Skip to main content
editorial

In Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is shown a vision of his future as it could be. What he sees is not a happy ending. But he also realizes that his story can change for the better, depending on what kind of person he decides to be.

The same goes for each of us, and for all of us together. Just like old Scrooge, we’ve got two kinds of people living inside us. The one that wins out will determine our future – including the course of our society, and the shape of our politics.

One of those people inside us is someone the law calls “the reasonable person.” English common law came up with this hypothetical individual more than a century ago.

Back then, he was the reasonable man, described as “the man on the Clapham omnibus;” an average fellow commuting on an average sort of public transit to an average London suburb.

In 21st-century Canada, the law’s reasonable person is the woman on the Bloor-Spadina subway, the man on the SkyTrain to Surrey and the person headed downtown on Calgary’s CTrain. They’re your fellow citizens and your neighbours. They’re the average Canadian. They’re us.

But they are also us at our best – thinking clearly, and at our most honest, sensible and, well, reasonable. They’re us as we all are sometimes, and as we know we should be more of the time.

In thousands of legal cases, from contract disputes to charges of criminal negligence, who’s right and what’s wrong often turns on the question of whether someone acted reasonably. For answers, the law looks to that Everyperson paragon of reasonableness.

The reasonable person is partly a fiction, but they’re also very real, and necessary. Without them, elements of our law don’t work. And without them, society becomes a bit less successful and a lot less bearable. Just ask anyone cursed with unreasonable neighbours.

And without lots of reasonable persons, among both the electorate and the elected, democratic politics goes off the rails.

To take the most obvious example at hand, you can end up with a situation where the wealthiest country in the world isn’t able to pay its public servants because the President insists that, if he can’t get billions in funding for his fanciful border wall, an object for virtue-signalling to his voters but having little practical value for the public good, then he’ll shut down the government.

The current occupant of the White House has become the poster child for that other kind of person who lives inside all of us. Call them the not-so-reasonable person. Across the democratic world, a lot of politics these days, on both the right and the left, is about appealing to this version of us, and to the antonyms of the best angels of our nature – cynicism, anger, resentment and, strangest of all, a kind of willful credulousness.

But just as old Ebenezer realized he couldn’t scrooge his way to family, friendship and happiness, we can’t see how revelling in our worst impulses is going to lead to a better democracy, or a better Canada.

The unreasonable person, whether a voter or a politician seeking votes, can be from the right or the left. The same goes for the reasonable person. Each species lives on both sides of the political spectrum, and within all of us.

Canadian democracy will always be about the man on the Bloor-Spadina line, the woman on the SkyTrain and the person on CTrain.

The question, in 2019 and beyond, is what kind of people each of them, and all of us, will choose to be, and what kind of political leaders will be vying for our votes.

The challenge for the reasonable person, and reasonable politics, is that the not-so-reasonable way has many appeals. It’s easier to reflexively hit “like” or “dislike” than to reflect. It’s easier to pass judgment than to reserve judgment, and to instantly condemn rather than patiently consider. It’s easier to be a partisan for one side rather than putting on the blindfold and, like Lady Justice, weighing each side’s arguments impartially. It’s easier to accept settled answers rather than to raise an unsettling question. It’s easier to be cynical than skeptical.

Canada has prospered by being, more often than not, a remarkably reasonable country. It’s inside us, woven into our history and our success. Remember that in 2019.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe