“Do you hear what you’re saying? You’re talking about parity here – in this *?&%@& place?”
The words were uttered behind enemy lines in south Sudan, a decade ago, by Barry Came, European Bureau Chief of Maclean’s magazine, who accompanied us to write a story on modern-day slavery for the magazine. A respected veteran of numerous conflict situations, his article went on to become the cover story of the magazine a few weeks later.
Also on that trip we had taken along a Dutch film crew who wanted to cover slavery as a story. We had been tipped off in advance that they were determined to discover evidence showing that slavery itself was a sham. Jane and I opted to work with them anyway because we believed the situation would work out.
Barry’s statement came after we toured a village that had just been raided by militia groups. Smoke was still rising from the huts. The odd body, including that of a dead horse, lay in the sweltering sun. It was then that one of the Dutch crew said to me: “We have come to present a balanced story. There are atrocities occurring on both sides and it’s important that we show parity.” The Maclean’s writer had already seen enough. Two million people, largely from the south, had been killed over the years. In such a situation seeking parity means denying the truth.
It was one of those indelible moments that sticks with you forever, and yet we encounter similar reasonings everyday, though often not as riveting. As the modern world of Canadian politics continues to slide into dysfunction, citizens, tired of partisanship, continually cling to a certain neutrality as a means of coping with it all. Those that remain in the political system increasingly use the language developed by parties to fight for their position. Code words abound, but in the end the vocabulary is not that of citizens or community but of partisanship and it leads to … nowhere. They can’t engage others without the fetters of partyism. They can’t be free thinkers because they can’t find freedom outside of their partisan confines.
The effect on those who have turned off politics altogether represents a troubling portend to democracy’s future. While in Parliament, as a member of the shadow cabinet for a couple of years, I was asked every week to appear on media panels. I never accepted because I felt the premise was false. Media would trot out a Liberal, NDP, Conservative and the occasional Bloc member – all in the name of balance. Pat answers were trotted out, with the media host knowing what the answers would be long before they were delivered. It was theatre, confined by four scripts instead of individual thought and honest candor.
The effect of such mini-spectacles was the loss of interest in politics. It was fake, partisan, even demeaning, and everyone knew it, including the participants. It was merely Question Period held in a media venue. The theory was that such panels would introduce the public to the various positions held by the parties, but instead it demonstrated to citizens that rank partisanship had overrun the Commons. One host told me over a drink one night that he was growing weary of adults behaving like sheep. It was turning him off as it was forcing citizens to turn away from the emptiness of it all.
Media bears a certain responsibility in this. By purposely seeking to throw political combatants into the ring with one another on television, radio or in print, it spreads a lower grade political dialogue to the masses – and they turn away. People are looking for answers, not positions, but when producers or assignment editors opt for battle, what they get is a declining audience. It’s a no-win situation for politicians and media alike.
And what of citizens? Should the political order, in all its distractions and partisanship, fail to show accountability, it is only a matter of time until the State itself begins to deteriorate. Climate change becomes extreme. The number of poor escalates. International aid declines. Communities are neglected. Small businesses lose key governmental support. People fail to vote. And the future looks grim. Why in all of this would a citizen opt for the position of neutrality, of ambivalence? If it is to take a step back from party politics, that might be wise; but from community, from the future, from the needs of our kids? Our country – where we live – requires each and every one of us to be anything but neutral. We must speak up, fill in the moral, ethical and advocative spaces abandoned by some politicians and their parties.
Elie Wiesel had witnessed the horrific effects of neutrality and wrote about it in words that were supported by the likes of Mandela and Havel:
“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
It’s time to stop sticking up for parties and start looking out for people. Most Canadians abandoned partisanship years ago, so let’s stop placing one another in those tidy little boxes. It’s time we as citizens started getting into trouble – defending our communities over those that would neglect them. What we require is engagement without the labels. Parties have their place, but not at the top of the democratic order.