I was sitting at a table the other day with Kate White, the NDP’s MLA for Takhini Kopper-King, talking with some mutual friends. After Ms. White left someone at the table made a comment that Kate and I must not get along because we have different politics.
The situation is actually just the opposite: Kate and I are old friends. I quite enjoy her company and I think she works hard for her constituents. Though our politics may be different, I have a lot of respect for her as I know how gruelling the political game can be and I think she articulates her points and her causes well.
The comment got me thinking generally about political discourse in the territory, and how polarized and personal discussion has become.
The comment about my unfounded animus towards Kate implies that people who have different view-points must somehow fundamentally dislike each other, that one cannot disagree with another person’s opinion without finding fault in that person personally. Which always seemed like a strange position to assume, given that if people all had the same point-of-view we wouldn’t need democratic system to help us make decisions.
The Peel debate is a good example of how polarized and personal the discourse has become. Many of the opponents of the government’s Peel plan sling accusations at our elected politicians, claiming they are in the pocket of oil and gas, or that they are somehow running rough-shod over our democratic system.
Those in favour of the Peel plan sling back, saying the pro-Peel movement is in the pocket of international environmental groups who, in turn, are in the pocket of foreign governments bent on stemming the rise of oil and gas production in North America.
In both cases, it’s far from a civil discourse concerning the twin issues of development and First Nation sovereignty in the territory. The discussion has ground down to a black-and-white argument, of which both sides see good guys and bad guys in the equation, rather than people with equally valid but different points of view.
One only has to take a quick gander at the comments on-line underneath any one of the Yukon News op-ed articles (including mine) to see individuals anonymously taking shots at writers personally for opinions voiced in the paper. Though, as they say in the op-ed world, any response is a good response as it means you are being read, it is still a bit of a downer when somebody rebuts the point of an article by calling into questions personal motives.
Questioning the sacred cows of our system and offering alternatives are how societies change and evolve to meet the needs of changing times and demographics. Constantly calling into question the personal integrity of writers is not helpful, and instead dissuades people from offering opinions.
This is not to say that spirited debate is not warranted in our society. In fact, such debate is a critical underpinning of our democratic system. What I am saying is that such debate is not helped by constant accusations of malfeasance in our public figures, or impugning that they have personal gain at stake does not help the process.
It is no wonder people are loathe to enter the public sphere given the intense personal animosity that suddenly springs up seemingly overnight. Regardless of political stripe, the people who enter politics are generally citizens looking to provide sounds administration and make the territory a better place for all to live. Many take pay cuts to do so, or leave jobs that offer more anonymity and time off. It is fine to criticize the decisions of those people, but there is no need to criticize the person.
The natural response to this article is that one shouldn’t enter the political fray if they cannot take the heat. I would suggest that this “heat” is not a necessary part of the political system.
We can disagree and remain civil with one another. The system we have built is based upon disagreement, but it is not based upon us personally disliking each other because of a divergence in opinions.
So, next time you see a politician in the store, regardless of their political stripe, how about thanking them for their service to the community and move on? It will be a refreshing change from the rain of negatives that usually accompanies their job.
Graham Lang is a Whitehorse lawyer and long-time Yukoner.