Apr. 8, 2003. 01:00 AM
to express an opinion is the second casualty of war
Feeling guilty he'd done little to make his anti-war views known, a Toronto man quickly fired off this e-mail to the Prime Minister, seven cabinet ministers and 14 relatives, not thinking much about the outcome.
He learned very quickly that when you talk about war, it's best to tread carefully because opposing views can divide families and friends.
But the conversations are important — otherwise, says sociologist Walter Podilchak, the "civility in conversation can become one of the casualties of war."
After the Toronto man sent out his e-mail, one of his American relatives replied with a snide commentary on Canada and its problems. In short, his relative wrote, America doesn't need you anyway. And furthermore: "We have effectively taken you out of our will."
"I read it and thought he was kidding," said the man, who didn't want to be identified, in the interest of family harmony.
"Do you think he's serious?" his wife asked.
These are minor injuries at a time when lives are being lost and innocents injured in the ferocious war being waged on Iraq.
But just as relations between Canada and its chief trading partner, the United States, are tense these days, similar disputes are being played out in living rooms across the country.
Generally in times of crisis, families unite and look to one another for support, says Dr. Brian Hoffman, chief of psychiatry at North York General Hospital.
When a country is at war, fewer people look for treatment for mental-health problems, he added. "Fewer show up for therapy or emergency-room visits. There's a sense of unity, cohesion and purpose. You set aside your individual issues and join the bandwagon."
The e-mails continued between the Toronto man and his American relative.
"What bothered me was the sense that I was anti-American. To be anti-war was to be anti-American, which I don't agree with."
The correspondence ended with a reply from his relative: "This is not worth responding to." At a recent family gathering, the two spoke, but the war and their correspondence was never mentioned.
University of Toronto sociologist Podilchak said it's important to pursue the conversations, no matter how uncomfortable they may be.
The uncritical lock-step march behind U.S. President George W. Bush — "You're either for us or against us" — leads to the suppression of discussion and reduces understanding, Podilchak said.
"I want to understand that person's point of view," he said. "It helps me reflect on and clarify my own moral structure."
He recently attended a gathering to welcome a new baby but excused himself to leave early, explaining that he wanted to drop in at an interfaith service and one of the weekend peace rallies. As he was at the door, someone said, "Oh, you're a Saddam supporter."
"You can't expect that not to happen if you speak the voice of peace," Podilchak said, "but I was made to feel defensive."
"I'm going to the demonstration to fight for the future of this child, who's just born." he replied.
"Oh, you're just an idealist," he was told.
"Peace is a very personal understanding," Podilchak said. "People want to challenge you and justify their own moral structure. They feel war is a legitimate way of solving world problems."
Alan Borovoy, general counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, says he's observed that people who hold liberal values and are generally thought of as progressive in domestic issues can easily take a radically different position in international issues. "Because they see the international arena as a jungle where concepts like the rule of law simply don't work," he said.
"For people interested in the survival of democracy ... these tactics (war) are necessary. Otherwise democracies are at an irreparable disadvantage."
While there are pro-war members in the civil liberties association, he said, they will still staunchly defend the rights of anti-war activists.
Law professor Michael Mandel says he's amazed people are still surprised that relationships are strained in this war. "Since Sept. 11, the lines were drawn clearly. People were forced to confront differences in their world outlook. It cut out the middle," he said.
One of Mandel's recent essays, published in Beyond September 11: An Anthology of Dissent, is entitled, "This War is Illegal and Immoral and it Won't Prevent Terrorism."
When he wrote a newspaper column opposing the war in Afghanistan, he was criticized in the media and by members of his extended family.
"We have heated arguments in our family each time these things come up, but we love each other and after we go home in a huff, we decide we're not going to talk about it."
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