Three ways Canadian youth can engage, not silence, the 'other'

As polarization plagues the world around us, young people are not immune. On International Youth Day, we must recommit to bursting our filter bubbles.

By: , /
August 10, 2018
Thousands joined a student-led protest against the provincial government's austerity measures in Montreal, April 2, 2015. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi

We all know the drill: Ford supporters? Shame them. Refugees? Shun them. Anti-feminists? Block them. They’re racist, misandrist, dumb, manipulated — or downright evil. Or are they?

Having been involved in youth engagement and policy over the past few years, it has become increasingly apparent to us that zealous, headstrong beliefs held amongst different groups of young Canadians have obstructed us from meaningful civic engagement, provoking only rancour and ire. For instance, we’ve witnessed rivalling student protests on our streets; stubborn disagreement over tuition, boycotts and divestment; and passions flaring as youth barred others holding opposing views on issues such as gender and immigration from airing their opinions.

Being constantly told — by teachers, parents, politicians, and other youth — that “our voices matter,” many of us tend to unflinchingly push forward our own opinions while pushing aside those of “the other.” While spirited debate is healthy, we seem to have arrived at a point where we are averse to hearing and seeing the criticism against our brazen viewpoints. Worryingly, we’ve seen firsthand how, when claiming to advocate from the “youth perspective,” many of the loudest youth leaders — whether on social media, in episodes of protests, or at international fora — have characterized young people as unanimous in our values.

Yet, Canadian youth are not a monolith. We are learned and we are uninformed; we are engaged and we are indifferent; we are right-leaning, left-leaning, and everything in between. But when echo chambers and filter bubbles are as prevalent as Starbucks, we become shrouded by groupthink. We protest furiously for what we believe as “true” and “right” — we then disengage, and return to our own tribes for reassurance. 

"While spirited debate is healthy, we seem to have arrived at a point where we are averse to hearing and seeing the criticism against our brazen viewpoints."

There’s nothing wrong with youthful enthusiasm. In fact, it has often been young people worldwide who have led historical change. We’ve seen this in the Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa, and anti-apartheid demonstrations in South Africa and around the world. However, like other generations, we’re becoming less accustomed to seriously engaging with the perspectives of “the other,” whose views may unnerve or trigger us. Consequently, we forgo understanding many legitimate and multifaceted socio-economic and political factors in our society. This lack of perspective, combined with our gung-ho enthusiasm, risks greater fragmentation and division.

Take for example the opposition to the nationalization of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. While alerting us to the environmental reverberations and the necessity for reconciliation, young advocates mustn’t forget that alternative forms of transportation, like rail, can be riskier and expensive. Further, Indigenous reaction is mixed: many support the expansion, many do not. Then there are of course other national realities, from oil prices to delicate inter-provincial politics.

Likewise, there are advocates who suggest that immigrants are taking up precious jobs and disrupting social security. However, one shouldn’t discount that immigrants have little or no impact on domestic labour markets. In fact, they’re more likely than average Canadians to start businesses, a key economic driver. And again, other intricate factors, such as contribution to social security, are key.

Nothing is black and white. From reconciliation to tariffs, the list of grey issues is endless. But complexity and the strain of co-existing multiple “truths” shouldn’t discourage us from taking action; rather, let it serve as a caution against blinkered advocacy.

With jaundiced messaging inundating us every day, it is easy for young Canadians to get caught up in the noble activism against perceived oppression and myopism. However, we should constantly remind ourselves to take a step away from the “herd mentality,” and analyze for ourselves what really stands on trial in front of us. Simultaneously, let us acknowledge, embrace, and grapple with the complexities of issues and aspire towards balanced perspectives. This can allow us to temper and strengthen our advocacy, and in the long run permit better policymaking in Canada.

Here are three ways to get us started:

1. Interact face-to-face.

We must step out of our comfort zone and make a determined effort to build face-to-face relationships with people of different persuasions. Through conversing with those whom we typically neglect, we might realize that “the other” is just as human as we are — trying, like the rest of us, to be happy. From chatting with the janitor in the halls to attending public lectures on subjects you know nothing about or dislike, we can start building these relationships one step at a time. Youth can also strengthen civil discourse. Just take a look at some inspiring initiatives around the world that are facilitating this: Hi From the Other Side in the US, Speaker’s Corner in the UK, or Folkemødet in Iceland. As American writer Margaret Wheatley wisely observed, “You can’t hate someone whose story you know.” 

2. Let divergent voices in.

When feeding our intellectual curiosity, embrace and gather information from different authors, news sources and social media pages. Let them challenge our own worldviews. Welcome new ideas, but maintain a critical mindset — a must-have in our increasingly post-truth world. Do not excuse hateful behaviour, but likewise refrain from lessening people into single designations like “libtard” or “xenophobe.” Indiscriminately blocking or hiding the voices of those with whom we don’t agree does not silence them — it only deafens us.

3. Question popular assumptions.

Resist merely “going with the flow” or embracing an idea simply because it’s trending. Instead, look beyond the things that are simple and easily defendable. Question our assumptions, consider how different variables interact, and assess their unintended consequences. This type of deep thinking can help us see eye to eye with those who might have different views, especially when our goal is to solve complex problems.

Like many of you, we want to see our communities, our country, and our world do better. But if youth in Canada — and globally — continue to head down the path of diminishing curiosity and genuine openness in our engagement with “the other,” we will only see more division and greater populism. As our prime minister likes to remind us, we are “leaders of tomorrow and of today.” A truly “inclusive” and “diverse” tomorrow for Canada begins with our actions now.

This International Youth Day, which falls on Aug. 12, let us truly speak with rather than to each other. Let us advocate based on well-informed facts, rather than popularity and instinct. As we stride forward, we would do well to look in all directions. Then maybe, just maybe, we would realize that we are more alike than we are different.