Monday, 7 February 2011

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Last week, I travelled with my husband to Edinburgh. We were invited to attend First Minister's Questions at the Scottish Parliament, a weekly event similar our Prime Minister's Question Period in Canada. It was fascinating to watch democracy in action as ministers took their turn to ask questions about issues ranging from transportation to health care. There was some good natured heckling, but generally, everyone was well behaved.

So, I was in turn outraged, sad and reflective when I read in Saturday's London papers that a British MP had been heckled in Westminster because of his speech impediment due to cerebral palsy. Paul Maynard, a Conservative MP for Blackpool and Cleveleys, described an incident in which some Labour MPs made faces, mimicing the involuntary facial movements of Mr. Maynard. Public reaction to this revelation has been understandable outrage on the part of the Equalities Chief, Trevor Phillips and other members of the government and public.

But I have been trying to lift the shroud off this ugly incident to understand it more deeply. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" is Charles Dickens' opening to a Tale of Two Cities. He encapsulates in this phrase how the seeking of power can be used to enoble humanity or diminish it. Watching the government of any country in action can be educational in both regards.

My son has cerebral palsy and frankly, if someone in the street imitated his movements or speech in an effort to humiliate him or to silence his efforts to voice opinions, there is no telling what I might do to protect his dignity. And there is no question that the MPs who bullied Mr. Maynard went too far. But where is the middle ground? No disability activist or MP, for that matter, would wish someone with disability who happened to be in a position of power to be treated 'better' than his peers on the basis of political correctness. Government is meant to rule and to rule is to hold power. Those who hold power jockey and employ whatever bully pulpit they can grab onto to one-up their political opponents. I get it. But in a democracy, an elected government is also meant to embody the best of who we are as a people. Surely this civic responsibility calls for decorum and some polite listening of opposing views? The behaviour exhibited by MPs who mocked Mr. Maynard is anti-social. Their behaviour is not only a bad example to the society they represent, it impedes understanding of 'the other' both personally and collectively. This behaviour does not belong in our school grounds, homes or streets. It most certainly does not belong in our governments.
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