation to take things personally. Your relative is trying to accomplish something, and they’re frustrated that they can’t do it on their own; they’re incapable of it, and they may feel that this session isn’t getting them any closer. On your end, you know how to do whatever needs to be done. And if not, you’re confident that you can figure it out. That’s not the problem. But you are frustrated about the limitations of the medium, about not being together in the same place, looking at things from the same point of view. Your relative is becoming increasingly impatient, increasingly unable to follow what you think are clear instructions, and you can feel yourself growing increasingly frustrated as well. It may take all you have to not lash out at this person, to not jeopardize what’s hopefully a loving and respectful relationship over whatever it is you’re trying to accomplish together, whether it’s trivial or crucial.

And that’s why I say that as a lay person, as an outsider looking in on political and societal conversations unfolding in America these days, they look a lot like a bad tech support call. There is a lack of clarity around the facts being discussed, and the conversation is increasingly spilling over from a discussion of ideas and viewpoints into a personal attack on the other person’s integrity and morality.

Let’s look at what may be the simplest and least contentious example, climate change. Something that may come across as a simple “yes or no” matter actually has multiple layers. First, do you believe that we are experiencing an abnormal climate? Does the person you’re talking to agree? If so – second, is this part of a normal and expected cycle, or is it an outlier? Have we seen this before? Will this resolve on its own? If you think that isn’t the case – third, is human activity significantly influencing climate? And in a sense, irrespective of whether it is or not, are we expected to take significant action on this? And if that’s the case – how urgent is that? How quickly should we move? Is this worth dropping everything else and working on this instead? How do you weigh this against other societal and economical concerns? What about the bigger philosophical issues, like the role of government and the sacrifices of individual liberties to achieve this common goal?

And if you get dragged into a lack of clarity, a lack of nuance, an inability to find some common ground from which to look at these things together, there’s a temptation to take it personally. Very quickly you seem to be left with nothing but a handful of disturbing conclusions about this person’s character. I’m bringing data, facts, arguments, and this person still doesn’t get it. Are they intellectually deficient? Or maybe they do get it, but are blatantly ignoring my point. Are they then morally deficient? Are they questioning the validity and integrity of the science or reason I’m bringing? Are they judging my intellect and morality?

Some Examples

Mind you – this is probably the simplest topic. I don’t think I need to give you an example around race or gender. But I think you can extrapolate this to a wide variety of issues. And with recent events after the election taking a sense of urgency, boiling over, I think there’s a risk that this divisiveness will remain an unfinished conversation. And unfortunately, I don’t expect politicians to lead the way here.

A particularly troublesome concern here is the idea of reducing this to one person. Over the last four years, in the minds of some, everything wrong with America could be traced back to Donald Trump. In that view, the events of January 6 were the unfortunate logical culmination, the ultimate expression of that issue. But I think this is an oversimplification. To be clear, I do believe that Trump is responsible for those events. Again, everything rises and falls on leadership. The task before political strategists now is to determine how much attention they want to bring to Trump and to these events going forward. How to balance the pursuit of justice with the political attention and capital that come with claiming to be a victim. How to determine what is the right thing to do, and what will just drive further polarization.

That’s an important and necessary debate. But I think that ascribing all pre-existing issues to Trump doesn’t get at the heart of the problem. We can even debate whether he was an effect, as opposed to the cause, of this climate. And my take on that is, maybe a bit of both. Unfortunately, this is a system that really allows only two players at any given time. Voters have to side with one of them, but that doesn’t mean they endorse every single element of a candidate’s program, or every character trait. Sadly, that’s exactly what happens in a polarized society. It’s tempting and convenient to center this crisis on one person, to extrapolate all of their shortcomings to all of their voters and to think that his demise will fix this. I suspect that’s too simplistic and won’t be useful.

What About Canada?

Let’s move our attention to Canada now. Is this cause for concern here? I think the answer is yes, and not just because what happens south of the border reverberates up here. I think the bigger problem is that we’re not immune to these issues. Our leaders, and even us lay people, are not above the possibility of lacking clarity and taking things personally in our public square. You just need to look at the 2019 federal campaign. I feel that we spent a lot of time discussing what were politicians allowed to debate in the first place, and what we didn’t want candidates to bring up, or to allow their caucuses to bring up, on the floor of the House of Commons.

We did a great job debating what not to talk about, but it took away valuable air time from many other things we definitely should have talked about. Perhaps we thought that this would prevent excessive conflict and polarization. I actually wonder if it was the opposite – if the mere opposition to certain conversations can itself trigger divisiveness and polarization. And with the current geopolitical situation, not yet out of the weeds with this pandemic, and the ever-frail condition of a minority government, this difficulty to remain together as we tackle complex topics feels very uncomfortable.

Closing Thoughts

I’ll say again that I’m not naive. There are things we’ll never agree on. Still, we need to be able to talk about them. The audio-only tech support call may be very hard, very inconvenient, very exhausting. But we need to complete the task and move on – together. I think we need to strive to accept nuances and consider various viewpoints before we distill everything into a “yes or no” referendum and then lose it at those who are “on the wrong side”. And like I said earlier, I think we need to take ownership for this individually, because unfortunately I don’t think politicians are going to drive it.

There are quite a few things I ignore. Quite a few things I have no answer for. Things I’m not able to see through. But this is my pledge, for this podcast, and for pretty much every conversation in my public square: I will be constructive. I will be respectful. I will be positive. Even when things get tough. Even as I firmly defend my views or disagree with yours. I want to encourage you to hold me accountable to this pledge. Call me out if I stray too far from it. And I would humbly suggest to you: consider taking a similar pledge in your conversations, in your small public squares.

I think this will need tools. We’ll need to be equipped to achieve this. And on those lines, I want to leave you on a positive note. Many of our listeners enjoyed our first episode (article, podcast), the discussions we had on self-defeating ideas and the conflation of science and reason with philosophy. And in our next episode, we’ll talk about things like that again. I won’t discuss current events or news, except perhaps to illustrate some points. Instead, I’ll share with you a litmus test that you can apply to a viewpoint to know whether it can be discussed following the laws of science or logical debate. If the viewpoint can’t be discussed reasonably or scientifically, it doesn’t mean it can’t be discussed, period. It’s just a different type of discussion, with different goals perhaps. I hope you’ll join me for that. And if you like it, I hope you share it.

Published: January 25, 2021