Canada’s choice: political communication as dance or war?

Yesterday afternoon, I gave a lecture to my first year communications class on George Lakoff‘s idea that our thinking is fundamentally rooted in metaphor. Lakoff explains that the underpinnings of how we structure our understanding of the world is metaphorical. He gives the example of “Time is money” – a metaphor that expresses a principle which guides us to use our time parsimoniously. He also says, in Metaphors We Live By, that “Argument is war” is the metaphor that governs how we interact when we debate a point. Lakoff asks us to think about what the world would be like if we lived by the metaphor that “Argument is dance.” It would certainly change the way we speak about debating and how we behave while debating. For example, we would no longer say things like: “I shot down his argument.” or “I really clobbered him with that point!”

After class, I was walking in the rain back to my cozy mustard yellow corner office in Togo Salmon Hall. A couple of students, excited by the ideas presented in lecture, were walking with me. But I was a little distracted. In fact, I was thinking about how metaphor structures political communication in Canada.

We have seen a marked decline in parliamentary courtesy and civil discourse – both in the House, during Question Period, in the media, and in attack ads. Why is this so irksome, when we have been watching the same thing evolve below us in the US for decades? I think there is an answer that many may have overlooked.

Marshall McLuhan suggested, in Medium is the Message that the United States is a society that was a product of the printing press, like France – a society where the uniform communications permitted by printed media enabled a “legalistic” system of government. One that depended on rules.

Now, Canada comes from a different tradition. Our Parliament is part of the Westminster system, like the United Kingdom. The Westminster system was not born during an age of industrial mechanization and laws. It was born during a feudal time in the midst of an oral culture where relatively few things were written down. This required a much more consensus-based system of political communication where people built the national narratives through storytelling and tradition. These national narratives that would later become – through the power of precedent – principles that would guide political function. This is completely different from the American or French systems, which depend on laws and the interpretation of the judiciary.

On top of this, let us consider John Ralston Saul’s argument, laid out in his latest book, A Fair Country, that our culture is actually a Métis product – a negotiated hybrid of British, French and First Nations culture. The British culture was oral and precedent-based, First Nations culture was oral and precedent-based. And, remember that French Canadian culture was developed in pre-revolutionary France (which was a feudal society) – so French Canadian culture was also oral and precedent-based. This meant that the thrust of our politics has been to encourage negotiation, compromise and continuity. In these oral, precedent-based cultures, “Argument is dance.”

What we are seeing, in the change of tone of our political communication toward warlike aggression, partisanship and spiteful attack, is fundamental change toward a more “legalistic” or “structured” society. We might call it Americanized, because it is becoming more and more similar to the American model and they are the greatest cultural influence we face.

The fact is, though, that it represents a fundamental change in our political culture – a shift away from our roots in oral cultural traditions. An oral cultural tradition which necessitates that “argument be dance” because of our mutually shared responsibility for telling the national story and keeping it alive, renewing it with ever more subtlety and nuance – human nuance – which is inherently subjective and flexible. We are shifting toward a national definition captured in a set of laws that we write down, print out and hammer into shape – and then fight over.

We are seeing the ideas on which our culture is based move away from storytelling, toward objectification and rules.

I think it’s a sad development. I love the stories and myths of our past – Paul Bunyan, Louis Cyr, Gitche Manitou.

Canadians chafe at the ideas of laws – they’re constraining. So let’s decide to be civil.

Maybe we can shake hands over it and give one another our word.

At least then we will be true to our historical roots in oral culture.

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  1. I’m going to argue that the move to a more legal society is result of us decision to enshrine the Charter of Rights and Freedoms within the Constitution.

    Whereas Britain has a series of unwritten conventions that are respected, we have written conventions (in the form of the Constitution and preceding documents such as the BNA right back to the Magna Carta) which allow us more freedom to act disrespectfully within our political process.

    There is little concern about a break down in civility resulted in a breakdown in political functioning. In Britain, due to the unwritten “Constitution,” a breakdown in Parliament can result in severe consequences.

    The function of the Head of State is another problem for Canadian politics. In Britain, the Queen is completely independent of the Prime Minister and, in the event of a “constitutional crisis,” can act independently to dictate a resolution. The Governor General, on the other hand, is effectively a puppet of the incumbent Prime Minister and unable to independently dictate a resolution.

    The breakdown in civility of political communication in Canada can be traced less to our location in relation to the United States and more to our distance from Great Britain. We’ve imported a political model, changed it piece meal to make it local, but never actually thought about how to make it function with checks and balances to prevent the breakdown we’re seeing in the present minority governments era.

  2. There’s no question that the Charter marks the transition to a more legalistic society. Trudeau, whose intellectual preferences and bias are in revolutionary ‘literate’ France was the driving force behind the Charter and it was this aspect of the man’s character that upset red Tories so much (McMaster’s George Grant is a good example).

    There are more practical reasons for the breakdown in civility in Parliament. There’s an interview with Speaker of the House Peter Milliken on the Globe’s website where he suggests that a lot of the problem stems from the fact that the MPs aren’t given many opportunities to get to know each other now compared to when he started as an MP back in the late 80’s. It’s easier to be rude and unfair to people you don’t have to sit down to lunch with the next day.

    This problem generalizes on the societal level. We generally hang around with people we feel comfortable with and, more and more, avoid people we find different from ourselves. This has gone to such an extreme in the United States that people will move out of neighborhoods or states for political affinity reasons. Given this situation it is easy to see why there is a reduction in civility. You can more easily demonize the person you have no contact with than the person across the street whose good will helps keep your kids safe.

  3. I think you can’t forget the immigrant experience and by that I particularly mean non French or English immigrants. Somehow long term we should drop the idea of the two founding peoples from our Constitution, at the very least there was a nation here already well before the French and English and from the very beginning there were non-French and English immigrants. So on that basis I think Raulston Saul has not captured the whole of the interactions that made Canda what it is today although I have to say the book is still on my to read list.

    For me the problem with debate is more that everyone acts as an ancient Greek Sophist and this has been accelerated by the internet. This is my opinion and it is right, why is it right? Its right because it is my opinion even if I argue the exact opposite I’m still right. At least the Sophists were skilled at debate or speeches. Debate should be more like philosophical dialogue than verbal combat.
    I like the Queen but I think its time to grow up as a country and become our own Republic. The Queen marks us as an immature country, we have to go for medals and awards like Chretien did to see the Queen. It marks us as still mere colonials. The order of Canada should be the highest award we have just as our Supreme Court is the highest court we have after the Constitution was patriated.
    Britain is a very class hierarchical country, we should not be. We are multi-cultural. Britain still has terrible racism, I have a coworker who is black who went to England to train in university in London as a speech pathologist and emailed me that it is as bad as ever there.
    Some nations do keep their stories very close to them, Eastern Europeans for example, for us battles in the middle ages, heroes and poets and scholars are told as if they just happened yesterday and every child is told their family history, their regions history and their nations history as a steady diet. It was often said of Eastern Europeans that they have the carry their history in their back pocket, whether they are going to war or to school or to a dance. My great-uncle was a folk fiddle player, the gusle a one string drone instrument to which he and other gusle players recited from memory hours long tales, there are very ancient ones and very modern ones, such as one about John and Robert Kennedy. Gusle players are very popular in the Balkans. I don’t see the equivalent in Canadian society except with Natives very much and Francophones to some extent.

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