The View From Here: Discourse and Polemics


Volodymyr Kish.

Over the past few years, I have become quite dismayed by a disturbing trend in our society that is seeing rational discourse being increasingly displaced by heated and dangerous polemics. Whether it be politics, religion, social issues, education or the environment, our civil society is becoming more than a little uncivil and polarized.

For the last couple of centuries from the Renaissance on, we have made great strides in alleviating much of the misery that our ancestors were subjected to. The advent of universal education, the exponential progress in all the sciences, the replacement of feudalism and autocratic forms of government with democracy, the rapid expansion of economic prosperity, the remarkable growth of a middle class, and the increasing reliance on negotiation and cooperation rather than war, all gave rise to the hopes and expectations that mankind was entering a new era of peace, prosperity and constructive progress that would benefit all. At least, that was the case until the past decade or so.

Somewhere, in the recent past, we seem to have lost our bearings. Many people have stopped believing in facts and science, and have turned to extremist ideologies and religions based on reactionary biases, prejudices, hatred and simplistic thinking. Politics has become less of a forum for constructive debate over contending ideas and principles, and more of a vicious and cynical arena for smearing or destroying one’s political competitors. Politicians seem to have given up trying to find reasonable compromises and solutions and are more interested in trying to portray their opponents as evil antichrists bent on destroying society. Politics was meant to be a process of rational discourse and debate with the ultimate goal of achieving the right compromises to move society and progress forward. Of late, it has come to resemble a no-holds-barred mud-wrestling match.

All this is particularly evident in the political farce that is currently being played out south of our border, yet we have seen much of the same thing here in Canada. Our politics over the past decade have become more than a little polarized and contaminated by extremism, ideological intransigence, racial and religious prejudices, and divisiveness. Listening to the debates in Parliament, reading the polemics being issued by politicians of all stripes, following the heated dialogues on social media, or perusing the emotion-filled and fact challenged-diatribes to be found in some newspaper op-eds, one would be led to believe that our political leaders in whatever level of government are all incompetents, charlatans, crooks, traitors, moral reprobates or foreign agents. What is sorely missing is reasoned debate, a balanced presentation of facts, a respect for science and knowledge, and tolerance and understanding of contending points of view. We are veering dangerously into an era where emotion and hate is trumping reason, tolerance and kindness.

This came home particularly forcefully to me this past week with the Canadian government’s announcement of compensation and apology to Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen of Afghani origins, who had been accused of throwing a grenade during a heated battle in Afghanistan that wound up killing an American soldier. It was never proven in any court of law that Khadr actually was responsible for this deed, which he denies. He was 15 years old at the time and a “child soldier” in legal terms. For some ten years after the incident, in various prisons in Afghanistan and in the notorious prison in Guantanamo, Khadr was subjected to continuous intimidation, threats, sleep deprivation and other forms of physical and psychological torture in which the Canadian government was complicit.

He finally entered into a plea bargain with the American military authorities wherein he pled guilty in return for being repatriated back to Canada. There, in a series of legal trials that went all the way to the Supreme Court, the highest court of the land finally ruled unanimously that his incarceration and conviction were illegal and invalid under Canadian law and our Charter of Rights, and it held the Canadian government liable for aiding and abetting the American authorities in depriving Khadr of his legal and charter rights.

The compensation announced last week was not as many politicians and right-wing commentators would have you believe, a political decision of unconscionable largesse by Justin Trudeau and the Liberals, but simply a case of the government complying with a Supreme Court decision. As to the amount of $10.5 million in compensation, this came from a precedent set by the government of Stephen Harper which awarded the same amount as well as an apology to Maher Arar, a Canadian of Syrian origin who in a similar case was mistakenly accused of being a terrorist by American authorities and deported to Syria where he was tortured for over a year before being returned to Canada, exonerated of ever having been a terrorist. With Khadr, we have a repeat of what happened to Arar, with the Canadian government blindly accepting American accusations without providing Khadr with due legal process.

Sadly, many politicians, commentators and average citizens have chosen to ignore the facts of the case and are using the issue to pillory and smear the current government. Some of the more rabid have gone to the extent of calling for Trudeau to be tried for treason. The irony is telling – calling for a Prime Minister to be tried for treason for upholding the law and the ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada. It is time for Canadians of good will to rein in their emotions, start using their brains a little more, and not allow themselves to be manipulated by politicians and ideologues with a reactionary agenda.