Damaging Public Trust

Most rights and freedoms are not nearly as absolute as most people think. The great irony is that some of the most aggressive promoters of ‘absolute’ freedoms, conform to restrictions of their rights every day and they miss the fact that, instead, they are victims of fomenting, lies and the erosion of public trust.

Literally, since the time of the ancient Greeks 2400 years ago, we’ve been discussing the relative priority of rights, freedoms and responsibilities. These discussions have been even more detailed in the last 300 years, as a series of democracies were used to replace monarchies and improve citizens’ access to basic rights. Some of the stark chants about freedom, echo from those early days of modern democracies, because finally recognizing these rights was a very big deal. Shouting the sound bite in every street, was far more important than its accuracy. The logic and priority of rights and responsibilities now has been thoroughly discussed, although not thoroughly recognized around the world.

Rights, and counter balancing responsibilities, almost always go hand in hand. In the case of 4 Way Stops on the road, everyone agrees to interrupt their personal freedom of movement, to ensure we don’t have crashes at intersections. Every day we suspend an individual right for the collective public good. This is less obvious today than when it became a big thing with the invention of the car at the beginning of the 20th century. Horses didn’t run into each other and people of that time were not happy about constantly making silly stops at ‘empty’ intersections in their new automobiles.

This brings us to enforcement. Even today, some people think it’s okay to run red lights or drink and drive, so yes, we have punishment for people who don’t get it. Broader public safety is a higher priority than your individual rights, especially if there’s no real harm to you when you stop at the cross road.

Our lives also intersect in the form of public discourse, the necessary to and fro of ideas and debate, that informs the voting citizen and conveys us to a destination of social consensus. In the case of a polluted public discourse, many politicians have been happy to insert the catchy parts of freedoms into logical-sounding phrases, that are simply not true, do not reflect the law, and often distract from the truth. This is fomenting, whipping people into destructive action, using disinformation or lies. This is as damaging to public discourse as a multi-car pile up at an intersection.

Then we have human nature. Enraged people, are people of action. An upset audience is a loyal and hungry audience, and angry voters, vote. Politicians and a new type of entrepreneur are using this negative human behaviour for personal gain and profit. Political fund raisers, websites, personal and corporate media channels are fomenting for power and profit. Every time you see fomenting, you can be sure someone is going home with more votes or a fat advertising cheque.

On the opposing side of the issue, we have politicians and public authorities telling the angry crowd, you’re deplorable, unacceptable, and criminal. Governments start acting more like autocrats and release the police or the army to suppress, remove, charge and penalize the angry crowd. Never will you hear word of new laws to prevent or punish the root cause, the fomenters that started it all; the real criminals. By simply scores points off the existence of the fomenters, the ‘good’ side is committing a crime of omission; using the bad people to polish their own image instead of outlawing the offence and stopping the unrest.

In this context you can see the failure of communication from almost every government and politician in the world. Bad ones foment and good ones simply call shame. During these difficult times there needs to be, public education that helps us understand the civic priorities of rights and freedoms, laws that support the correct behaviour and effective rules that remove the bad actors quickly.

Every press conference that talks about freedom without responsibility is a problem. Every government statement that castigates an angry group of constituents without taking action to protect them from fomenting is a problem. Every voter who goes to the ballot box with a world view damaged by profiteering public figures is a problem. Just these three statements describe a very skewed, corrosive and dangerous world. This is the world we live in.

This week a strange thing happened in Canada. A group of provinces, that contain most of the conspiracy protests by truckers, are governed by chronic fomenter politicians. Now these same politicians must also play the enforcers against the very voters they whipped up with fomenting political rhetoric. On the opposite side, the air is silent on legislation to to protect the trust in public discourse and thick with criticism of the angry crowd.

In Canada we already have restrictions on free speech. Quality legislation has been removing hateful promoters from the public stage and protecting the rights of everyone since 1970. Our law makes it clear that hate performs no useful purpose in a democracy and so deserves to be removed for the damage it does. Fomenting and lies are the same. Where hate speech applies to everyone, fomenting and disinformation laws should apply to every public figure including; Website owners, celebrities, and politicians. If you assume a public profile, you must be held to a higher responsibility for protecting the public discourse you wish to engage. Creating havoc cannot become a path to victory. Damaging trust in public discourse should be a criminal offence.

We already protect reputations, advertising, business communication and money from lies with extremely strong libel, misrepresentation, contract and fraud laws. I hope the most intelligent politicians on both sides of the debate can now see we need to protect trust in public discourse by punishing the liars and fomenters, not the victims.

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