With minor revisions, as originally published via THEMUSEUM’s CultKW online magazine on October 6, 2021
I’ve been trying to abstain from debate.
It’s not easy. I like to jump into the fray now and then. Fighting with words is my preference — words carefully and deliberately chosen, so with forethought, not in a face to face, spur of the moment confrontation.
This combative bent has served me well. I was invited to join the Waterloo Regional Arts Council after denouncing, in caustic language, their proposal to revitalize my city’s ailing legacy civic and business district by putting up giant heritage murals, just like Welland, Chemainus and scores of other desperate towns and cities from coast to coast.
I was invited to write weekly commentary on the regional arts, culture and heritage scene for our daily newspaper after submitting a sequence of op ed pieces expressing my utter contempt for the rhetoric and the actions emanating from Queen’s Park under Premier Mike Harris and his Common Sense Revolution wrecking crew.
This was a “Second Opinion” piece ridiculing a proposal from one of the global consulting firms to reconfigure our KWS into an Ontario Symphony Orchestra that convinced the publisher to invite me to make a weekly contribution to the paper, which I did for the next 22 years.
So in a very real way, my belligerence became a gateway to how I ended up earning my bread and butter. And now I’m trying to give it up.
This is a direction I’ve been leaning toward for some time. It stems from a growing uneasiness with stereotypical partisan stands. I do have convictions, preferences, hopes, loyalties, aspirations and sensitivities. I have learned, however, that taking an aggressive stand diametrically opposed to the convictions, preferences and sensitivities of someone else can backfire: Opponents become more deeply entrenched in their positions, or get drawn into positions that contradict what they originally stood for.
I have also become aware, lately, of how easily we can get drawn into simplistic pro or con, yes or no, us or them, either/or stand offs. Sometimes we’re enticed into such positions deliberately, to set us against one another, to confuse us, to distract us from what’s actually at stake. But it mostly happens by force of habit.
The idea that political discourse takes place in a kind of arena, with Habs vs Leafs, red-shirts vs blue-shirts locked in endless combat, has become part of how we think, how we try to make sense of our world and our place in it. Watching from the stands can be wonderfully entertaining, and personally participating as a contestant can be a healthy exercise for the body and the mind. But in terms of actually solving or learning anything, gladiator-style debate is usually inconsequential. It can also be deadly dangerous. The issues we’re facing today are of grave consequence. Partisanship has become an obstacle.
Trying to hold back my pugnacity is not a turn towards a friendlier, more tolerant approach. I haven’t resolved to turn the other cheek against noxious or deceptive ideological positions. On the contrary. Part of the motivation is the realization that we’ve reached the point where certain varieties of wrong-headedness have become an existential threat to all us creatures here below. We can’t afford to treat dangerous perversions of truth with “both sides” politeness or a sporting fair play any longer.
I touched on this subject in two “musings” written for CultKW.com a while back: Beyond Opinion, and Further Beyond Opinion. These pieces began as part of an experiment in refraining from confrontational debate. Both deal with controversy over proposed developments, two high rises and a mega-warehouse; the stories were all presented in the press as parochial opposition to change – Not In My Back Yard – NIMBY fights.
The point I tried to make is that these are not two-way debates, in which decision makers are expected to choose between a “yes” and a “no” side. What we’re involved in here is a collective deliberation exercise, not a stand-off between opposing forces. These are broad, many-faceted issues. There’s far more at stake than a neighbourhood trying to protect its stability, preserve its character, and the right to quiet enjoyment of their space under the terms that were in place when their homes were initially rented or purchased. The outcome will impact everyone who lives here, today and for generations to come.
Civic deliberation is best served by avoiding two-way standoffs, and turning, instead, to broadening the range of what warrants being taken into account, thereby complicating the picture. To be effective, inclusive and meaningful, civic deliberation needs to move “beyond opinion”.
A genuinely civil conversation is, essentially, a learning process: The basic question, as Waterloo Architecture professor Rick Haldenby asked in relation to the condo boom in the older parts of Kitchener, is “What kind of city are we building?” What would be the best possible result, taking every factor into consideration?
“Where there is much desire to learn,” John Milton famously wrote in Areopagitica, “there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making.” But opinion from misguided gladiatorial types, including the deceivers and the deceived, is hate, fear, ignorance, schism and violence in the making.
Stumbling upon a noisy display of hard-hearted opinion can be infuriating. The impulse to flip such offenders the bird, as Uptown Councillor Tenille Bonoguore did back in June, can be irresistable. It is wiser, however, to respond as one would to a highly contagious disease: apply the antidote (good-heartedness really does beat hate, always), but from a distance, with the best personal protective equipment available.
From Op-ed → Guest Essay
This new resolve to avoid confrontational positions coincided with the recent announcement that the New York Times is retiring the term “op-ed“. I was interested to learn that “op-ed”, a term the Times introduced just over 50 years ago, means opinions published on the page opposite the editorials in a traditional newspaper layout. The change is driven by the shift toward accessing the paper’s content online, beyond the physical page. Opinions from outside the Times editorial structure are now called “guest essays”.
I have mixed feelings about this. I think of essays as structured arguments, probably because of the role essay writing had in my high school and post-secondary education: You begin with a thesis statement, and support it with logic and evidence. The goal is to produce a cogent, convincing composition.
Opinions are softer propositions: the Latin root means from “conjecture, fancy, belief, what one thinks.” When you say “this is my opinion,” you’re saying “I suppose… ,” not “this is absolute Truth” or “here I stand, I can do no other.”
The word “essay” can also mean trial, attempt, weigh, test, so the distinction may not be as stark and clear as I first thought. But it’s important to see that there is a difference. (These musings, incidentally, are offered as the softest, most free-wheeling of opinions. Let’s stir things up a bit, but playfully, not to make more trouble, of which there is plenty to go around).
The opinion pages have always been my favourite section of the daily newspaper. This is usually the first place I look. After that, anything with local/regional relevance is of interest; the rest is mostly chaffe. There are many sources for quality news and commentary about Canada, the U.S. and the world at large, but on the local front, the daily newspaper has, until recently, had little serious competition.
Almost every day, I come across something that widens my perspective, complicates my understanding, and opens possibilities for further thought and action. Increasingly, this tends to be material that reaches me through a friend or someone I follow on one social medium or another, primarily in text form. My own posting and sharing of material has increased in frequency and length throughout the 18 months I remained isolated in my “coop at the co-op.”
The social media behemoths have been blamed for fostering partisan division, serving as platforms for disseminating what I call “truth splinters”: narrow, partial or perverse views that are readily transfigured into lies and used to foster fear, resentment, judgement and hate. What gets left out can be more significant than what finds its way to our respective feeds.
Online sources of information offer an hitherto unimaginable wealth of material. With so much food for thought readily available, mostly at no cost beyond what they charge for Internet access, the editorial aspect becomes increasingly important. And it pains me to say it, but right now, my Facebook friends, LinkedIn contacts, and the people I follow on Twitter are doing a better job sorting through the Whole World Wide web and directing my attention to material that can be of practical value for learning, imagining and doing things here in our neck of the woods than what our beleaguered regional daily and weekly papers are able to do.
When I first encountered the term “editorial product”, it sounded repugnant, partly because it was in something Conrad Black had said. But when I subscribe to — literally, underwrite — the local paper, that’s precisely what I’m supporting: An editorial product, put together by people I can trust to sort through all the material available, and select what can be of good use to me as an engaged citizen of my city and region: Kitchener, Cambridge, Waterloo, Grand River Country.
When I subscribe to a newspaper or a certain kind of magazine, I’m also underwriting a learning institution. The way Milton explains it, what he calls opinion and I’m calling civic deliberation begins with a desire to learn. When we really want to learn, we open our minds to perceive, proffer and receive knowledge and wisdom. The objective is not to triumph, but to create and recreate something tenable that is also practically useful, drawing on all the facets and slivers of fact, truth and possibility that are within the range of comprehension.
That includes the kind of understanding that the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation last week is all about. My sense is that Truth, when we begin to approach it, will not be the final triumph of one conclusion over another — a kind of historical Judgement Day — but suddenly catching a glimpse of the enormity and the complexity of the great historical wrongs that are the foundation of North American culture and society.