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LAURA FRIEDMANN: Hi. I'm Laura Friedmann hosting this episode of the Public Discourse for the Office of Public Affairs of the Bahá'í Community of Canada. I am delighted to be joined by three guests today for our first episode of a new series we are calling "A Vision of Oneness."
I'll be talking with our guests about the causes of polarization and division in our society and how we can strengthen processes of dialogue, democratic deliberation, and consultation within our culture and politics. But before we get to our conversation, I'd like to ask each of you to briefly introduce yourselves. Sabrina?
SABREENA DELHON: Hi there. My name is Sabreena Delhon. I'm the Executive Director of the Samara Centre for Democracy.
LAURA: Great. Thanks. Michael?
MICHAEL SABET: Hi I'm Michael Sabet. I'm a lawyer by training but currently pursuing a PhD in political theory.
LAURA: Wonderful. And Jennifer?
DR. JENNIFER WOLOWIC: Hi I'm Jennifer Wolowic. I'm an anthropologist by training and I currently lead our Strengthening Canadian Democracy initiative at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue in Vancouver.
LAURA: Wonderful. I am really happy to have all three of you here with us today. Especially since this is our first podcast after a little bit of a break. So I'm really happy that you're here with us to kick off season 3.
Sabreena I'd like to start with you. We just went through an election in Canada and while we didn't see a great deal of change at the level of political representation, events during the campaign reflected a heightened degree of political tension. Do you think we are becoming more polarized as a society?
SABREENA: Well, thank you so much for having me today. It's a pleasure to be a guest.
While I think we're at a critical juncture to define the next chapter for democracy in Canada, having viewed everything through a pandemic lens over the last year and a half, we can see things differently now. Over the course of the pandemic the public has been tuned in and engaged. The majority have been following public health protocols, wearing masks, have gotten vaccinated; there has also been a surge in community organizing in response to the inequity that has been exacerbated by COVID-19; and also during this period we've seen long-standing social movements break through into the mainstream. And all of this counters the myth of disengagement amongst our electorate and a lot of this mobilizing flowed from the pro-democracy elements of social media platforms; elements that enable connection and information sharing, especially during a time when we had to be physically distanced from one another.
So that's the 'pro'. However, we know that there are aspects of social media - these connection and information sharing aspects in particular - that have also been weaponized to deliver abuse, and incite violence, and polarize. And this circumstance has an impact. In the political context this means people are leaving politics, or not entering politics, who are just steering clear of the political conversation because it's divisive and because there's a polarizing toxic aspect to it that is happening in real-life, but also largely online, and this is a barrier to civic engagement.
At the Samara Centre we are observing this and we see that this is an instance and a circumstance that's not getting better. It's getting worse. Elections are a period of high-toxicity online, so we use the recent federal election as an opportunity to collect data and increase public awareness about the state of Canada's online political conversation. It's really interesting when you measure the obvious. Anecdotally we all know that the state of the online political conversation in Canada is quite toxic, but nevertheless it's important to measure so we deployed a bot during the election called 'Sam', or 'Sam-bot'.
During the federal election we deployed a bot that tracked toxic tweets received by incumbent candidates and party leaders in the lead up to Election Day, and this is just a really small slice of the political conversation online. We tracked 300 accounts, we collected over 2 million tweets, and we analyzed four different forms of toxicity, whether that was profane, threatening, sexually explicit or insulting. And our findings confirmed what many in the political world know anecdotally, that there's a staggering volume and intensity of toxicity. And about 20 percent of what we tracked qualified as toxic.
This matters because nearly half of Canada's social media users say they don't feel safe participating in political conversations online. They steer clear of it. And that's where a bulk of the political conversation is happening, particularly during the pandemic. And amongst the groups that feel unsafe sharing their views online are largely women because they face a huge proportion of digital harassment; and also racialized Canadians in particular because they bear the brunt of abuse online as well.
So, bigger picture, we're interested in having the data that we collected with Sam-bot guide discussions about how we handle the relationship between technology and democracy, and we have a larger report based on our findings coming out later this fall. Our intention here is to seize an opportunity to evolve not only our policies but our democratic culture; and addressing polarization is inherent there.
LAURA: I love how you say that it gives you hope and it keeps you inspired to keep going. And this is a good segue for speaking more about democracy. Jennifer you work on a program at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue that aims to strengthen Canadian democracy, can you tell me a little bit more about that?
JENNIFER: Yeah. So we look at what is the resident’s experience? I don't say citizens because not all… Like, residents of Canada are all members of our democracy, whether or not they have the official right to vote or not. And what turns them on, what turns them off, towards their participation? What are the capacities and the skills we need to do that well? And then also what helps us participate better? What motivates us or unlocks capacity that we didn't know we had in making our local communities better in participating in local government or provincial public engagement activities, or even the federal elections?
Democracy is much more than going to the poll whenever the Prime Minister asks our Governor General for an election. It's about the day after. And how do we strengthen the day after?
LAURA: Right. And so what do you think are some of the underlying causes of division and polarization in our society right now?
JENNIFER: When we look at democracies across the world we also find it's a system of government that really is about letting most people not have to care too much about politics. There is another scholar called Robert Talisse, he's got a book called Overdoing Democracy. He talks about how the whole point of democracy is so that we can form our own personal connections, our own personal pursuits outside of politics. That we have that liberal freedom to do that at a local level. And when we look across the world, democracies tend to do that a little bit better - or a lot better in many cases - than authoritarian or other forms of government.
So that's where we've come. You also asked what's causing polarization right now? What's going on right now? Some of it Sabreena has mentioned around different technologies and systems, but really what's also going on is a different sense of awareness of difference and division because whenever you tweet something, it's out there forever. It's no longer a passing by conversation with your neighbour where you're venting at the end of the day and then it's ephemeral and it disappears; it's now out there and it sticks, and someone finds it and they read it, and they agree with it, or they don't, and they are forming their own communities around those sort of, those traces of your feelings and your thoughts in the moment.
JENNIFER: And what happens is also what's called “belief polarization”. When it's so easy to find people who agree with you and you only talk to people who agree with you, you tend to become more extreme in your beliefs and your righteousness that you're right. And Ezra Klein in his book Why We’re Polarized, he talks about this sorting of ideas is nothing new, but what is new is the tension between the groups that Sabreena is talking about; that animosity between the different groups at the different polar ends of the spectrum and that commitment. And we start to rationalize based on our initial beliefs, not actually listening to one another. So that's what's different.
LAURA: I love how you said it. Michael or Sabreena feel free to chime in on anything that Jennifer said. This is interesting because Michael, your PhD research examines how to strengthen deliberative processes in politics. I'm wondering if you could talk about some of the ways in which we can introduce consultatative principles and practices into our public life?
MICHAEL: Sure. Thank you Laura. I'll share a few thoughts. I think picking up on this point that Jennifer made that there are underlying human tendencies by which we define ourselves based on our differences, and then who is the other. I just we can get into this extreme tribalism where even frivolous decisions about what kind of donuts we eat end up becoming an important marker about who we conceive of ourselves to be. I think it's really important to have a clear vision of that as we think about the ways to get out of the sort of funnel towards increasing polarization that we're in. And then we can also think about there are other human tendencies that we see across cultures that move in a different direction. There are tendencies towards a universal kind of empathy. When somebody sees someone else in pain, there's a universal reaction to also feel pain. And then I think it becomes a question of which of these are we feeding more in our society?
And I think that there is quite a lot of research on how do you create a different kind of democratic process, one that is more deliberative that gets people together who maybe don't see eye-to-eye but lets them have a conversation instead of a fight? And I think both Jennifer and Sabreena would be much more qualified to speak about that aspect, this topic, than I would.
Something I'm particularly interested in is, ultimately, I suppose social change has to start with a change in ideas, and our ideas all change first in our own minds. And I'm interested in what kind of conditions allow people to open their imaginations to a different set of possibilities for a democratic culture, and then how can that lead us into action?
MICHAEL: I come from a legal background where adversarialism is the frame in which law takes place. And that has advantages. It has certain strengths. But it's also I think true that, if we think about it from an epistemological perspective, how do we know what we know? Adversarialism is problematic because it starts with the assumption that we believe we are right, and it assumes you know what you are 'for', you know what you're 'against'.
And I think sometimes that kind of moral clarity is very important. There are times when you need to flat out say, "I am certain that this is right and I'm not going to be silent when something that's clearly wrong is happening." But sometimes that kind of moral clarity can be quite destructive because it means you aren't listening. At a partisan space, an adversarial approach structures the conversation around these kind of fixed positions. Increasingly the political game, as I understand it, is one where parties are less trying to convince people who don't already agree with them, and more try to mobilize.
So during the last election, a candidate - or a representative of a candidate in our riding - came to the door and asked, [my wife opened the door] “Who do you usually vote for?" And she said, "I don't usually vote by party. I look at the platforms and the candidates and then I make a decision. And this canvasser said, "Okay, thank you." And moved on. And the idea was, strategically, they don't have the time to invest in converting somebody, they have to find the people who are likely already to vote for them and then mobilize them.
And I think there's a very old - I think it comes from the Buddhist tradition - very old image that comes to mind when I think about how we approach our own views in public discourse; it's the story of the blind men and the elephant, which I'm sure many, many of our listeners are familiar with. Three blind men stumble upon 'something', and they each feel a different part of it. And one of them concludes it's a snake because they're feeling the trunk of the elephant. One of them concludes it's a tree because they're feeling the leg. Another concludes it's a rope because they're feeling the tail. There are two lessons you can draw from this. One would be, well, they are too sure that they're right. And what they need to do is be a little less sure that they're right and then they can find a common truth. The other conclusion though that you could reach that, well, maybe the blind men here just need to renounce the idea of truth. They just need to say, “Well, you have your truth, I have my truth.”
And I don't think that's true either because there is an elephant out there; there is an objective truth. Maybe what we need is to learn what the right balance is between humility about our own views, but also a kind of conviction and faith that we can reach agreement through honest consultation; not total agreement, not total consensus, but enough agreement to move forward on the things that matter.
JENNIFER: I really love Michael's point there about humility in our own beliefs. Part of what we're also seeing right now is this general distrust of expertise because you can find your own people who agree with you and you can find "facts" that agree with you. And I put "facts" in quotation marks there. And so there is this general sense - and we can see this in the climate crisis conversation - of, you know, people continue to deny that's a thing. And they're so they're so strong in their conviction.
And then the other piece that Michael was bringing up around what is around this discourse is we forget that democracy is about a system that leads us to compromise, and that's its whole point is that no one wins because you have to get a majority to vote and it's really difficult to get the majority to vote to agree on anything. And so you have to push back and you have to find ways where you can meet others where they are.
SABREENA: There's also the element of certainty that, you know, Michael you're encouraging us to question, and then Jen what you were talking about with political parties like, "Oh, I have to identify with a political party and then I can understand who I am in relation to that." I think there's a sense that there's a demand for a certain level of certainty from the electorate to be extra firm in their beliefs and convictions, and extra firm about what their political identity is. And it's just too much, and that's what prevents people from feeling like they can participate. They feel like there's some sort of standard that they're supposed to meet and have this sort of static position permanently. And it's just, I think, debilitating in terms of activating civic participation in a full and robust way.
JENNIFER: And it means the electorate is constantly disappointed.
LAURA: Right. Michael you were going to say something?
MICHAEL: Something that comes to mind is - maybe something else to mention in terms of a ray of light in the Canadian context – is: There is a way to look at [diversity] as, well, a problem in that we're all so different, how can such a different group of people ever have cohesion? And I think there's something to that.
But I think there's another way to think of [it differently]… If we use an organic metaphor for if you think about when you're trying to grow crops: mono-cultures – as we're learning in the agricultural sphere – are actually pretty fragile. The greater diversity of your ecosystem, the more robust it is, the more capable it is of meeting challenges. And if you think about the way plants grow, a sterile soil can't really give rise to a healthy eco-system; can't give rise to healthy plants.
There's some thinking from a philosopher called [Jürgen] Habermas who talks about how in the modern world we've structured many of our institutions in a way that they tend to sort of - I don't know if he uses these exact words - it tends to sort of sterilize the soil that we live in. So if you think of our economic transactions, they've gone from very intimate in the context of villages in prior ages, to very anonymous, where I don't need to know my grocer. And in the last five years I haven't even needed to say hi to the person who checks out my groceries because I just go to a self-serve kiosk and check out my own groceries while listening to something on my headphones. I can have zero human interaction during my entire process of providing food for my family.
That I think can increase this tendency of us to only talk to people who already agree with us because there's no drive; there's no centripetal force that pushes us into conversation with others. But there's very solid research that suggests that when you have a society where people talk across difference and have social bonds across difference - so organizational forms where they meet with people who aren't like them in various ways - that really increases social cohesion. But I think that we can't rely on our institutions to create that environment for us because that's not what they're designed to do. Most of our institutions are designed to, in different ways, atomize and separate us.
I think it's on the individuals and communities in a way to take the difficult effort of finding ways to be with difference. And so this is something that in the worldwide Bahá'í community is trying to learn about this. There's a process of consultation that is sort of the life-blood of Bahá'í community life, and apart from their religious affiliation Bahá'ís tend to be very diverse in the settings where they're found; they come from all kinds of backgrounds.
And it's really, really hard; like, I can speak from personal experience. There's the ideal of what consultation in the Bahá'í community is supposed to be like; and then there's the reality, and there's a kind of perseverance that it calls for. And here again I think that [requires a] sort of confidence or faith that this is something worth doing and that we can get better at developing this ability to talk through difference. It's really important because if you don't have that vision of what can come, then all those forces in society that are driving us apart, I think they'll… We'll just get swept along in the tide…
Like, I look at my own life and I can so easily go through a whole week - and COVID exacerbates this of course - I can go through a whole week where I speak with nobody I don't already know. I think that's, oh, maybe a warning sign for a society as diverse as ours.
LAURA: Yeah. It's so interesting.. As you said, the pandemic has in a way caused us to isolate from others, and many times we end up turning to social media as our source of socialization; which could be a good thing, but then, you know there's many faces to that coin.
So Sabreena I'd like to come back to you. I know Samara has been working on projects that introduce the toxicity of online political culture, and also improve the quality of conversation online. So how do you think that we can talk better today in online spaces? Is it simply a matter of people being better social media citizens, or does something also need to change in the way these spaces are structured?
SABREENA: Well, I'll talk a little about Sam-bot. Sam-bot was analyzing tweets just for six weeks and I think what was most compelling and depressing was that the toxicity held steady throughout that period. So a small fraction of what we found was severely toxic; so that's something that would get blocked or reported on Twitter. But for the most part it was toxic tweets that could just be shared without consequence. And this is really damaging for our democracy because for candidates, politicians, their staffers, this is material that will be coming at you at a really disturbing rate; dozens, hundreds, or thousands a day. And it's going to wear you down; it's death by a thousand cuts.
And this isn't just about being precious about your feelings or needing to have a thick skin if you're going to be in the public eye. This is going beyond the call to be resilient, which is a problematic call in the first place. This is about being abused as part of your commitment to public service and it's an ugliness that really affects the electorate. It's what's causing them to steer clear because they are either bored by the toxicity, or they're intimidated by it. And this takes a toll on civic engagement which is ultimately really bad for our democracy.
So you can talk about being more responsible as a social media user in addressing the sense of the anonymity that drives a lot of the toxic behaviour that we see online; we can also talk about whether social media platforms should be regulated - and this is something that the Canadian Commission on Democratic Expression has proposed; and we can talk about the need for institutions to evolve in response to digital toxicity because they've certainly been lagging behind and losing the public's trust as a consequence.
But I think it's also important for us to talk about political culture in Canada and the role of political parties in particular. There's an opportunity here for political parties to do better, to establish more productive norms of behaviour within Canada's political community and just raise the bar on how they manage their relationship with the electorate.
During this last election, parties put a lot of effort into recruiting diverse candidates for this election. The retention of those individuals in the political arena depends on the conditions of work which currently, in the online environment, are hostile and also holding back public participation in our democracy. At the Samara Centre, we are really interested in how political parties are going to respond to the data that we collected with Sam-bot. What are they doing to support their candidates and their members? And how are they going to hold those in their direct circles to account because they are also participating in the proliferation of toxicity online which is leading to division in our society. And if parties can't rise to the occasion here, there's a pretty significant risk which is that the political discourse will continue to degrade and people will turn their backs on the political process.
And political parties matter here because what happens in the political environment sends a signal to the rest of society about who belongs? Who's a leader? Who's voice is heard? And what is the standard for engagement and communication? And also what is our expectation around social cohesion? To build off of what Michael was just saying.
So being the target of digital vitriol - being near digital vitriol - affects not only who enters politics, but who stays, and that has an effect that reverberates into our communities, and into our day-to-day lived experience [of] power and the functioning of our democracy. And so there's an opportunity here moving forward for political parties to establish a higher standard of engagement between the electorate and parties. The key element here is how the electorate uses its vote to reward the parties who can have the courage to conduct themselves in a more civically responsible manner.
JENNIFER: And Sabreena you touched on it just [briefly] but I want to give it more space, is that we know from research that the most effective way of moderating behaviour is when that message comes from someone you see as in your community; someone you identify with telling you, "Hey. You know that makes me uncomfortable…" Is the best response towards someone's behaviour. Having it come from someone that they view is outside of their group actually forces someone to entrench themselves in that position. It escalates things. And the other thing to do is that it needs to be named when it's small, because what we're seeing is escalation; and that's also normal. When you get a little bit of a positive bump when someone likes your toxic tweet, your next tweet is going to be more toxic, your next statement at the coffee shop is going to be a bit more out there; and that's where that belief polarization comes in. And so, you know, I think the Bahá'í community in relating back to the core values of pluralism around engagement and in naming those kind of interactions is a really good place to start.
The other place to be is “what is my reaction right now?” When I hear or see this toxicity, where am I feeling uncomfortable? Scared is often an association. And why does that turn on my fight or flight response? And to acknowledge that, and then the quick rule I try to get people is 'what is a question that you can say?' Instead of saying, "I don't like what you just said." Dialogue is about curiosity, it's about asking the next question. So, "Why is this important to you?" Is always a good one. My other favourite question is, "Could you unpack that a bit more for me?"
And then often what they'll do is as soon as they're forced to confront what they've just said and find the meaning behind it, their words soften; their words actually start to explain. And you go, "Okay, I can understand that."
And then maybe ask another question? And there. And now you've brought someone back and then you can say, "And you know what? That initial question makes me feel uncomfortable and I respect you for this reason, but we need to start being part of the solution." And I feel like that first statement is part of the problem.
LAURA: Mm hmm. So actually Jennifer I wanted to ask you about a different sort of social space, the neighbourhood. You wrote recently for Policy Options about the importance of organizing and participating in our communities and that involvement in this hyper local way can make political participation a joyful thing. Do you think this is part of our solution to polarization? This face-to-face contact, more connection, more joy, even the way that you explained how to confront someone that you might not agree with? The way that you described it I got a sense of joy out of that interaction; that hypothetical interaction, it felt joyful to me, and just light. So what are your thoughts on that?
JENNIFER: Yeah. I think Michael also touched on it, is like we need to start talking to strangers; we need to start saying, "Hey. How are you doing?" again. But the pandemic and our whole social bubble and social distancing has gotten us all really out of practice for the last 18 months. So, you know, here is your homework assignment: say "Hello" through your mask to a stranger on the street.
But really my thinking around joy comes from an evaluation we did for a Vancouver Foundation small grant program. It's been around for quite a few years and what they do is they give individuals 500 dollars to do some sort of community building project. And it's a really low barrier; anyone can do it; there's very few rules around it.
And as we interviewed the people who participated, we started to find some kind of core themes among [these leaders]. And one was they had an issue they cared about. It might be social isolation, it might be food security, it might be climate, it might be traffic in the neighbourhood or recycling, and they could sort of see a solution they wanted to try. There was a general atmosphere of experimentation. Usually someone encouraged them to go for the grant. They would then encourage others to try it or to join them to try something new. They also recognized they had some organizing skills themselves. So they might be teachers or folks who were like that parent who always brings the snack to the children's sports team game, or they were a grandma who has a big family and knows how to wrangle people. So they already had some skills at sort of organizing. But the last piece was that they always connected that issue and their solution to something that brought them personal joy.
For example, someone was concerned about food security and she was talking to her neighbours and they said, "We live in an apartment building now so we downsized and we really miss our gardens." And so her project was to get seeds, and plants, and planters for her neighbours. And they would then planted all their vegetables on their patios and their decks going up into this building. And so it brought them a sense of joy. They were developing a solution around food security, around social isolation, around climate change, but they were doing it in a way that was often a hobby or was something that was joyful.
Another women was really concerned around our fast fashion in the way in which we pick up clothes and we throw them away. And she liked sewing. So she organized classes for her neighbourhood to teach them how to sew. And that would become a socially-distanced circle on someone's front lawn in summertime and they would come in and they would learn how to mend their shirt. But it was because it brought them joy.
LAURA: Well that brings me joy, and it also brings me a lot of hope to hear all that. And speaking of hope, Michael, I was wondering what makes you hopeful that Canada can be become a more unified society - more just, more capable of solving our challenges through dialogue? What are your thoughts on that?
MICHAEL: That's a good question. I think if I honestly kind of check in with myself, I tend to be not particularly hopeful in the short-term, but I do I think have a lot of hope about the medium and long-term.
I think the two sources of hope for me, one, would be the fact that we're going through crises. I think it gives me hope in a kind of a weird way.
So we've talked a lot about social media and I think it's fair to say that what social media - you know, internet technologies in general - are doing to humanity could be termed a crisis. They've arisen incredibly quickly; more quickly than we've had time to grapple with what they do to our minds; what they do to our communities. But part of what they're doing I think is they are turbo charging tendencies that have always been there; tendencies to polarize; to attack difference; to buy into convenient "truths" that aren't actually true but are just what we want to hear. These things have always been with us and they've inflicted huge harm throughout human history.
Now they're being dragged into the light because we can't just ignore them. Nobody can afford to ignore them in the age of social media. They are harming all of us in such obvious ways. My hope is that once we truly come to grips with the full scale of these problems in their social media kind of manifestation, we won't go back to what we were before the internet; we'll be better because we'll now understand a problem that was always there and we'll be able to build society that sort of works around it.
The other great crisis of course of our time is the environmental crisis. And here, it really resonated what Sabreena shared about the problem of toxicity driving out important contributors from public service. There's a very, very old story; it's in Plato's Republic. He talks about this problem when he says, if you owned a ship and you want to decide who is going to be the navigator of the ship, what would you do to choose the navigator? Would you have all of the sailors fight until the last person standing was… He won so he gets to be the navigator. No. Because then all you've done is you've chosen the best fighter to be your navigator. This person knows nothing about how to read star charts and how to regulate a crew. But that's, in large part, we select for those qualities in our leadership the more we have a toxic divisive kind of politics.
The environment doesn't care who our leaders are. The environment… We can select the most pugnacious, thick-skinned, most rhetorically skilled politician to lead us, and if that person can't grapple with the environmental crisis that we're facing then… The planet doesn't care. It's going to continue doing what it has done thanks to what we're doing to it. That crisis I think is going to demand change in everything, including our political culture. And whether it comes sooner or later I guess is up to us, but eventually I am confident that faced with that kind of existential threat we will shape up.
And then maybe the less sort of… Not to sound sort of like a just a silver lining in a very grey cloud but the other big point of strength I think that gives me hope is our diversity. Depending on how you think about diversity - I guess I touched on this before - you can think of it as a problem or you can think of it as a strength. And if we have the right image in mind about diversity I think it can really help us realize the great strength of a place like Canada.
So one metaphor that the Bahá'í community is learning about is how do you think about all of humanity in the same way we think of a human body? The human body draws its strength from its diversity. Every cell has a different function. They all have their own identity. They're all supported by the body and they all support the overall project of keeping the body alive and healthy. And in that context diversity is a blessing because there are so many strengths from all of the differences that we have. We each have a different perspective, different cultural resources we can draw on to build a better society.
That is a natural resource that I think we have yet to learn quite how to draw on, but we, I think, we do realize it's a strength. And compared to prior centuries, we know on some level that humanity is one. This is what we teach our children. We didn't teach our children this 200 years ago. As adults we don't always honour that truth but at least we know that that's what we aspire to and I think that there's a lot of hope there. So yeah. That's I guess where I look to for hope.
LAURA: Thank you. Thank you Michael. And Sabreena or Jennifer, what makes you more hopeful that we can become a more unified and just society?
JENNIFER: I think for me the fact that we are beginning to really have good conversations. We're having good dialogue about this issue of division or polarization. That we’re moving a bit out of the reactionary phase into the, okay, what's my role? Where am I contributing? Where am I not? It's something that people are looking for answers of how to be part of the solution. My cat in the background is excited.
LAURA: Your cat agrees.
JENNIFER: He agrees. And it's one of those things. I embrace dialogue and it's part of the reason I love working at the centre; is when I explain what dialogue is to people, I tell them that debate is about the "No. But…" Here's the "No. But…" "You're wrong because…" And when I think about dialogue I think about improv, which a rule is "Yes. And…" And so building on the Bahá'í community or Michael's comment about diversity builds in the 'and'. It brings in the stuff that you haven't thought about. It fills in the gaps. There are no gaps because we have so many people who have so many different expertise and so much lived experience that the answers are there. And there's also support when you need to grieve because you got to give something up. This is the big question for our next generation, is what do we need to stop doing to help climate? To help bring us back together? And a lot of those things are things that make it convenient, they make us feel good, they make us feel powerful. And so you have a community there that's going to help you say, "You know what? I know it sucks that you need to give up your second car or that you need to stop being a jerk on social media. We're here for you." And so it's there, and that's what gives me hope.
LAURA: Awesome. And Sabreena, what gives you hope?
SABREENA: I think what gives me hope is the awakening I think that the pandemic has prompted in Canada about who we are as a country and what more we can be next, and for us to become aspirational and have our imaginations unlocked, and to understand that we don't have to be entrenched in any one single way of being.
I think we've seen also during the pandemic this mainstream increase, mainstream understanding of systemic barriers, and an increased proximity to our leaders. We've been able to see inside their kitchens and living rooms and things like that because we've all just been reduced to Zoom squares. And I think that has kind of flattened things in a really good way for a lot of people and helped address the hesitation that is present within the electorate of, "Oh, I'm not supposed to ask that", or "I'm not supposed to question that", or “That's not for me to know", or "That's not my position", or "That's for someone else to think about, or do." There has been this awakening of like, "Hey wait! Those are my institutions. What's going on? Where's my daily briefing? How come we're not as good as New Zealand. And you know, you need to be accountable to me in a really healthy and productive way."
And that has been really hopeful and heartening for me to see over the course of the pandemic; in my family and in my community where there are people who wouldn't have identified as being politically engaged before. That there's a new sense of agency and connection now that I hope we can harness to evolve who we are as a country, and to evolve how we conduct ourselves and have our democracy.
LAURA: Yep. Thank you Sabreena. And thank you all for sharing your ideas on democracy, on dialogue, on social cohesion, even on humility, on how we can contribute more constructively in social media spaces and also become more joyful active agents. I was certainly inspired by our conversation and I really love how you all pointed out on the ways that we can focus on our strengths; even within our diversity. And this idea of "Yes. And…" Is something I'll take with me.
And you've certainly left me with glimpses of hope for how we can maybe move forward in this more unified and just society. So thank you all for joining us today on the Public Discourse.
JENNIFER: Thank you. It was lovely.
SABREENA: Yeah. Thank you for having me.
MICHAEL: Thank you so much.