Recently, I told a daily-newspaper reporter that, despite my opinion that Rob Ford’s policies are mostly destructive, I thought the mayor had “good intentions.” That quote became the headline. That, in turn, led to some private conversations in which people told me I was naïve or misunderstood what good intentions are. Ford wants to cut funding for AIDS advocacy groups, homeless shelters, public transit, and so on. Those, I was told, are bad intentions: He may think his intentions are good, but he is not a good man.
Thing is, I’m not nominating the mayor for sainthood by saying he genuinely believes that his proposals will make the city a better place. It is just about the faintest praise I can imagine giving, and I wouldn’t blame anyone for considering it an insult. “His heart is in the right place” is the kind of thing you only say about someone when the evidence would suggest he might be a sociopath. It is a claim that a person is ignorant or misguided, rather than malicious.
But it doesn’t justify their actions, or absolve them of responsibility for the effect of those actions. Besides, we all know what the road to hell is paved with. And frankly, my ultimate concern is not with whether, on some cosmic scorecard, Ford is a good man or not, but with whether he’s a good leader for the city.
So what’s the point of saying it? Well, for starters, I think it is true. Ford is like the vast majority of people participating in any debate, from all corners of the political spectrum, who believe the policies they are advocating will lead to a better world. And too much of the public debate about Ford, and politics in general, ignores that truth, to toxic effect. Rather than finding the points of actual disagreement and arguing them out, we create cartoonishly evil straw men we can abuse. This precludes any possibility of productive conversation and interaction—and keeps us from understanding things better and from persuading each other.
You can see it online in comment sections and on social media, hear it on talk radio, or on TV political panels: Every policy discussion becomes a forum not to disagree about the most effective means to an end, but an opportunity to sort the world into neat piles of good people and bad people. Discussions quickly devolve into analyses of hidden motives: Ford wants to destroy downtown neighbourhoods; Gord Perks want to funnel cash to his union buddies. In voting to remove the Jarvis bike lanes John Parker showed his callous disregard for the safety of cyclists; in advocating for LRTs on the street, Parker was waging war on car drivers. And so on.
What’s better than pointing out your opponent is wrong, it seems, is imagining that your opponent is dishonest, heartless, and mean-spirited. And that will justify your own tactics in attacking and humiliating them. Many people think this cynicism is a sign of sophistication. Sure, it can fuel a satisfying sense of righteousness, and hours of fun skewering your cartoonish impression of your enemies. This is probably a natural impulse—I’m certainly not immune to it.
But here’s the thing: The appropriate way to deal with someone who is irredeemably evil is to attack them and shut them down—you want to defeat them, and maybe punish them. Meanwhile, the appropriate response to someone wth whom you have an honest disagreement is to have a debate, show them evidence, explain your logic, and listen to theirs—you want to convince them of your view. In almost every case, the second, less-travelled road is the right one to take, because in a democracy, the only way to win is to persuade people, and also because the truth is that we almost all share goals (more equally shared prosperity, for instance) and merely disagree about the best way to achieve them.
I don’t think acknowledging the good intentions of Rob Ford—or anyone else—is a call to hold hands with him and sing campfire songs. And I don’t think debate should be merely about agreeing to disagree or trying to find meet-halfway compromises on every issue. Quite the opposite. Acknowledging common goals is the beginning, from which we can argue about the best way to achieve them. Then we can use evidence and logic to fuel a passionate debate with our opponents, which is so much better than shouting at the bogeymen we might imagine them to be.