When Canadians look at the goings on south of the border, they are often appalled. American politics has become so polarized. Everything is being reduced to us and them, with him or against him, black and white. No one seems to pay the least attention to what the other side is saying. Each camp is convinced it has a monopoly on truth.
But are we really so different? Public debate in Canada is getting awfully polarized, too.
Just look at the issue of gun violence. Toronto has had a rash of it this year. An argument has broken out about what the causes and solutions are. Camps have formed on either side.
Those on the right insist that the way to stop all the shooting is to crack down on bad guys. We need longer jail sentences. We need to stop judges from letting gunmen out on bail. We need more cops and more aggressive tactics.
To this camp, any suggestion that there might be a social problem at work is met with scorn. Efforts to provide mentors for youth and divert them from crime are nothing but “hug a thug” programs, a phrase favoured by Rob Ford when he was Toronto’s mayor. He wanted more money for police and tougher sentencing for gun crimes instead.
The left is just as adamant. It insists that more policing isn’t the answer. Sending the cops in only alienates the locals and stirs up more trouble. Instead of “overpolicing” neighbourhoods, we need to invest in them. We need to address the “root causes” of crime: poverty, inequality, racism. That means more programs, more affordable housing, more social spending.
The two sides are simply talking past each other, hands clamped firmly over their ears. Neither side will yield an inch to the other. Both act as if they alone have the answers. Both seem to think that what the opposing camp says is sheer nonsense.
Is it? How can the right be so sure that trying to prevent crime by attacking its sources is hopeless? Poverty and other social ills clearly contribute to gun crime. Some of the most crime-plagued neighbourhoods in Toronto also happen to have some of the lowest incomes and poorest social indicators. It can’t be a bad idea to funnel resources to those “priority neighbourhoods.”
Some programs don’t work, but others clearly do. The Pathways to Education program founded in Toronto’s Regent Park is designed to give struggling and disadvantaged students a boost, helping them complete high school and go on to college or university. Communities across the country have adopted it.
Can those on the left really say that policing makes no difference? Many of the shootings in Toronto stem from conflicts among gangs. A police force that puts gangsters away is only doing its job.
The problem for many Toronto communities isn’t overpolicing. It’s underpolicing. People can’t count on the cops to keep violence under control and so they lose confidence in law and order. Some turn to violence themselves. More become victims of it.
In Ghettoside, her book on murder and policing in Los Angeles, journalist Jill Leovy argues that “where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic.” She looks at a driven and caring detective who decides to get serious about solving the run-of-the-mill black-on-black murders that police often all but ignore.
A smart, forceful police response is obviously part of the answer to gun violence. So is a smart, generous social response. John Tory, Toronto’s mayor, wants both: programs to keep kids away from gang activity, policing to round up the gang leaders.
As Tony Blair, Britain’s former prime minister, once famously put it, “It has always been absurd that the debate about crime in this country has some talking of its causes and others of the need to punish criminals. Sweep away the dogma – tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.”
Yet the absurdity continues. It is playing out every day in the current gun-violence debate. To call it a debate is to dignify it. Shouting match is more like it.
Lock ’em all up and throw away the key, shouts one side. They’re not depraved, they’re deprived, shouts the other. It is the definition of futile polarization. We are catching up to our Americans friends.