How we debate immigration and related issues is as important as the issues themselves. Whether these be broad political or media debates, or more focused consultations or workshops, care needs to be taken to ensure respectful discussion.
Given the need for a diversity of views and the desire to protect free speech, are there criteria that should be used to assess who is likely to contribute to a constructive conversation and dialogue? Should these criteria be used to select speakers and panelists, or perhaps participants and audiences?
Canadian scholar Keith Banting’s one-third snapshot of the population — one-third favouring more immigration, one-third favouring less, and one-third in the middle — is a useful suggestion as to the possible groups that need to be engaged in this debate. But within these broad groupings, there is considerable variation. Moreover, this variation includes both “elite” and “populist” discourses.
Given the importance of immigration, citizenship and multiculturalism to Canada’s overall success as a country, it is essential that people be exposed to and discuss a variety of perspectives, that we get out of our bubbles, whatever viewpoint our “bubble” represents. This would also shed light on opinions that might not have been be aired, and it would encourage a more open conversation.
My goal in writing this article is to provide practical guidelines for organizers of workshops and consultations on the issue of immigration.
Except for the possibility of violence, threats or disruption, audiences should not be preselected. (However, asking panelists to suggest invitees can ensure the audience includes those interested in respectful dialogue.) In contrast, the selection of panelists must be done to at least ensure the dialogue is meaningful, and the exchange in the panel is respectful and polite. To guard freedom of speech there must be an atmosphere of decorum and mutual respect.
Respect also requires some exclusions: for example, of speakers who promote hatred or whose specialty is generating outrage. But within these limits, it should be possible to broaden discussions to help address some of the political and populist undercurrents in Canada that are not being openly expressed.
It may also be easier to have a constructive conversation and to air the deeper motives and values behind specific issues and concern when the focus is on practical issues rather than beliefs and values. But even practical issues can be controversial and divisive. For example, what should the number and mix of immigrants (economic, family, refugees)? What should the requirements of citizenship (language, knowledge, residency) look like? What is reasonable in reasonable accommodation (specific religious exemptions within the overall legal and constitutional framework)?
The objective should be not to convince one’s interlocutors but to increase mutual understanding of various positions and the perspectives, and the biases and values that underlie them. This must go beyond a discussion of mainstream views and engage more populist discourses.
Nevertheless, even conversations focused on practical issues should be guided by some “ground rules”; an agreed-upon etiquette. These include the need to
- Listen and be open to hearing other perspectives
- Be aware of conscious and unconscious biases that may inform assumptions and selection of evidence
- Stick to the evidence, however imperfect, rather than anecdotes, and recognize that people may not interpret evidence in the same way
- Be respectful in one’s language and tone to and avoid “demonizing” those with perspectives that are different from one’s own
- Avoid personal criticism or labelling
- Don’t assume that all members of specific groups have the same beliefs, values and perspectives.
But will a potential panelist want to follow these ground rules and actually enrich the discussion? It’s helpful to consider in advance the tone and language of an individual’s writings and public appearances. Do they focus on the substance of issues or do they engage in personal and/or group attacks? Does their written work appear in mainstream media, whether right- or left-of-centre, or rather in media that has a more extreme/xenophobic political agenda?
Partisanship, meanwhile, is not a reasonable reason for ruling out a potential panelist. Most people have partisan leanings and may approach issues from a specific political perspective.
In applying these guidelines, it is better to adopt a more inclusive approach to diverse views, including populist perspectives, to ensure greater understanding and dialogue. This means risking more uncomfortable conversations.
While these guidelines are written from the perspective of individual events, they are also broadly applicable to general conversations and dialogue. As such, hopefully they will contribute to more civil and informed discussion in general.
To date, Canada has not fallen prey to the world trend of declining support for immigration. Our history of accommodation, our relative geographic isolation, and the large number of immigrant voters mostly protect us from these trends. However, Canada always needs to be attentive to the potential for pressures toward anti-immigration populism and critics who say the country cannot manage its immigration. Greater engagement with diverse perspectives may help in dealing with these pressures.
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