Reporter’s Notebook: Why is it so hard to talk about the ‘Freedom Convoy’?

Conflict resolution experts weigh in on how to bridge our separations.

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For two weekends running now, I’ve traveled north up the highway on my way from Nanaimo to French Creek and both Saturdays, I noticed the highway headed south was packed solid with “Freedom Convoy” supporters.

Many cars and trucks had large and small Canada flags flying, signs stating “no mandates” and “freedom,” others just had their hazard lights blinking.

It brings up a lot of thoughts. The aesthetics of the trucker convoy are decidedly “Canada Day,” which many relate to, and the primary message is a fairly simple one: end the mandates and vaccine passports.

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But the response, discussion and portrayal of what is happening is decidedly more complex. 

First, there’s the issue of being out there to cover it at all. Some journalists have reported harassment and abuse, including my colleague Shalu Mehta at The Discourse, prompting the Canadian Association of Journalists to issue a statement calling on newsrooms to protect the safety of their journalists and another to sound the alarm over attacks on Canadian journalists reporting on the convoy.

Then there’s the question of how exactly to write about it. At The Discourse we’ve struggled with reporting on issues like vaccine mandates in a way that isn’t irresponsible (considering we’re in the midst of an active pandemic) and doesn’t indulge in the typical “both sides” style of reporting that can often be more divisive than enlightening.

What I find difficult about understanding (and reporting on) stories like this is that its complexity means that many things can be true at the same time: for example, that the convoy involves elements of the far-right while at the same time has the support of some people of colour and those who view themselves as anti-racist

There’s complaints that there isn’t enough media coverage, or too much, and many who think the reporting is skewed one way or the other (with some making apt comparisons to how protests and blockades are portrayed when its leaders are Indigenous).

Even when we turn to what might be a simpler narrative — the lived experience of people on the ground — it’s confusingly subjective: some say the noise and chaos the truckers have brought to Ottawa feels like a “collective trauma,” others taking part say it’s all about “love and unity.”

A truck drives through town marked with slogans like "ignore lies, media, fake science."
A truck drives into Victoria for the “Freedom Convoy” marked with slogans “Live free, ignore lies, media, officials, fake science.” Photo courtesy of Becky Terhaar

Ian Hanomansing, host of CBC’s flagship show The National, (among other journalists) tried to tackle the complexity of reporting these stories via Twitter, noting that he “just got out of a long, thoughtful meeting where we discussed our coverage of mandates, protests and the pandemic. No question this is happening in every newsroom. It’s never been more important.”

In another post, Hanomansing ruminated that “among the many replies about #Covid journalism today are a few which seem genuinely aimed at having a dialogue. I hope that happens.” (The National will air an interview with psychologist Joti Samra about the social impacts of the “Freedom Convoy” on Feb. 10).

He later added that “it’s important to be able to have real conversations about the science behind vaccines, but social media may not be the place.”

We live in an age where online discourse fuels polarization. Condemnation and mobbing is encouraged, and even profitable. Sometimes even trying to discuss or ask questions devolves into accusations. Navigating these topics with integrity is tricky.

So how can we enter into a more civil space of discourse about the convoy?

To try and figure this out, I spoke with local mediator and former journalist Sandra McCulloch, who says that it’s important to understand the issues like fear and frustration that lie underneath the differences of opinion over things like vaccine mandates.

I first read about McCulloch’s work in reporter Amanda Ripley’s insightful article Complicating the Narrative, on how journalists can better cover controversial issues. 

McCulloch says she got into journalism because she was “curious and always asking questions,” but that she still grew up with family dysfunction and struggled to communicate with her siblings.

“As a reporter, we kind of skirted around conflict. As soon as you brush up against the conflict, you see the two sides, you write down each side — get down their positions, basically. But it’s not your job to dive deeper to see what’s at the root of it,” she says.

After she retired in 2014, she heard about mediation and conflict resolution and became intrigued.

“I didn’t even know there were courses on how to handle anger. There was another course on being assertive when you’re in a conflict,” she says. “I knew nothing about it as a reporter, and there was a great divide there. Even if you can’t solve a conflict that’s in your life, it helps you to understand it.”

When it comes to the tools that mediation can offer in the current divide, McCulloch says first of all it’s important to find common ground. For example, nurses and truckers might find some commonality in the feeling and experience of being loved and seen as heroes by the public one minute, and then despised the next. 

“There are a whole lot of people who haven’t felt like they’ve been heard on a lot of issues, over a lot of years, and now they’ve got something they can come together on, and form bonds and partnerships that they’ve never maybe felt before,” she adds.

Two children hold signs at rally in Victoria on Jan. 30, that read "No vax pass" and "I've lost two years of my childhood."<b>Photo courtesy of Becky Terhaar</b>
Two children hold signs at a rally in Victoria on Jan. 30. They read “No vax pass!” and “I’ve lost two years of my childhood.” Photo courtesy of Becky Terhaar

Why is it so hard to engage with people we disagree with?

Local marriage and family therapist Ian Gartshore has sought to engage with community members — sometimes controversially — on this question and others through blog posts and social media, as well as in person. 

“With any conflict, we don’t understand the other person. We don’t. Conflicts end when we really, really understand where people are coming from,” he says. “And until we hear each other, then we don’t get that we have more commonalities than we do differences.”

Gartshore agrees with McCulloch that there’s value in trying to understand how people arrived at their place in life or way of thinking, though he acknowledges that doesn’t mean offering an audience to extremists like white supremacists. 

“Just because we’re listening doesn’t mean we agree,” he adds.

When people don’t feel heard, respected or appreciated, they don’t feel like they belong — which is an essential human need — and can then become attracted to gangs, groups or movements that help them feel welcomed and have a place and be heard, he says. 

“So if we don’t listen to people who have a different opinion to ours, if we just block them off or tell them to ‘go get a life,’ then what we’re saying to them is: ‘Go back to your group, your hate group, get more ammunition there,’” he says, which only furthers the cycle of coming back to argue their points with more fervour, with no resolution in sight.

“But my experience is that if we really listen to each other, not just listen to the words, but if we listen more deeply to really hear somebody — to hear their pain, their fear, their hopes, their desires, their sense of disconnection… then I just watch powerful miracles take place.”

How can we start to listen more deeply?

This listening can take the form of asking about people’s experiences and how those situations made them feel, says McCulloch. 

Get permission before asking questions and make a brief statement about your intention in asking, adds Gartshore. 

“Mention curiosity, or wanting to really understand someone and how they came to hold their opinion as an opener. Nobody wants to share something that is controversial if it’s going to soon be used against them,” he says. “All of us want to feel respected and safe, regardless of one’s position or place.”

To start, Gartshore recommends general questions such as:

“Would you tell me something about your decision to X?”

“What deeply concerns you about this issue?”

“If most people followed your example, what would you and they likely experience?” 

During the process, it’s important to also take time to appreciate the fact that the person is even willing to share their opinions, values and experiences, he says.

Paraphrasing back what people have said to show you understand is also an important tool, says McCulloch.

In these times of deep listening, Gartshore says he’s witnessed couples and families experience an “aha” moment where people discover that the way they were judging others was more about themselves than it was about the other person.

The psychological term for this is “projection”, it’s sometimes used as a defense mechanism by those seeking to avoid uncomfortable truths or revelations about themselves. 

“And it is. It’s so easy for us to project our shadow side, the dark side that we all carry around. It’s stuff that we don’t like about ourselves. It’s very easy to see that in other people,” he says.

Ultimately it comes down to having the courage to listen, adds Gartshore, who emphasizes once again that to try to understand where someone is coming from doesn’t mean that we’re agreeing with them. 

“It means that we’re being human and we’re treating them like a human being, that’s all.” [end]

Let’s keep the conversation going. What are your thoughts on the trucker convoy, vaccine mandates, and the effect these discussions are having on our community? Send me an email.

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