A Discourse of Disrespect Lessens Us All

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Vibrant public discourse is a highly desirable public good. But engaging in positive public discourse demands thoughtful application.

During this past week of climate negotiations at the UN conference in Durban, the discourse was soured. On Day 1, disgruntled environmental activists presented Canada with their “Colossal Fossil” Awards after Environment Minister Peter Kent stated that “Kyoto is the past.” Media reports that the Canadian Government plans to formally withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol a few days before Christmas were not calmed by the Minister’s refusal to confirm or deny such a course of action. This would make Canada the first country to withdraw from the internationally-binding accord. (On December 5th Minister Kent clarified that Canada would not agree to a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol - not the same as officially reneging on existing commitments.)

Desmond Tutu - image source: WikipediaBut a greater torrent of exaggerated invective was launched in Canadian media as a response to a full-page ad which was published in the Globe and Mail on Wednesday November 30th. The ad was signed by South African dignitaries, including the Nobel Peace Laureate, 80 year old Anglican Archbishop Emeritus, Desmond Tutu.

The ad featured praise for Canada, reminding us that in 1986, our country imposed sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa. However, the same ad also called into question Canada’s current commitment to prevention of climate change, referred to as “a life and death issue” for Africans. Then the ad went on to place some blame on the Sacred Cow of Canadian energy policy: the Athabasca oil sands.

“By dramatically increasing Canada’s global warming pollution, tar sands mining and drilling makes the problem worse, and exposes millions of Africans to more devastating drought and famine today and in the years to come…We call on Canada to change course…to support international action to reduce global warming pollution.”

Faith Leaders Should “Shut Their Trap”

The response was immediate.

CBC TV News featured Rex Murphy’s platitudinous retort to the Archbishop. Then Canada’s Environment Minister, Peter Kent, weighed in to defend oil sands development:

Kent: He’s (The Archbishop is) making unfounded criticisms of our petroleum industry.
CBC: He doesn’t know what he’s talking about?
Kent: I look forward to talking to him again and seeing him maybe when I get to South Africa.
CBC: So are you going to tell him that you are going to stay…
Kent: I will tell him that Canada’s proud of the natural resources with which our country’s been blessed. Tell him that Canada is proud of the commitments it’s made to regulate in a responsible and sustainable manner our resources, including the oil sands. And I will tell him that we’re proud of the commitments that we made to Copenhagen and Cancun to materially reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.
CBC: You’re getting fossil awards, you say you’re so proud but you’re getting fossil awards?
Kent: From the uniformed or ideologically driven…

But the most virulent comment appeared under a photo used to attack the oil sands’ “misguided critics,” attributed to the editorial board of the National Post. It read, “Archbishop Desmond Tutu should shut his trap when it comes to the oilsands.”

Public Justice and Political Dialogue

Climate change and environmental destruction can be hot-button issues. A showdown in Durban seemed pre-ordained.

Yet months before the Durban Conference, Canadian faith communities were trying to open avenues for discussion and dialogue with politicians. A very respectful and non-judgmental Interfaith Declaration signed by over 60 faith groups encouraged Canadian action to advance climate justice. Leaders of Canadian churches are in Durban, reporting in daily blogs about their meetings with the lead Canadian negotiator and other officials. (UCC Moderator; Mennonite General Secretary)

For public justice to become a reality, continual avenues for political dialogue must remain open. It is important to assume the best intentions of participants, even those with whom we may disagree. Denying faith community leaders the public space to advance moral arguments on deeply spiritual issues such as humanity’s relationship with nature displays an ignorance of their role in society, as well as a lack of historical memory about how change is achieved. Leveraging moral authority to persuade people of the righteousness of a particular course of action has often advanced positive societal change – even if it is not enough. Moral persuasion should be accompanied by thorough research and respectful engagement with both the public as well as the politicians the public chooses to represent them. We can disagree with what faith leaders say, but not their right to speak out.

Faith leaders have requested a meeting to discuss Canada’s commitments to climate justice with the Prime Minister or his representative. This meeting should happen soon, so that serious dialogue will not be shut out.

Joe Gunn serves as Executive Director at CPJ.


THANK YOU so much for this calm, informative and faith-filled response on this vital issue. As an Anglican, I was deeply angered by The National Post's rude response to one of our most revered leaders, Archbishop Tutu. I was equally disappointed that The Post didn't even respond to the chief concern of Archbishop Tutu and the signatories to the newspaper ad, that it is impoverished African who are paying the costliest price for climate change. Nor did The Post acknowledge that millions of Africans and people elsewhere in the Majority World are alarmed about climate change and want wealthy countries like Canada to respond. Thousnads of Africans have been demonstrating at Durban. I tip my hat to CPJ for its superb leadership on this issue, especially by mobilizing faith leaders and people in the pews of our churches. Great work!

Submitted by Ted Reeve on
Thank you Joe for your thoughtful comments on the public reaction to Archbishop Tutu and other African leaders. Canada has nothing to gain by blinkering itself from world criticism and calls for Canadian engagement on climate change. Indeed, Canada has a responsibility to be good stewards of our resources but in responsible ways that are balanced by good stewardship of the overall environment. Our future health and well being needs to be considered as a priority over the short term gain of oil profits. At Greening Sacred Spaces we join with CPJ in a call for dialogue and faithful public consideration of how Canada can move from being a fossil to being a leader in environmental stewardship. Ted Reeve

Submitted by Randy Friesen on
Thank you for your patient and thoughtful response to the disrespectful treatment of a pastor with a long record of standing up for the disadvantaged. However, it does not show respect, on the other hand, to label others or their opinions as "fossils." The implication is that a refusal to change represents stupidity and muleheaded-ness. It shows great disrespect for those charged with making policy; we should not be surprised when those persons respond with retorts. Let's all recall that disrespect and respect tend to promote themselves; as Christians we are called upon to use the latter, even when criticizing.

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