A few weeks ago, I wrote in this space that I was afraid that the upcoming election campaign could become nasty, because of the already toxic nature of much of the comments section of various Facebook pages in North Grenville. It seemed that people were becoming more aggressive, defensive, angry, critical in short, nasty, when commenting on people and issues, especially people. I know this has become the norm on many social media platforms worldwide these days. Social media is not particularly social any more. People tend to use a forum like Facebook, or Twitter, to say particularly brutal things about other people, personal attacks on their character, truthfulness, motivations, or, very often, on their beliefs and identity.
But the nature of the “discourse” that is taking place on local pages recently has reached a new level of abuse and divisiveness, and it is poisoning our community, or that portion of it that lives online and trawls through Facebook on a regular basis. We, as regular citizens, have never had as much access to communications as we do today. One individual can have an enormous reach when it comes to expressing their opinions, disseminating information, or creating a following. That, in itself, is a real benefit to society, whether it’s bringing together far-flung family members, creating a venue for people of similar interests to meet and talk to each other, or to spread information at times of public need.
The right, and the value, of free speech as a free society has been demonstrated in recent days with the attack on Salman Rushdie, a punishment for expressing ideas in a work of fiction. Media outlets and online platforms in Russia have been either closed completely, or coopted to reflect the propaganda of an autocrat at war with a peaceful neighbour. On our community level, the Times have championed the right of free expression for almost ten years, as can be seen every week in our pages, whether in letters, op-ed pieces, or articles discussing issues from all perspectives. In fact, people have complained by how long some letters are, or how often some issues are dissected in articles. But we have always believed that no amount of space is too much to allow people to discuss and debate with each other. That is the job of a free press in a free society.
But what has been happening online in North Grenville recently goes way beyond free speech. Words are being used, allegations are being made, personal character assassinations are taking place that would not be allowed in this, or any other newspaper in Canada. And, even though this municipal election has only just begun, the level of strident and almost hysterical commentary has already gone beyond what any society would consider acceptable.
This is not to deny anyone the right to express opinion, or to level accusations, where merited. The problem is that some of the worst attacks on people are made with absolutely no foundation in fact, with no evidence, based entirely on rumour, innuendo, and to put it simply lies. There have been issues that have divided this community over the past months, and there are those who place blame on the municipal council, community groups, and others, without stopping to ask on what basis the accusations are being made. When those involved on one side of the argument try and approach the other side for reconciliation or to keep communication open, they are condemned as arrogant, making things worse.
Part of the problem is more general than local: there has been an incredible loss of trust in everything, politics, governance, society generally. We just don’t seem to trust each other, we don’t believe a word the others say, we question their motives, agendas, truthfulness. Those who disagree with our perspective are condemned as being, not just wrong, but as having malicious intent. “If you’re not with us, you’re against us. If you’re not one of us, you can’t even understand our position.” Those who have lived in this community longer than a few years will remember that there have been other times when division was being expressed, even times when opinion was literally silenced in public meetings. We have known bad times before, when a few sought to dominate the many, and believed they had the right to put down, disparage, lie and silence anyone who opposed or even questioned them. And this was not that long ago. We must have open dialogue, free sharing of opposing views and perspectives. But we cannot afford to have a few intolerant people who refuse to allow civil discourse, who refuse to accept that those who don’t agree with them are entitled to their opinion. Many of you will not have seen and read the kind of online biased and angry attacks that have been taking place. Some of you will have joined in without knowing that there is no foundation to what you have been told. And even if there is such a basis, there is no excuse, no reason to indulge in the kind of response that is being shown.
Ironically, many of those taking part in these literally unprovoked attacks are individuals who would normally be all in favour of an open and liberal view of society, strong believers in freedom and toleration for all. And yet, the temperature has been raised to such a pitch by a very few hotheads, intolerant crusaders, that all the normally open and honest people being drawn in have lost their balance, in every sense. One more thing: this article, asking for civility and rational discourse, will be condemned as intolerant and one-sided, and I will, once again, be accused of being a “know-it-all”, with no right to comment. Fair enough, I suppose, compared to what’s being said about some others. But let me end with a phrase that I’m sure many of you will have taken to your hearts in times past: “All we are saying is Give Peace a Chance”.