Today, Prime Minister Stephen Harper shocked few but startled some with a new attack on rival Justin Trudeau’s foreign policy capacities.
Mr. Harper, reacting to the Liberal leader’s earlier suggestion that an analysis of “root causes” play a role in the digestion of several incidents of terrorist activity over the past several weeks, countered with one of the most pregnant retorts in recent political memory:
“Our security agencies work with each other and with others around the globe to track people who are threats to Canada and to watch threats that may evolve. I think though, this is not a time to commit sociology, if I can use an expression.”
An interesting turn of phrase, to say the least.
The “sociology” component seems a coy and effective shot at Mr. Trudeau, placing him as both naive student and self-important teacher in the caricatured classroom he inhabits.
The term “commit,” however, points to a much broader process of delegitimization that stretches well beyond Mr. Trudeau and his relative inexperience. What the Prime Minster is really referencing here is the disenfranchisement of the alternative. The delegitimization of disagreement.
All parties vested in the status quo do this. In Ontario, former Premier Dalton McGuinty tempered a series of impending scandals in the health and energy sectors with a clumsy prorogation. Federal Liberals and New Democrats continually reinforce the perceived illegitimacy of coalition governments despite an ideological stake in defending them. Our neighbours to the south are led by the most forcefully delegitimized President of their time.
The same might even be said of Prime Minister Harper himself, whose own legitimacy is routinely questioned with a “60% of Canadians didn’t vote for him” red herring as preposterous as it is nauseating.
But, over the past decade, the Conservative Party of Canada has (with admirable success) undoubtedly upped the ante on this type of political thrust, repeatedly deriding the contributions of journalists, researchers, and bureaucrats to national policy and operational interests. The dignity of the citizenship ceremony, rules governing election activities, and even the Conservatives’ own Parliamentary Budget Office (among others) have all also been publically trivialized.
Suddenly reporters are “committing” journalism, scientists “committing” research, Canadians (or Ontarians, or First Nations peoples) “committing” democracy. Legitimate pushes to challenge or enrich the status quo are disqualified as acts of destabilization.
To be clear, there will always be plenty of arguments on our political margins worth deflating. In a society cherishing free assembly and relative freedom of expression, the delegitimization of untenable positions remains an important tool in social monitoring and agenda setting. The flexibility and adaptability of the internet in particular has revolutionized the ways in which North Americans achieve this, both as a platform for online campaigns and as a channel to propagate offline efforts.
But the broader stigmatization of even passingly-dissenting expertise–practiced widely but perfected under this iteration of the Conservative Party—is an unnatural extension of these important mechanisms. Devaluing the contribution of substantive disagreement isn’t just causing harm to public discourse and democracy, it’s committing it.