The November 2010 Munk Debate was billed as an intellectual “thrilla in Manila.” Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a devout Christian, took on renowned atheist Christopher Hitchens on the question of religion.
The evening was fairly predictable until a member of the audience asked the debaters to identify which of their opponent’s arguments they found most convincing.
Tony Blair went first and quickly pivoted to defending his own beliefs.
Hitchens took a different tack and actually attempted to identify his argument’s weaknesses. He spoke of the hubris of atheists in believing that the awe-inspiring aspects of our existence can simply be attributed to humanity. He described that sense of something beyond the material – the transcendent – that exists in things like music, love and beauty.
Although it was only for a brief moment, Hitchens, a fairly arrogant man, displayed humility.
Humility is important in public policy debates. It demonstrates that you are capable of listening to another viewpoint; you respect people who don’t hold your beliefs; and you don’t believe you necessarily have all the answers. It conveys the idea that we are all in this together – broken, unsure and trying to make sense of a complicated world.
In my experience, displaying a bit of humility can be surprisingly effective. Guards tend to be let down and if nothing else, people start to listen to each other a little bit more.
These days humility is missing in action.
In the public square there is anger — much of it justified — but there is little acknowledgement that the solutions being put forward may not be the last word and there may be value in listening to those with a different viewpoint.
A principle of parliamentary procedure is that a member of parliament must never “impute false or unavowed motives” to another parliamentarian.
Although a mouthful, the concept is actually fairly simple.
Parliament conducts its affairs in the belief that all members are there to serve citizens. No matter how serious the differences, all members must act under the assumption that even their opponents are there to further the common good: You are not allowed to imply that there is something sinister or self-serving behind their policies or actions. You can’t, for example, accuse the other side of adopting a particular position because they are contemptuous of a region of the country or want to reward donors or pander to people’s prejudices.
Maybe this approach could help bring about a sense of humility in our wider public policy discussions?
First, it would address the fear that giving value to other perspectives might inadvertently create room for hate mongers or violent extremists. As they have made their motives crystal clear, their extremism and hate would disqualify them from the discussion.
For the rest, however, the approach would impose a certain discipline. At a minimum we would be compelled to recognize that even if you vehemently disagree with someone, you have at least one thing in common: You both want what is best for society.
I began by arguing that nobody should claim that they have a perfect solution to a pressing problem.
Let me hold myself to the same standard.
I will admit that humility isn’t always necessary. There are instances where righteous anger wins the day and all other perspectives are successfully dismissed as unworthy of consideration.
My experience, however, is that it is very rare.
Although there are some very loud voices in our public square, I suspect that for the most part Canadians have lots of questions and varying opinions about our nation’s challenges. Although everyone might share the common goals of addressing racism, sexual abuse, gun crime, Western alienation, Indigenous reconciliation, climate change and economic inequality, to name only a few, there is no overriding consensus on how we get there.
At the same time, it is not uncommon to hear commentators on a particular issue make vague statements about the need for a “national conversation” or “difficult discussions.”
My advice is simple.
If we really want to see society engage in meaningful exchanges, let’s hold ourselves to the same standard we expect of others. A bit of humility might go a long way.
John Milloy is a former MPP and Ontario Liberal cabinet minister currently serving as the Director of the Centre for Public Ethics and assistant professor of public ethics at Martin Luther University College, and the inaugural practitioner in residence in Wilfrid Laurier University’s Political Science department. He is also a lecturer in the University of Waterloo’s Master of Public Service Program. John can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @John_Milloy.