The decline of respectful dissent

Toula Foscolos
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A hundred days of the student movement

Have you noticed?  One hundred days of this and we’ve already skidded into that grey area, where what makes front-page news is not the issues, but the insults. As the weeks go by and tensions continue to run high during the student protests, both camps – particularly after Bill 78 came into effect – have become nastier, less patient, and more venomous. It’s an ugly sight…

Toula Foscolos

La Presse columnist, Rima Elkouri, made the same observation this morning.

“On s'embarrasse de moins en moins de civilités. On confond les insultes et les arguments. On s'attaque aux gens plutôt qu'à leurs idées.“ 

Twitter is on fire with insults. Many in the pro-student camp are calling for the boycott of La Presse (for what was, by all accounts, a stupid editorial decision to publish the results of a dubious survey), as well as the Just for Laughs Fest (founder, Gilbert Rozon, has been critical of the movement) as if simply having a differing opinion was a crime and a betrayal! Le Journal de Montreal columnist Sophie Durocher has been insulted and called derogatory names during protest marches for the simple reason that she doesn’t support the cause.

Many on the anti-student camp have been just as disagreeable. Who can forget Claude Poirier’s now infamous: “F*ck y’all!”? Many have been calling for the mass arrest of protesters, and choosing to focus on the personal lives of the movement’s spokespeople (as if whether Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois not paying his rent has any bearing on a movement that has brought tens of thousands night after night to the streets), instead of focusing on the real issues at hand.

We’ve entered dogma territory, folks. Dogmatism is an absolute philosophy in that it presumes to know it all. The student movement is dogmatic in that presumes to represent all Quebecers unsatisfied with the status quo, and claims the moral high ground, while the government has been dogmatic in its handling of the whole affair, clearly underestimating the population’s loathing of legislation that targets specific groups of people and fundamentally attacks our most basic democratic rights; such as the right to protest and free assembly.

It’s easy (and lazy) to use logical fallacies, half-truths, personal attacks and demonization of opponents to try and sway people to agree with your opinion, but none of that is based on anything concrete and factual. It's quite disconcerting to see that the 'you're either with us or against us" modus operandi has truly been prevailing lately in this city.

But there can be no room for dogmatism in a free and democratic society, or even life, for that matter. There is a lot of space between downright ridicule of the student movement and its outright deification. It’s called a grey area. It’s where moderation resides. It’s time for some respectful dialogue and some flexibility. History has taught us repeatedly that civil disobedience can deteriorate into violence and ugliness. We are not immune to that possibility, so it’s time to take action to reach some sort of solution.

We’ve somehow allowed the democratic process to be hijacked by those who are screaming the loudest – on both camps. I, for one, have had it.

We’ve somehow allowed the democratic process to be hijacked by those who are screaming the loudest – on both camps. I, for one, have had it.

Whether people like it or not, for the past 100 days we have been witnessing non-stop acts of civil disobedience in this city. It’s frustrating, disconcerting, and disorienting, but also profound, dazzling and inspiring. It’s democracy at work and, while hopelessly flawed as a system, it’s preferable to anything else I know.

Change is not neat, restrained and subdued. Disillusionment has to find an outlet. Whether people agree or disagree, understand or don’t understand what’s currently taking place here, one can’t deny that it’s taking place. No change ever came about in low-pitched tones. Sometimes you’ve got to yell. But can we do it respectfully?

Attack the issues, not the people who don’t agree with you. Debate legislation, demand accountability, question the status quo; don’t resort to rudeness and below-the-belt attacks. It reduces the poignancy and potency of any worthwhile message and sullies the movement – any movement.

Dissent is not anathema. It should be welcomed in a democracy. You can’t storm the streets protesting your right to freedom of expression so you can use it to hurl insults. At the risk of sounding redundant, I’ll quote Noam Chomsky for the hundredth time: “If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all.”

And at the end of the day, let’s remember what’s most important here: some sort of progress… some sort of betterment... That should be the ultimate goal for either side; not a fist-pumping, in-your-face victory.



Organizations: La Presse

Geographic location: Montreal

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Recent comments

  • Rémy Fortin
    May 24, 2012 - 14:22

    Congratulations on a very well-written article! I agree wholeheartedly that insults and dogmatism are not the answer in any conflict, just as they are very seldom useful in any given situation. However, I'm divided on the idea of boycotting the Just for Laughs Festival, as one of the few full legal measures that can be taken by people who feel they have been slighted is precisely to "vote with their wallets", and choose not to provide financial support to those who work to de-legitimize their cause. Freedom of speech cuts both ways, and the people calling for the boycott have every right to make this plea to the populace. The fact that until recently Mr. Rozon had been open to the possibility of running for mayor of Montreal makes it even more legitimate to signal concern over his opinions voiced on a public forum. It also bears pointing out that by simple virtue of his fortune and fame, Mr. Rozon's speech has the potential to be heard much more easily than that of the people who's rights are being directly limited by this law. Granted, the fact that a boycott is the most useful or well-measured reaction in this case is open to debate, and in fact one could very well say that it would hurt others who are simply employed by the Festival more than it will Mr. Rozon himself. This argument is rather important to bear in mind, and it seems to be why Chomsky himself generally tends to favor other types of dissent tactics as more effective in most conflicts.