By Pauline Kerr
This week thousands of local children headed back to school, most eager to spend time with friends they may not have seen for over a year, and relieved to be getting back to something approaching normal – reading and writing, math, science, art, music geography, history and civics.
At the same time, the federal election campaign is in high gear across the country, with candidates trying to hit the right note with voters in the hope of forming Canada’s next government – an opportunity for the kids to see history in the making.
Unfortunately, it is also an opportunity for them to see behaviour that would never be tolerated in the classroom or schoolyard.
Attack ads are nothing new in an election campaign. Nor are scandals forcing candidates to drop out of a campaign. Technology has allowed all sorts of dirty tricks like sending voters to the wrong polling station and sending the most outrageously harmful lies into literally millions of homes.
What is new is the trend toward groups gathering to disrupt events and shout down candidates, to the point some such events have had to be cancelled. To date, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been the primary target, or at least the one receiving the most news coverage.
Blame it on COVID-19. Outdoor rallies are safer from a disease-transmission point of view, but they present a perfect venue for groups wanting to stir up trouble. Security is much harder to maintain outdoors than at an indoor event. And COVID has given people a lot of things to protest – unemployment, problems in long-term care and more. Oddly, the most vocal and venomous protests seem reserved for things like masks and vaccines.
One has to wonder how the kids heading back to school view this behaviour. In the schoolyard, shouting invective and racist slurs at someone with the aim of silencing him – especially when done as a mob – would be viewed a particularly vicious form of bullying, and rightly so.
If this behaviour is definitely not OK in the schoolyard, why is it considered a valid form of political expression? Some might say the memory of the former American president lingers on, even on our side of the 49th.
Whatever the inspiration for it, this way of expressing views seems more about incoherent negativity than anything else. The protesters shout, they disrupt, they express anger, they scare people. We have seen too many examples of a loud, angry crowd shifting from hurling insults to pitching projectiles, from making inflammatory statements to setting real fires.
While they get attention, one would be hard pressed to describe what they want, other than to express anger and prevent free speech.
It goes without saying that a good many of the people who are using disruptive tactics to silence candidates have children. And older teens are well aware of what is happening with the election campaign.
What are they learning, that the person with the biggest megaphone wins? That freedom of expression is reserved for those who share our views and to shout down everyone else?
Freedom of speech sometimes means hearing something with which we disagree. It means giving a person with opposing views the opportunity to have a say, and expecting the same in return.
That said, it does not include racist, sexist or otherwise insulting comments. These are meant to intimidate, to silence opposition, not promote a fair exchange of information and views.
If we want to teach the kids going back to school to play fair, the best way to do it is by example. Unfortunately, political campaigns have tended to unleash behaviour we would not tolerate in an eight-year-old.
Let this be a plea to everyone participating in this election, including candidates, supporters, opposition or simply those with strong views about something that needs to be changed, to fight fair.
There are a lot of kids watching who will be casting their own ballots a couple of elections from now. They need to see there are ways to express disagreement that do not involve bullying.