by Pauline Kerr
There are people in this community who have seen lifelong friendships destroyed and families torn apart in the past year.
The culprit is not COVID-19, nor even the intense polarization that has resulted from differing opinions about vaccination, mask-wearing and the very pandemic itself.
It is the determination of many individuals from both sides to be 100 per cent right. It seems that where COVID is concerned, it is impossible to simply disagree; total annihilation of any opposition is required.
This has translated into public intimidation on street corners, threats while waiting in line at the coffee shop and shouting matches in grocery stores – even physical violence.
Has COVID-imposed social isolation caused us to forget the concept of polite disagreement? Has the “Hollywood Squares” format of Zoom meetings made rudeness easier?
An argument could be made for both. It is much quicker and easier to insult someone using email, snail mail, social media or even a text message than it is in person – easier not to see the hurt in someone’s eyes, to deny the person the right to express their views.
At least in our culture, we rely a great deal on our ability to “read” facial expressions to get important feedback. Many of those visual cues are quite subtle – a flicker of the eyes, a nervous smile. When we are unable to see someone’s face, we can easily miss an indication of boredom or anger – something to tell us we need to soften our approach or try a different tack. Between wearing masks and relying on Zoom, we have been doing a lot of communicating without visual cues, for two years.
That said, the trend toward public displays of loud, obnoxious behaviour was apparent before COVID hit. Such insults as, “corrupt,” “enemy of the people,” and the almost iconic “fake news” became the hallmarks of the Donald Trump presidency. The man’s fondness for spewing invective via his Twitter account led to him being banned from it – unfortunately, not before similar public spewing gained a certain acceptance.
A dispute that might at one time have ended in a handshake and an agreement to disagree, today could well result in a scathing commentary on a person’s intelligence (or lack thereof), morals, ethnicity and fashion choices.
While COVID has triggered a lot of outrageous behaviour, including standing outside hospitals and preventing ambulances from bringing in patients inside, it is not the only example of intense and angry polarization.
We need look no farther than “no nuke dump” versus “willing to listen.” And then there is politics. The provincial election on the horizon is sure to bring new and vicious attack ads.
Many of us are apprehensive about that provincial election. In the past, we have had a reasonable expectation that once the ballots were counted, there would be a round of gracious acceptance and polite concession speeches.
After what happened with the last American presidential election, and, in truth, our own federal election, where there are still voters who refuse to accept that Justin Trudeau won, nothing is certain.
We might take a lesson from sports. When the game finishes, the player who takes a swing, verbal or physical, at an opposing player is, at best, labeled a poor sport and could end up being banned from future games. One harsh but valuable lesson kids learn from competitive sports is how to both win and lose with a reasonable amount of dignity.
Any six-year-old hockey, ringette, soccer or ball player knows the right way to end a game – shake hands, give congratulations on a game well played, and order pizza.
The same technique would work very well for their parents arguing over COVID, politics or anything else.
Shouting down the opposition may give the momentary illusion of winning an argument but it does not make the loudmouth right. Nor does it convince the other side to change their views. In fact, shouting down the opposition is likely to make people dig in their heels. The real winner is the one who can make a point without making an enemy.