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Fighting populism: How to rebuild spaces for constructive public discourse

This article originally appeared on OpenCanada.org on October 13, 2017.

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Over the past year, the world has witnessed populist right-wing sentiments erupt from the far fringes of the internet and society, right into mainstream politics, leaving many experts and commentators searching for an explanation and greater understanding.

Why has this happened, and how? And why has talk of walls and borders increased in public discourse in parallel with this rise of right-wing populism?

Michael Sandel, lecturer of political philosophy at Harvard University, put forth answers to these questions at the recent LaFontaine-Baldwin lecture, as part of the 6 Degrees “citizen space,” a three-day event focused on citizenship and inclusion in Toronto.

“[A] trend that’s been unfolding in recent decades is the hollowing out of public discourse. What passes for political discourse these days to often consist of narrow managerial technocratic talk, which inspires no one or where passion does enter, shouting matches [ensue],” Sandel told a packed house on September 25.

“We’ve asked democratic citizens to leave their moral and spiritual convictions outside when they enter the public square … the result is that we would create an empty, morally vacant hollow public discourse… this void is soon filled by strident nationalists and xenophobia and narrow, intolerant moralism.”

This hollowing of public discourse that Sandel refers to has had visible effects in the public sphere. Recent events such as the violence and tension that took place in Charlottesville in late August are evidence of the tragic implications that take place when public discourse breaks down. Effective political public discourse — in other words, when conflicting sides are actively listening, engaged or have a public outlet for their complaints — is a bridge that needs to be re-built if there is hope to find solutions to current political tension, Sandel and others are now arguing.

Sandel was one of many international guests at the second annual 6 Degrees forum, the focus of which was “Walls, Bridges and Homes.” The event itself is an attempt at reviving constructive, productive public discourse. Over the three days in late September, everything from diversity in newsrooms to questions of what defines the concept of home were discussed and debated. And having attracted an audience and speakers from all walks of life, the dialogue that took place had a plethora of perspectives that led to enriching conversations.

The question remains, however: Are forums such as 6 Degrees enough to foster effective public discourse?

Here in Canada, the dominant thinking is that we are somehow immune to the breakdown of public discourse that our southern neighbors have witnessed. But a quick look at the media landscape reveals the reality of the matter. The quick rise of Rebel Media in Canada shows that there is an audience that supports the far-right views we thought existed only south of the border. On the left, there is a hesitance to engage on big issues such as the existence and origins of racism on a level that extends beyond superficial analysis. This is evidence that the public cannot rely on the mainstream news media to provide the discourse that we look for when considering these questions. The burden of building those spaces falls back on the public itself.

A talk during the 2017 6 Degrees forum.

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Abdul-Rehman Malik, a London-based journalist, educator and organizer, and a speaker at 6 Degrees, provides another example of how these spaces can be built and the positive effect they can have in finding common ground among a diverse group. In a recent essay, he wrote about a storytelling space where young people in Indonesia across different religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds are encouraged to share stories with each other to start a conversation about the changes taking place in their country.

Speaking of the importance of narratives and storytelling he wrote, “narratives… will push us to have better conversations and find more enduring solidarities in an increasingly divided and violent world.”

And with minority voices still often excluded from mainstream public forums, writing, art and other creative outlets become imperative in opening and encouraging discourse on social issues.

“I think what I attempted to try and do with that raw emotion a few years ago was really try and channel it into something creative,” said journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge speaking about her book Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, during a discussion at 6 Degrees.

“The beautiful thing is that those people from those marginalized groups have created the work and you can choose to engage if you wish. If we wish to understand that experience we can if we choose to and I would also call on people who are in that experience to continue to create,” she said.

During his Toronto talk, Sandel led a demonstration of what effective public discourse could look like even when there are opposing opinions. He brought before the audience complex questions on immigration and citizenship and asked for proposed solutions and answers. “Is selling citizenship a legitimate way of attracting foreign investment and creating jobs or does putting a price on the right to immigrate cheapen the meaning of citizenship?” he asked. The question opened up a discussion with audience members arguing for or against the proposition of placing a price on citizenship. Overall, the open dialogue, though featuring a variety of views, was a thoughtful, insightful and engaging debate on the economic, social and moral aspects of immigration. (The entire lecture can be viewed here.)

“The hope of renewing democracy to fill the void that strident nationalism and angry populism has filled, the hope of doing that depends… on finding our way to a morally more robust kind of public discourse then the kind of which we’ve become accustom,” said Sandel. “A morally engaged, lively, sometimes contentious public discourse that looks something like the discussion we’ve had here tonight.”

Photos by Alyssa Katherine Faoro and Liz Beddall Photography.