Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Deliberation as Dark Comedy?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how public deliberation can function effectively. In particular, I’ve been wondering about a possible tendency to pay undue attention to the most extreme comments that are made in deliberative settings.

My question was piqued by a recent high profile effort by the Quebec government to address the perceived problem of "intercultural friction" in Quebec. The provincial government set up a traveling commission chaired by two high profile academics, historian Gerard Bouchard and philosopher Charles Taylor. From September to December of 2007, the commission traveled throughout the province soliciting input from ordinary citizens about "interethnic relations and harmonization practices." At the outset of the hearings, the commissioners indicated their hopes for a “frank, open discussion” and suggested that the commission would constitute a “major demonstration of democracy.”

As it journeyed across Quebec, the commission received many thoughtful contributions from citizens, but the media spotlight seemed to me to focus particularly on citizen comments that were ignorant, narrow-minded, and/or racist. For example, in their coverage of the citizen comments at the hearing held in the Laurentians, the Montreal Gazette (the largest English-language daily in Quebec) focused extensively on contributors who made anti-Semitic remarks. The Gazette’s coverage of the hearings in Laval was similar in terms of the amount of attention given to xenophobic contributions.

A great deal of media attention was also given to the testimony of André Drouin, the mayor of the town of Herouxville. Drouin and his small town had entered gained national attention in January 2007 for crafting and propagating a code of conduct for immigrants. A quote from the preamble to the code—“We would especially like to inform the new arrivals that the lifestyle that they left behind in their birth country cannot be brought here with them…”—gives one a sense of the flavor of the rest of the document.

Quebec’s answer to Jon Stewart, Jean-René Dufort (better known by his stage name of “Infoman”) also weighed in with a weekly feature called “Un Excellent Moment de la Commission Bouchard-Taylor.” Each week, Dufort would highlight particularly strange and funny moments from the live TV coverage of the commission.

I have to admit that I was fascinated by some of the more bizarre antics of the contributors to the commission, and I enjoyed Infoman’s comedic take on the whole enterprise enormously. Still, the fact remains that the media played a role in spotlighting the extreme testimony, as opposed to the more sober contributions. If deliberative exercises like the commission are to function well, shouldn’t the media consider highlighting a representative sample of the contributions, or even avoiding coverage of sensational contributions that are on the fringe? Of course, we know that the for-profit media likes to report on stories that will sell papers and draw eyeballs to the screen. Perhaps not-for-profit citizen journalism could play a useful role in providing more balanced coverage? I'm interested to hear your thoughts on this issue.

Further reading: The Bouchard-Taylor Commission’s final report.


Barbara Stengel said...

Interesting post, David. I'm trying to decide whether I agree with you that the coverage "should" be more balanced. There is a value in getting the outlier views on the table to be taken seriously. Balanced coverage might cover over the destructiveness of some views without allowing them to be fully aired.

I do understand human nature well enough to know that lots of folks might "follow the leader"and adopt Drouin's line, for instance, without thinking carefully. But I also think that shining light on the absurd can be the best way to allow others to see it as absurd.

Overall, I'd say your post is a good argument for deliberation about difference to be a central skill taught and practiced in public schools.

David Waddington said...

Barbara, I agree that there is a value in having outlier views aired, and I also agree that shining a light on the absurd can be beneficial. However, if a consultative democratic exercise is perceived by the public as a theatre of the absurd, then there may be cause for concern. I'm much more concerned about this prospect than about the possibility that the public will take someone like Drouin seriously.

On the other hand, the public may not actually feel that way at all--it would be interesting to try to figure out what, exactly, the public took away from the Bouchard-Taylor commission. It was headline news around here for months, and people have probably formed some kind of an opinion of its activities.

Zuleika said...

Well said.