The Sunday Magazine

Should fledgling politicians be cut down by social media? - Michael's essay

Michael says we are turning into a nation of "hall monitors" who jump on every thoughtless remark ever made​ by a would-be politician.
iPhone with Twitter, Facebook, and other social media apps. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

And another one bites the dust. 

It's getting harder to keep track. Last Tuesday, the Conservative candidate in Bonavista-Burin-Trinity in Newfoundland was unceremoniously dumped as the official candidate. He got the hook because of some remarks he made on social media about abortion, drug use and race. If the quotes are accurate, the offense seems to be rather mild. That was Tuesday. The next day, the Liberals fired their candidate in the Alberta riding of Sturgeon River-Parkland for verbal stupidity.

We live in unforgiving political times. A candidate's fate can be sealed by remarks he or she might have made in their Grade 11 yearbook. The purging of candidates is running strikingly high this election. It is infecting all parties; social media do not discriminate.

Take the case of Joy Davies, the former South Surrey-White Rock B.C. federal Liberal candidate. She is the former federal Liberal candidate because of some remarks she posted on Facebook concerning marijuana. This is what Ms Davies said: "More pot equals less domestic violence in married couples." And: "There is no harm in our children being in a home where cannabis is growing." Pretty benign stuff; kind of interesting but certainly not incendiary. But because  Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is being depicted as someone who would make marijuana use compulsory, Ms. Davies had to go. A former Conservative, she has long been an advocate for the medical use of marijuana. She herself uses about half a gram of pot a day to control the pain of fibromyalgia contracted after a car accident in 1997.

It's an epidemic. An NDP candidate in Nova Scotia is bounced after she says something nasty about Israel. A Tory in a Montreal riding is booted off the island because of some comments deemed misogynist. A young Liberal candidate in Alberta is surgically removed from the campaign because of some four year-old tweets. How should we as citizens and voters respond to all of this?

Every one of us has made stupid, offensive, hurtful remarks about people. But in the dim days of  long ago before social media, they simply disappeared. Dumb-ass remarks were consigned to memory files labelled youthful indiscretions or stupid-things-I've-done-and-won't-do-again. But now, say something stupid or mildly offensive  and it will linger forever. It will follow you far beyond the ballot box to your very graveside.

Does a stupid remark say anything substantial about someone's personality, talent or intelligence, other than he or she sometimes makes stupid remarks? Is the offense so grievous as to kill a political career? And how do you calibrate the gravity of the offense? Where is the frontier between momentary, off-handed foolishness and hate? And who makes the call?

In 2002, a Tory politician said in the House of Commons, of Atlantic Canada: "There is a dependence in the region that breeds a culture of defeatism." The politician was Stephen Harper. As a colleague pointed out to me, had he made that remark in the current political environment his career would have been terminated with extreme prejudice, as they say in the CIA. And think of the Tory firebrand John Crosbie. If some of his outrageously funny remarks were  assayed by today's standards, he'd be lucky to get a job teaching kindergarten in Leading Tickles, Newfoundland.

We are becoming a nation of hall monitors.


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