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How to Show Courage Through This Chaotic Moment

Op-ed by Ana Serrano and Karim Bardeesy

Apr 12, 2024

When so many people default to picking sides without listening, oftentimes when faced with tough choices or party loyalty, it’s even more important to lift up dialogue.

Published in the Toronto Star This year, almost half of the world’s population will vote in elections. In many of these countries, democracy itself is on the ballot.

In the United States, India, South Africa and more, some candidates are flirting openly or tacitly with rolling back some of the protections and bulwarks of a democracy. They might preserve the vote, but these leaders may further chip away at a free press, equal rights, an independent judiciary, or an impartial public service.

More and more, leaders are practicing an uncivil style of politics. They openly bully. They say the other side isn’t just the opponent, but the enemy. And they use all the digital tools at their disposal, including new AI systems, to make these efforts spread and stick, including across our borders and into Canadian discourse.

Since many people don’t believe in these tactics, they will sometimes unilaterally disarm and stop talking. They’ll call for a genteel civility. They’ll stick to analogue means of reaching their people. They’ll ask everyone to get along.

Of course, there is room for better listening and dialogue with people and groups that are different from our own. Real listening skills, multi-sector co-operation and learning to civilly disagree with each other are an important part of a changemaker’s tool box.

But when so many people default to picking sides without listening, oftentimes when faced with tough choices or party loyalty, it’s even more important to lift up dialogue.

Indeed, dialogue is a skill we need to develop. But so is solving problems.

We’re leaders of institutions devoted to the public good and developing people toward influencing power and making change. And we believe that there’s a complementary path, that must accompany dialogue, to taking on demagogues and rallying Team Democracy.

First and foremost we cannot take our democratic freedoms for granted; a healthy democratic society is far from assured and we must take action to protect it. Now is not the time to be complacent. We need to overcome our perceived collective powerlessness and work toward a more resilient and sustainable democracy.

That means speaking up, and encouraging the people we work with to use the technology, art and other media at their disposal to engage politically and on public policy issues.

The result can mean dialogue and expression that’s a little more raucous, a little more pointy, than what many people in power are comfortable with. It can also mean a stubborn silence from people in the crowd who reject this kind of expression. Leaders, including ourselves, need to discern what’s being said, or not said, in these settings.

\We can work with those who feel betrayed by their institutions to redirect their energies towards solutions. But only if we meaningfully engage with them, and make space for them, even if the way they communicate and engage in dialogue isn’t what people in power are used to.

For those of us in positions of authority in institutions, we need to work harder and together to tend to the real issues that are fraying people’s trust in us, like intergenerational and wealth inequality; service delivery in a digital age; and responsible governance of our information ecosystem. By inviting a wider array of voices into the work, and asking them to contribute meaningfully to solutions, we will get closer to solving these problems.

Finally, no one on Team Democracy can shy away from things that they see as “just politics.” Like it or not, politics, and partisan politics as expressed through candidates, political parties, and elections, is often how we resolve our disagreements in a democracy. The winners get a seat at the table and the chance to set the agenda.

That doesn’t just mean running for election, but about engaging with, advocating to and being in the face of those we’ve elected to represent us and shape their actions.

The authoritarian forces closing in on us are not pulling their punches. The pro-democracy forces need to be courageous and up our game. It’s a fine line for leaders to walk and talk, but we need to recognize the limits of just getting along.

We need to embrace dialogue, diagnosis and delivery. That’s the constructive way, in the chaos around us, to show courage.

Ana Serrano is president and vice-chancellor of OCAD University. Karim Bardeesy is executive director of the Dais at Toronto Metropolitan University. Both are co-directors of DemocracyXChange, Canada’s democracy summit taking place in Toronto and online April 11 to-13.

Presented by

DemocracyXChange is a collaboration of:
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