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Bringing Back DebateBringing Back Debate

Bringing Back Debate

As a very tight federal election race kicks off today, we look to the importance of democracy and debate in a time of political cynicism.

Peter Stockland
3 minute read

U.S.-based communications strategist Laura Williams has just published a short essay containing six words that should be inked under every Canadian’s eyelids as the federal election begins today.

“Nothing,” Williams writes, “is ever just one thing.”

In the prevailing mood of fashionable political cynicism, the phrase could easily be misconstrued to mean that nothing said during the campaign will actually mean anything. Williams intends it as a prudential warning. We should listen carefully for whatever worthwhile might be found in any mess of verbiage spilling around us. Far more, we must evaluate every promised action for its unspoken countervailing consequences. 

The goal of every democratic party marketing machine is to get voters to bounce up and down to the irresistible drumbeat of, “Now, there’s a great idea and Great Leader is just the demi-god to execute it.” Williams reminds us it is the citizen’s duty to resist and instead ask, “Yes, but what happens if we forget to make allowance for…?” 

Among the green eyeshade actuarial set, this is called risk-reward analysis. In democratic life, it is – or at least used to be – known as debate, which is a very different thing from the current culture of name-calling and naysaying as prelude to spouting flavour-of-the-month sacred opinions. Debate requires, paradoxically, the humility to acknowledge that no one (whether one person or a whole political party) can ever think of everything precisely because nothing is ever just one thing

Williams identifies those six words as constituting a principle law of both economics and logic. I’d say they’re the underlying truth of everything from astrophysics to zoology. Existence – physical, biological, social or political – necessarily comprises complementarity and contention. 

In her essay posted on the web site of the Foundation for Economic Education, Williams invokes that truth for a stand against the stampede to action being demanded by “climate alarmists” who want something done – now! – about projected warmer global average temperatures a century or two down the road. 

She does not attempt to settle whether such hotter climes might be good or bad. Rather, she urges awareness of the eternal law of unintended consequences. She asks us to consider that every action has a minimum of two reactions: one we foresee; one we don’t or, much worse, won’t.

It’s not an appeal to feckless inaction. It’s reviving the reality principle that today’s seemingly benevolent act might just seed the clouds for tomorrow’s unexpected deluge. At the very least, civil, serious, formal or informal debate is the best method we have to a) line up facts as best we know them and b) unearth possibilities we haven’t even thought of (see humility above) to test for unavoidable damage tomorrow.

It is a critical message applicable far beyond the banshee screeches of catastrophe and mule-like denial of any problem that constitutes existing discussion about potential rising sea levels or imminent melting ice caps. It calls us back to the fundamental necessity of debate itself. 

Sadly, since I began 40 years ago reporting professionally on politics and culture, I’ve witnessed advancing sclerosis around what it’s possible to say within debates and, now, what it’s possible to debate at all. 

The nadir (to date) is the recent disgrace of the Leader of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition being excoriated for his contribution in Canada’s Parliament – literally, Canada’s “place of speaking” – during the long-ago debate on same-sex marriage. If we can no longer debate, including during parliamentary debate, highly debatable issues in Canadian society, without fear of our words being used to pelt us ignominiously 15 years later, then we truly are lost as a democratic people.

An essential optimist, I don’t believe we are that lost. Given that nothing is ever only one thing, it follows that nothing lasts forever, either. The current political mood, in which only myopic, unidimensional advocacy matters, will eventually pass. The time will come again when we are capable of recognizing that those on the opposite side of a given issue not only have the right to speak but might actually contribute an otherwise overlooked worthy alternative or two. 

I’m not so naïve as to imagine the present flush will lift like a hot flash during the federal election campaign we’re now plunged into. We will, without doubt, endure hours, days and weeks of lip-spittle that never rises to the level of adolescent gainsaying, much less to the pinnacle of sophisticated debate. Barring a miracle, the televised leaders’ debates for example, will again unfold as meticulously choreographed eruptions of interruptions that contribute nothing whatsoever to our understanding.

But change begins by recognizing things as they are, and then acknowledging those things can contain a multiplicity of other things within them. Whether by eyelid ink or some other means, finding a way to remind ourselves “nothing is ever only one thing” is a very good place to start.

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