A police officer is stabbed and four people are injured when a man drives a U-Haul into a crowd of pedestrians in Edmonton. The suspect is identified as 30-year-old Abdulahi Sharif. An ISIS flag is found in the vehicle.
Edmonton’s mayor, Don Iveson, Premier Notley and Prime Minister Trudeau issue statements condemning the attack and asking the public to remain calm while the police continue their investigation.
Right on cue Twitter lights up with comments blaming the attack on the federal, provincial, and/or municipal government and calling on the government to get rid of all Muslims and ban Islam. Ann Coulter weighs in and one bright light tells the terrorist to contact Justin Trudeau to claim his $10 million windfall.
The urge to respond to such xenophobic rhetoric “in kind” is overwhelming but gets us nowhere. If ever there was a need for public discourse in a civil society it’s now.
How do we increase public discourse?
Political philosopher Michael Sandel has some excellent suggestions.*
Step away from distracting provocations: Some politicians (eg Donald Trump) have a “dark genius” for distracting their followers from their failures with headline grabbing provocations; we need to recognize these distractions as meaningless and not be dragged down the rabbit hole.
Alberta has its own share of headline grabbing “commie scare” politicians who peddle a picture of a broken Alberta that only they can fix. It makes for a rousing stump speech but is nothing more than a distraction from the fact such politicians have no real policies other than taking a combative stance vis-à-vis the federal government, other provincial governments, and Albertans who aren’t convinced that the only way to move Alberta forward is to tear it down.
Seek out a compelling alternative and engage in ethical discussions: It’s easy to slag government policies by saying governments should be run like a business but framing the discussion in free market terms fails to acknowledge that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to monetize ethical and moral issues.
Sandel says policy discussions framed only in free market terms cannot address questions like: What does a just society look like? How do we address income inequity or social inequality? Do we have a moral responsibility for each other and if so, how does this responsibility shape our tax policies, our healthcare policies, our environmental policies, and our immigration policies?
From Twitter to Tocqueville
Politicians who refuse to discuss ethical and moral issues because they’re “not relevant” do not deserve the public’s trust.
Why? Because they’re dumbing down the electorate. An unthinking electorate responds to dog-whistle authoritarian governments.
People who go on to social media demanding the government incarcerate and/or deport Muslims and ban Islam are telling this and future governments that it’s okay to violate Muslims’ Charter Rights. Timothy Snyder, in his book On Tyranny says agreeing to forfeit someone’s human rights before the government teaches the government what is possible.
Yelling at these people on Twitter won’t change their minds; but engaging them in public discourse may help them understand what they’re really doing.
Sandel says the ability to reason together, to argue and listen to those with whom we disagree are civic skills–Tocqueville called them “habits of the heart”–that need our full attention free from the distraction of “blinking buzzing devices” that pull our eyes down to that tiny screen.
A terrible thing happened in Edmonton last night. We owe it to ourselves and each other to try to understand what happened and why it continues to happen by engaging in public discourse, the habits of the heart.
*See Anna Maria Tremonti’s excellent interview with Michael Sandel which aired on CBC’s The Current on Sept 25, 2017