Ad Hominem and Stir

Work in Progress

By Ivan Morgan

Many years ago, an MHA took a shower. 

While he was in the shower his spouse, noticing his computer was on and his Facebook was not logged out, sat down at his desk and read through his site only to discover her husband was having an affair.

Incensed, she shared it immediately with all his contacts and with all of hers. His were extensively political, hers were many people in their community.

That was the end of his marriage, but it was not the end of his political career.  Why? Because his opponents did not make it a thing. The media did not make it a thing.

This was many years ago when I was first working in politics. While the Facebook messages were circulated to many – like me – none of us saw any reason to make it public. Did we laugh? Of course, we’re a callous lot. 

In a perfect world I would have stopped reading as soon as I realized what it was – ours is not a perfect world. That’s why the Johnny Depp/Amber Heard thing is getting such traction these days.

The point I am making is his affair did not become a media issue, or public knowledge. At the time, no one was tempted to use it to gain political points. He was a political opponent, but we in the other two parties respected what was left of his tattered privacy. 

Would that be the case today?

When I was a journalist and a columnist back in the day, I was often fed allegedly compromising information designed to smear a politician or a prominent person.  Sometimes it came as a whisper at a bar or a plain brown manilla envelope in the mail (once under the wipers on my car). Sometimes I’d get an anonymous phone message, or an e-mail with a fake address.

I rarely paid any attention to them. To me it said more about the person slipping me the information than it did about the person they were targeting.

Don’t get me wrong, over my career I have seen a lot of nasty public attacks.

During the Muskrat Falls “debate,” I watched – I had a front row seat – as the brave people who dared to question the project were mocked, belittled, and scorned by the government of the day and their supporters.

If you were against the project, they would insinuate there was something wrong with you. Why, you were hardly even a Newfoundlander (whatever that ever meant).

If a politician appeared on a stage surrounded by family waving the bible and campaigning on “family values” (whatever they are), he or she best not get caught naked snorting cocaine in a hotel room with someone who was not their spouse. That would be a story I would cover because that’s hypocrisy.

However, I learned early in my journalism career (such as it was) of the value of civility.

I once wrote a draft of a column mocking some city councillors (my goal was to draw attention to myself by being funny).  As I always did, I left it for a day before I sent it to my editor.

That afternoon I ran into one of those very councillors at Costco. He sat me on a pallet of rice and filled me in on a number of behind-the-scenes goings on at City Hall. Very informative. Had I made him a public laughingstock he wouldn’t have given me the time of day. I deleted that column and wrote another.

What I didn’t see coming was the wholesale importation of American political ideology into our Canadian body politic. Both the left and right sides of our political spectrum have been deeply influenced by American political thought. In America, there has been such polarization, with crazies on both sides, that people no longer talk to each other.

I would hate to see that happen here. I worry that our traditional political and public civility may be swept away in the tsunami of angry, divisive American political thought and practice.

Is it getting worse? I worry it is. I know many people afraid to speak their minds for fear of public attack. You’d have to go back to the Smallwood era to experience that sort of public muzzling. Outside of Ray Guy, few would dare criticize Smallwood.

Today there is more and more self-righteousness, sanctimony, and personal (ad hominen) attacks in our political debate. Self-censorship based in fear has no place here, yet I see it more and more in Canadian political debate and I have seen it here in Newfoundland and Labrador. Heck, I’ve been in the room.

And I know why it happens. If you are absolutely convinced of your own moral superiority, then it’s easy to see your opponents as evil, instead of what they are – human beings with whom you disagree. Then you convince yourself that evil must be destroyed – or at least cancelled – at any cost. Easy peasy. No dialogue needed. I’m right and you’re not. Goodbye. The end.

Dialogue is key to politics. You need to be able to talk to your opponents to treat them with civility. No problem gets solved when people refuse to talk to each other.

Even if privately you think they are as dumb as a bag of hammers!

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