Truth hath a quiet breast

All these years I have been naïve, I suppose; I did not question that democracy entailed giving those governed a say in their fate. Perhaps I was not thorough enough in my analysis of the matter, and assumed that this would be obtained when and if a sufficient majority agreed to a particular proposal. But as I grew older and more contemplative, I recognized that merely acceding to the majority’s decision might leave the remaining minority at a disadvantage – disenfranchise them in a way.

I began to appreciate the wisdom of a tripartite system of governance for at least attempting inclusivity. This consisted of the elected members of government to create and uphold laws, the courts to interpret those laws and ensure they were upheld, and a free and unfettered press to inform the governed whether that was indeed happening -holding truth to power, as we now call it.

The naïveté, though, was in believing that simply informing the public of the state of affairs would be sufficient -that the mere declaration of independently confirmed facts would allow people to decide whether or not things were proceeding as they had believed. But it seems I was wrong -starry-eyed, or at least dangerously innocent of the power of confirmation biases in this era of socially mediated information-bubbles.

I am older now, though; I have been left behind, and perhaps the mist of years is beginning to envelope me like a gauze winding sheet. But, every so often, I find a tear in the fabric so I can see the room in which I lie more clearly. And I can smile, and hope that there is a route from the labyrinth that does not pass the Minotaur -or that there is, somewhere, a modern Theseus…

An essay in the Conversation by Kamyar Razavi, a television news producer and PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University offered me a kernel of hope.

He begins by outlining the problem: ‘The news media wield tremendous responsibility over democratic discourse. Yet all too often the media are blamed for fuelling mistrust… News reports typically identify a conflict (a war), diagnose its causes (ISIS) and draw on sources (military analysts) to shed light on what’s going on. But there’s a fourth frame, identified by journalism scholar Robert Entman, that is easy to overlook in news reports — discussing remedies to problems.’ This is so-called ‘solutions journalism’.

‘Solutions journalism tries to change the journalistic equation by giving more prominence to solutions… [but, it] is not about advocating for solutions. It’s about turning a light on the remedies by making them a more prominent part of the narrative… For instance, where a typical climate change story may report on the latest doom-and-gloom statistics about forest fires, a solutions-oriented piece might explore the simple steps you can take to fireproof your backyard and your home. The solutions story still gets you thinking about climate change and forest fires, but in a way that is far more familiar and accessible.’

While disasters capture attention in the news, they seldom help us to think about how they might be avoided -especially if the next day, or even the next column, there are reports of yet another catastrophe. In other words, there seems to be ‘excessive emphasis in news reports on chaos, conflict and all that is wrong in the world —as opposed to what is actually working… It’s this constraining dynamic that can drive people into echo chambers and filter bubbles. It also makes people cynical.’

‘According to McIntyre and Gyldensted [journalism scholars], one of the ways journalists can open up a discussion about solutions is by adding a future orientation to their story — by asking, and trying to answer, the question: “What now? For example, reporters can ask their sources how problems could be solved, how people could collaborate, or what kind of progress their sources envision.” Another technique for drawing out solutions is for reporters to ask questions that get at people’s reasons for thinking a certain way — or that tap into what “the other side” thinks’.

I like this approach, because as Razavi points out, ‘solutions journalism gives people more reasons to think there are ways out of difficult problems — because there usually are.’ Hopelessness does little to encourage solutions -sometimes we need a few flowers.

I will always remember the day that my father died. I was at work at the hospital when my brother phoned, and told me of his not unexpected death at home. I had just delivered a baby, and was sitting in the nursing station writing my notes. Up to then, it had been a wonderful occasion with the husband and their four year old daughter in attendance at the birth. But after the phone call, I found I couldn’t concentrate, and the words I wrote seemed to belong to someone else -seemed, in fact, to describe something that had happened in another life. Another place…

Close to tears, the timing of the two ends of life did not escape me, but the coincidence seemed purposeless. Unfair. The nurses noticed my obvious distress, and smiled encouragingly at me as they hurried about on their never-ending duties. Some of them stopped to ask me why I seemed so sad, but I had trouble answering without giving in to uncontrolled sobs and looked away with a shrug at the questions. I had already told them his death was imminent, so I think they understood.

But as I sat there, staring at the chart with inchoate thoughts swirling about slowly in my head, I felt a tap on my leg.

“Doctor?” a little voice beside me said.

I looked down at the sad face of the little girl who had just become a sister. She was holding a single flower from one of the bouquets in her mother’s room -a white rose, I think. She reached up and handed it to me as a tiny smile crept onto her face. Her eyes twinkled as they locked with mine, and long black curls of hair danced on her shoulders with the movement of her arm. She was dressed in a long white princess dress with silver sparkles that shimmered under the fluorescent lights, and in that moment she reminded me of a latter-day Shirley Temple come to visit.

“Mommy thought you could use this,” she said, the smile growing with each word as the nurses stood around to watch.

And yes, I needed that -it touched me more than I could guess. There is always hope when there is someone to share it with. There is always purpose, even when it seems to arrive like the shadow from a departing cloud.

Prostitution Laws

Okay, I think you’re going to have to help me with this one. Suppose you have a product the courts have decided you are legally entitled to sell, but a new law is enacted making it both illegal to advertise or purchase it… Am I missing something here?

In December 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada, in a unanimous 9-0 ruling, struck down Canada’s prostitution laws as violating the Constitution guaranteeing Life, Liberty, and Security of Person. The law it disallowed had prohibited brothels, street solicitations, and living off any money derived from prostitution. The government was given a year to come up with a new law.   

So, six months later in early June, they did just that, closely following the so-called Nordic model: selling sex is legal; paying for it is not There are a few subtle Canadian twitches to this model (of course), but it pretty well boils down to the the same result. Which brings me to the issue with which I need some help.

The problem that the government is trying to solve -apart from what they perceive to be the moral one- is the crime that often accompanies prostitution: drugs, violence, and the nuisance to the community where it occurs. And when pressed, they seem to subscribe to the views of Gunilla Ekberg, a lawyer in Sweden who played a role in that country’s adoption of the Nordic Model in 1999. She described prostitution as a form of male sexual violence and has said that the law focuses “on the root cause, the recognition that without men’s demand for and use of women and girls for sexual exploitation, the global prostitution industry would not be able to flourish and expand.

The problem with that argument, of course, is that it doesn’t get rid of prostitution; it merely drives it further underground unsupervised, and into dark and unsafe alleys. It is an approach that, to be polite, is naive, and dangerous for prostitutes -who, remember, are legally recognized as such. And as citizens living within the law, they are entitled to its protection. That, I think, was the intent of the Supreme Court’s decision.

There are various models in other countries that have also attempted to deal with the issues surrounding prostitution. None is perfect, but some appear to offer more protection than the one proposed as a reaction to the Supreme Court. The New Zealand approach seems popular with sex workers in Canada:(

And as the linked article states: Prostitution, including brothel ownership and pimping, has been legal in New Zealand since 2003. The sex industry operates under employment and public health laws. Prostitution that is not consensual or involves someone under 18 years is illegal. It’s also against the law to compel or induce someone into sex work, or to provide their earnings. Larger operations must be certified. Prostitutes are still vulnerable if they work on the streets, of course, but the brothels at least allow better working conditions and protection.

It seems to me that offering safe working conditions for a service between two consenting adults goes a long way towards the intent of our constitutional protection. To ascribe denigrating moral attributes to a consensual act ignores the overriding necessity of security of person. To fly in the face not only of the intent of the Constitution but also the ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada which acted to defend it, merely to punish those who, in your opinion deserve it, strikes me as arrogant in the extreme. Intolerant. It smacks of a fundamentalist omniscience, a disinclination even to attempt to view society through the lens of those with whom you disagree. 

I hasten to add that I know we all have strong beliefs surrounding this issue -myself included- and I understand the disparate feelings the ruling seems to have unleashed. I also recognize that there is likely no solution that can satisfy everybody. Debate about it is not only appropriate, it is necessary. But to debate, one needs to hear both sides of the argument. The merits and problems with each and every viewpoint need to be explored. There should be no monopoly on interpretation. No unilateral power politics. It is not the prerogative of any elected government to legislate morals at the expense of constitutionally guaranteed rights.

Personally, I object to any government assuming it knows what we should and must believe. And I object to a government that is so convinced that prostitutes are on the wrong track, it thinks it should commit $20 million for a program to encourage them to change their ways. Not all the electorate subscribes to this evangelistic approach:

I’m reminded of a quotation from Oscar Wilde: Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people we personally dislike. Is that what’s going on here? The government says it’s not… so it can’t be. Right?