Acedia and Political Polarization

Politics today is strikingly polarized in both Canada and the United States (and, of course, in other parts of the world). People who call themselves “conservative” and those who call themselves “liberal” or “progressive” not only disagree with one another about almost everything, they seem to be inhabiting such different worlds that they cannot even communicate with one another: it is as though they are speaking unintelligible foreign languages for which there are no interpreters.

This fact is brought home to me whenever I open my Facebook newsfeed. Somehow, I keep getting posts from two groups, North 99 and Take Back Your Power Canada. In the world as presented by North 99, everything the federal Liberal government does is good, Trudeau is a globally-admired leader, we should welcome immigrants with open arms, and Doug Ford’s recent decisions are an unjustified and blatant attack on the poorest Ontarians.

In the world as presented by Take Back Your Power Canada, Trudeau is both a complete disaster as prime minister and a grotesque embarrassment on the world stage, most immigrants are probably terrorists, and Doug Ford is restoring Ontario to its former glory as a prosperous and well-run province which supports business people who are the real job creators.

The disjunct between these two versions of reality was brought sharply home to me one day, when one site posted that a recent poll showed that Conservative support had plummeted to the low 20s and that the Liberals were on track to easily get another majority in the next election, while the other stated that a recent poll showed that Andrew Scheer was poised to take power and become our next prime minister. It is clearly troubling when political opponents can’t even agree on factual claims!


Last month, I wrote about “acedia,” a condition that afflicts many of us and which manifests itself in a feeling of indifference to the things that should matter to us, and which causes us either to withdraw from engagement with others or to disguise those feelings through frantic activity: for example, spending hours playing computer games, posting status updates on Facebook, lifting weights at the gym, or even developing an obsessive interest in the lives of celebrities. Kathleen Norris, the author of Acedia and Me, argues that acedia has political implications as well as personal ones.

Cartoons from (left) Take Back Your Power Canada 2.0 (Facebook) and (right) North 99 (Facebook).

Cartoons from (left) Take Back Your Power Canada 2.0 (Facebook) and (right) North 99 (Facebook).

The startlingly different picture of reality presented by the dueling Facebook memes of North 99 and Take Back Your Power Canada, which I used to view simply as competing propaganda put forward by people with divergent political views, I now understand as being, at least in part, the impact of acedia on how we do politics: anything, no matter how untrue or vicious, can be said about those who disagree with us politically, because nothing, not even the truth, is more important than how we feel.

In short, in acedic politics, there is no place for rational and reasonable argumentation. Regardless of whether your own politics gravitate to one side of the political spectrum or the other, or fall somewhere in between, the result is pernicious for all of us: political opponents become enemies rather than fellow citizens, who, like us, are concerned with what is best for the country, the province, or the city, but who have drawn different conclusions about those things than we have. Moreover, these competitors will be unable to come to rational and reasonable agreements about policies that might be beneficial for everyone, because they don’t even understand reality in the same way.


Norris argues that it is acedia that allows us to despise those who think differently than we do, and to condemn or ignore those around us who live differently than we do. Acedia also makes us indifferent to the things that really matter, and to focus on trivialities like which celebrity is cheating on his wife, or which stores are having sales at the mall.

When we think about it carefully, Norris observes, we can come to the uncomfortable “realization that the root meaning of acedia as lack of care could serve to define our present state. We grow inured to the horrendous violence engendered by suicide bombings and genocidal ‘little wars’ around the world, and sigh when we hear of road-rage fatalities at home, or the murder of a teenager for the trendy jacket or athletic shoes he is wearing.”

Moreover, she continues:

A refusal to care about the needs of others marks the unapologetic incompetence of a government worker or call-center operator, and also the disregard of corporate executives for the pain caused by a move to a place where cheaper labor might be exploited and more dangerous working conditions accepted.

It is acedia that makes it acceptable for us to ignore homelessness in our communities, or to care little about what happens to our neighbors as long as we are doing okay. And it is acedia that makes it easy for us to demonize those whose politics are different than ours.


I have a good sense of where I fall on the political spectrum, as do, I am sure, readers of this column. And I have to admit that it is all too easy to believe that my political views are correct, since almost everyone I encounter shares most of the same political beliefs.

I live in a mining town with a strong history of unionization and social action, and I can honestly say that I have met only one person who admitted to voting for Doug Ford. However, it was clear at the last provincial election that most Ontario voters did not think like the people I meet in Sudbury, so it seems important that, in order to avoid the simple demonization of their views that I might otherwise be inclined to indulge in, I should take Norris’s views about acedia and its effects on politics seriously.

Competing Facebook memes from Take Back Your Power Canada 2.0 (left) and North 99 (right).

Competing Facebook memes from Take Back Your Power Canada 2.0 (left) and North 99 (right).

She argues that the antidote to acedia in the political sphere is forgiveness – and forgiveness on all sides. Forgiveness doesn’t just require us to focus on the faults of others, and then to magnanimously overlook them; rather, it “requires creativity to recognize our faults and to discern virtues in those we would rather disdain.” Further:

Forgiveness demands close attention, flexibility, and stringent self-assessment, faculties that are hard to come by as we career blindly into the twenty-first century, and are increasingly asked to choose information over knowledge, theory over experience, and certainty over ambiguity.”


At the very least, in the political sphere, it would be helpful if we could all remind ourselves to respect the personhood of those whose political views differ from our own, and if we could mutually recognize that not all the right answers to the challenges we face and that we ask politicians to manage for us fall on only one side of the political spectrum. Finally, forgiveness, even understood solely in secular terms, requires us to try to recognize our own inadequacies and to be humble about our own beliefs, even when those beliefs seem to us to be simply true.

I will continue to read the dueling memes on my Facebook newsfeed, because being confronted with views I don’t agree with reminds me that not everyone thinks the same way I do, and that people who have different political opinions are not my enemies, but simply other human beings who, with respect to some important political concerns, have reached different conclusions than I have. Hopefully, at least some of those people will be willing to extend the same courtesies to those who, like me, disagree with them. Or, as the old saying has it, we can agree to disagree without being disagreeable.


Rachel Haliburton

Wolfville native Rachel Haliburton teaches philosophy at the University of Sudbury. Her latest book, The Ethical Detective: Moral Philosophy and Detective Fiction, was published in February by Lexington Books.