OPINION: Debate, dialogue are democracy’s oxygen

Columnist Andre Carrel advocates for writing letters to the editor of your local paper

By Andre Carrel

A study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) concluded that “citizens in nearly all advanced industrial democracies [have become] increasingly skeptical toward politicians, political parties, and political institutions.” The OECD’s findings apply in varying degrees to politics in Canada at every level. We can blame politicians, political parties, and political institutions for our misgivings about politics, but that would be like blaming sunburn on the sun. The lack of trust in the people we have elected and in their decisions is not something we can blame on “them”; it is something we have allowed to take root and grow within our society.

Documenting what “the people” want is a profitable industry. There is money to be made in telling politicians what YOU want so that they may tell us, in professionally massaged language, what it is that we think we want to hear. An opinion poll declaring that sixty-five percent of the people (nine times out of ten, plus or minus 3.4 percent) support a program, or a policy, or a project is an incontrovertible indicator of support.

A focus on the degree of public support for any measure tends to ignore the naysayers’ reasons for their opposition. Support may be expressed for a multitude of reasons, but supporters’ reasons are irrelevant, their YES is all that matters. Opposition may also be explained by many reasons, but the WHY of objections warrants more attention than do the reasons for support. Even best-made plans may conceal flaws in their design, something overlooked or under-estimated by proponents.

The internet – Facebook, Google, Twitter, and others – is efficient in its spontaneity. Its weakness is its propensity to link like-minded people. Democratic politics loses its direction when citizens talk about the other more than they listen to, and try to understand, the other. Debate and dialogue, not certainty and righteousness, are democracy’s oxygen.

A letter to the editor in a community newspaper stimulates dialogue. A community newspaper lands on every doorstep, and with that a letter to the editor speaks to all, not just to the writer’s friends, associates, and/or subscribers. It speaks to the community as a whole. Letters to the editor are to democracy what sand is to reinforced concrete: a mundane but essential ingredient.

Writing a letter to the editor of a community newspaper is commensurate to speaking at a well-attended townhall meeting. It gives the writer an opportunity to explain, to give examples, to offer suggestions, to rationalize, and to present alternatives. Reading such a letter may lead to a new understanding, to an appreciation of concerns held by the writer. In other words, a letter to the editor may open a door to compromise and with that it may help to connect rather than divide a community.

“To write is to put the seeming insignificance of human existence into a different perspective” (Alfred Kazin, The Self as History; 1985). Kazin’s observation is as pertinent to a letter to the editor in a local paper as it is to the art of biography. Human existence is complex; there is nothing insignificant about it. Communication, the interchange of thoughts, opinions, fears, and desires between the jumble of people who make up a community, is democracy’s oxygen. The opportunity is there, it costs a little effort but no money, so take advantage of it: write a letter to the editor.

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