Today, many memories and mixed feelings of a remarkable day are emerging. They are accompanied by much uncertainty, since the role that last year’s storm on the Capitol will be assigned in our history books is yet undetermined. We can expect massive media coverage around its first anniversary. Many highly indignant reports will emphasize how serious the threat to democracy was (and is); others will express their disdain over how the ongoing investigation is misused for party politics, while there even will be loud voices from the fringes praising the heroism of the insurgents. I predict, however, that the largest group in society will just remain silent, waiting for things to get back to normal. The most typical Canadian take on these matters comes closest to this last position, though with some noteworthy nuances: on this side of the border, we tend to lament the deep rift that tears apart the society to the south, paired with the satisfaction that we are in a much better place.
We may be for now, but not for long, unless we learn our lessons from this wake-up call. “Stop being overly dramatic”, some may say, “don’t you see that the democratic institutions of the US are functioning?” After all, people like the ‘Buffalo Man’ and his fellows are in jail.
Such a sigh of relief is, however, premature. Not even the arsonist himself is on the dock. And his resistance to cede after a “stolen election” was by far not his first aggressive move against democratic institutions. However, he is only the catalyst of a much deeper-rooted problem. The biggest change that we have seen over the past years is that inflammatory rhetoric has become acceptable to ever larger portions of society. Views that had been typical of left or right extremists are ever more often presented as the new mainstream, and one may well wonder what the centre of society has become. Has it disintegrated or are there two opposite centres now? Whatever the sociologically correct answer to this may be, to me it seems that more and more people are living in bubbles.
Inside these bubbles, there is much unquestioned agreement, no matter how dubious information and how harmful sentiments are. In contrast, the views of people from outside are either ignored or shouted down. Calling out the obvious ‘evil’ makes us feel good, since it secures us the applause of our peers. But this comes at the cost of shutting the door for dialogue. It implies that the other side is lacking an ethical foundation to even enter in a discussion, while absolving us from the thorny task of developing a complex argument. Complexity is not only demanding on ourselves, but runs the risk of upsetting an audience ever less acquainted with nuance. And, even worse, engaging into a nuanced discussion implies that the outcome is uncertain. There was a time when dealing with such uncertainty was celebrated as a learning curve, a compromise or pragmatism. Today, more often than not it is bluntly rejected as opportunism or betrayal. But is this kind of earnest discussion not the lifeblood of a prosperous democracy?
There are two main virtues that a functioning democracy thus requires: trust in our own inner compass and respect for our fellow citizens. This trust in yourself is not diminished by keeping an open mind or by showing an ability to integrate new insights into our roadmap. The real challenge is to show respect to those whose views we do not share. It is this respect that allows us to listen and to discover that there may be more that unites than divides us. The difference between Americans and Canadians is only minor in this regard, there is some more shouting to the south and more indignant silence to the north. Either situation results from a lack of respectful communication. If denying our fellow citizens the respect of patient listening is how we gradually turn them into enemies, then we should try to reverse the process. So, why not make it our New Year Resolution: to train ourselves to disagree respectfully?
There will be rich rewards, I promise. At a basic level, we will learn that if we remain political opponents in hotly debated matters like abortion or the headscarf, we may still be good neighbours, and perhaps find out that we can agree on climate action or gun control. At an advanced level we might understand that either side of a debate is potentially founded on serious ethical principles, and even be friends. Either way, we would re-invigorate our society’s democratic centre, making it strong enough to weather the next storm that will undoubtedly come. In fact, we would write history, for if we learn our lessons from Jan. 6, 2021, this day will not be yet another milestone in the erosion of Western democracy. Our children will rather read about it as the wake-up call that induced us to take better care of the system that protects our rights, freedom and dignity.
Altay Coskun is a professor in Classical Studies at the University of Waterloo. He is interested in constitutional and legal matters, interstate and intercultural relations, imperial policy and propaganda, as well as the status of migrants and foreigners. Every third Wednesday, he hosts the Seleukid Lecture Series with guest speakers.