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The Politics of Words

It didn’t take long for populist politics to invade Canada. Instead of feeling superior to the U.S., Canadians need to take intentional steps now to stop the destructive polarization, emotional manipulation and dumbing down of the way we talk about public issues. I hope many Christians in Canada will provide leadership to improve rather than erode our political speech. 

In past articles I have written about deep challenges that Canada also faces in sensitive areas such as racial tensions, gender relations, a growing divide between the wealthy and precarious workers, and moving from a petro-economy to a more sustainable economy. Into that context come political advisors from the U.S. and the UK who know how to exploit uncertainty, fear and resentment to gain power. The conditions are ripe and indicators suggest an expansion of the style of politics we saw in the recent Ontario election.

One key element is the use of “hot button” words to make people angry and willing to vote on the basis of a few simplistic appeals. It takes effort to avoid getting sucked into the vortex of what may feel like doing something to fix the “mess” we blame on others over coffee. I watch political trends closely; I’m trained to be alert to shifts, and I remain non-partisan because of roles I hold in the advocacy world. I’ve been thinking about what I can do as an intentional strategy to improve rather than erode our political discourse. Below are three cautionary steps; I’ll write about positive actions in this space next month.

Watch my words

Labelling and dismissing each other with words like “far right” and “far left” is much easier than studying details. We can’t ban words like “left” and “right,” but we can insist on discussing the substantive issues. Hatred of taxes, for example, has replaced thoughtful discussion about reducing the over-use of climate-damaging substances. Ironically, counting the real cost of pollution, a market-based approach that should appeal to the right, is now dismissed as far-left because “we all hate taxes.”  We are allowing hot button words to divert attention from finding the best ways to fulfill God’s central mandate to care for his world. 

Reject single issue politics

I know the value of a narrow focus for effective campaigns to change public policy, but that approach can be easily manipulated. Populist politicians buy votes by promising to do one thing for an advocacy group, while their other policies are not consistent and may undermine the goals and principles behind the single issue campaign. It is easy to win a battle but lose the war in working for justice in a populist political context. 

Resist demonization

Fear of a “gay agenda” on one side and fear of an “extreme religious right” agenda on the other side has turned health education into a battle zone for a polarizing culture war. What gets lost is young people’s right to have reliable information they need for health and safety. In Ontario millions will be spent to get what is likely to be minor revisions to the health curriculum while other important educational issues will be shelved to cut budgets. 

Christians who take responsible citizenship seriously would do well to ask questions of every call to action that uses hot button words, avoid those that erode our political culture, and choose to spend energy and resources in more positive ways. 

Author

  • Kathy Vandergrift

    Kathy Vandergrift, a public policy analyst, brings experience in government, social justice work and a Master’s Degree in Public Ethics to her reflections.

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