A plea for respectful robustness

January 4, 2023

By Jean-François Lisée

Le Devoir, January 4th, 2023

Fierce debate on Parliament Hill

I have read many political programmes in my life and helped to write some of them. However, I had never come across a sentence like this: “We agree to disagree: our opponents are not our enemies.

Nor had I come across any variation of the following statement: “We claim the right to offend, to displease, to shock, to think differently, and we recognise the right of all to offend, to displease, to shock, and to think differently, but never to tolerate hate speech or incitement to hate.”

These excerpts are taken from the text published this autumn by the Bloc Québécois and which is destined to become the party’s credo. They are remarkable, because in other times it would have been incongruous to state these common sense positions. But since we are in 2023, in a world of toxic polarisation of public debate, these things that should go without saying them are decidedly better by saying them.

I choose to read into this a double appeal that only seems paradoxical at first glance. One can offend and shock, the Bloc tells us, without considering that the person one offends is an enemy. It is therefore a question of knowing how to debate and to formulate opinions that may seem radical, but while respecting one’s opponent and hoping that, if the latter offends us, he will not respect us any less. This is the basic equation of political – and judicial – debate, from which we seem to be moving away in both directions.

First, by considering it unbearable to be offended by a contrary opinion. From this refusal to live with the rough edges of debate came the expressions ‘micro-aggression’ and ‘safe space’. Secondly, by declaring that the person who dares to deviate from the view that is deemed right is necessarily, personally, unpalatable.

The main argumentative innovations of this century are aimed precisely at not engaging in discussion about the ideas themselves. If you are criticised by a man, call it mansplaining. By a woman? A feminazi. By a white man? A supremacist. By a black or aboriginal man? A woke.

If you are presented with a comparative argument to put your position into perspective, call it “whataboutism” (you are trying to compare what should not be compared). If someone criticizes an aspect of a cause you support, call it “dog whistle” (you use a partial argument that seems reasonable, but it’s only a misleading reference to your real, hateful conviction). If we want to put into context or add nuance to an argument you support, say it’s “gaslighting” (a reference to a Hitchcock film where a husband wanted to drive his wife crazy by playing on the brightness of gas lamps).

The toolbox of debate denial is overflowing. The certainty of being absolutely right is in vogue, as is the readiness to pillory the opponent. Two postures also taken head on by the Bloc authors. They claim “the right to be wrong, to reconsider our positions, to change our minds“. How refreshing! They then specifically oppose “censorship, the culture of nullification, intimidation, humiliation and people’s tribunals that substitute for the justice system, especially on social networks and under the guise of anonymity“.

This is the good fight: respect for others, attachment to the principles of benefit of the doubt and civil cohabitation of divergent points of view. We must learn (relearn?) to defend irreconcilable points of view – on abortion, the death penalty, end-of-life care – without cursing our opponent for thirteen generations.

Quebec is no exception. At the leaders’ debate, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois suggested to the conservative Éric Duhaime that he should run for office in Texas, and Duhaime retaliated by throwing Cuba in the face of the solidary member. In the Assembly, Nadeau-Dubois and François Legault called each other “Duplessis” and “woke. Despite these counter-examples, which are quite rare, Quebec seems to resist the spiral of polarization better than the rest of North America. We collectively have a reflex to refuse censorship and banned words. We refuse exclusion when it hits members of minorities, yes, but also when it ostracises white men.

This is probably because we come from a tradition of consensus-building, stemming from our condition as a minority people. The former president of McGill University, Bernard Shapiro, liked to say that the reason Quebecers were so successful in reaching agreement on all sorts of subjects in their forums, their industrial clusters, their economic summits, was that all the issues seemed derisory compared to the existential debate that had occupied them for half a century: Quebec’s independence.

In other words, because federalists and independents had survived two referendums that challenged their very identity without violence, they had acquired the tools of civility in these confrontations and could agree on all other, by definition less thorny, issues.

In the 1960s, when faced with student revolts and hippies complaining about the emptiness of a consumer society that their elders had built on the rubble of the last world war, older Frenchmen would sometimes make the comment: “It would take a good war! Young people would thus learn, they thought, the real harshness of life.

We don’t wish war on anyone, of course. But to follow Bernard Shapiro’s wise logic on the Quebec experience, we could conclude that to rewrite civility in the debate, “it would take a good referendum”.

jflisee@ledevoir.com / blog : jflisee.org

Michel Virard