It wasn’t the usual Twitter exchange for me. A city councilor in Toronto was in a verbal exchange with some folks about the long gun registry, when she said, “I wonder what Glen Pearson in London thinks about it?” Someone immediately shot back, “Who needs another ignorant and stupid opinion?”
Normally I let this stuff go, but this time I rather innocently tweeted, “No need to use harsh language. Different opinions are okay.” The return tweet was terse: “If you studied the issue you wouldn’t hold such a dumb opinion.” There was no point in going on obviously, but closed off with, “Why would you call me ignorant and stupid? And why say I’m against you; don’t even know you.” He abruptly ended it all with, “You are for the gun registry and therefore you’re against me and all like me.”
Needless to say, this isn’t the kind of dialogue that can edify the democratic state. I likely didn’t handle it too well myself, but in my feeble efforts I was trying to open a door for a discussion. It strikes me that there has been a decided increase in the harshness of opinions and the unwillingness to listen.
In Canada today this is often the way community conversation begins – two strong points, hotly debated, with little solution. This represents the first stage in the progress of dialogue and it’s a difficult one because there can be anger and hurt feelings. Let’s call it the expressions of interests phase.
At certain levels in our communities there are those desirous of debate who feel that anyone who holds to an opposite view is an idiot – even if they don’t say so. They such people are supposedly uninformed and poorly versed on the pertinent subject. Often this attitude is mutually expressed by both sides. And “sides” is the proper word. Citizens stake their claim and prepare to hold their ground, regardless of the logic or emotion coming from across the way. Often when citizens first come together to debate an issue, there is more heat than light, and this makes it difficult to discover compromise.
This kind of dialogue sadly permits opinions to trump true respect of others. It’s like a war, with positions to be held and other people to beat down. Yet it is a false dichotomy. Should those arguing meet for the first time at a hockey game or the graduation ceremony of their kids, they would display no such inclinations of hostility, yet they get their dander up on some issue they believe in and they become different people altogether.
Many of these people have no intention to compromise or find enlightenment in other views. Author Mancur Olson Jr. calls them “free riders” – self-interested and self-absorbed people who aren’t interested in complying with common decisions that have historically benefitted the community in the past. In studying their issues so extensively they might very well be knowledgeable on the subject, but human dispositions have made it impossible for them to find common ground for the sake of community. They are always negative, and often comment on the popular blog posts in hopes of reaching an audience their negativity can’t reach on its own. It is their own self-interest they are after and they won’t be denied – even by a more refined argument.
Yet I have been in enough community sessions to have witnessed others who appeared to be free riders at first, but who actually demonstrated a willingness to understand other points of view. In the majority of such cases these citizens were there to benefit their community, making them more amenable to the opinions of others. In a real sense they are true citizens because they innately understand that they can’t get a free ride out of such debate. They are citizens, caring of the places where they live, and they understand that it costs something to play a part in community life.
Last week, our Citizens Panel in London held a meeting at a YMCA where certain neighbourhood leaders expressed their disappointment that certain developers were running rough shod over the people in their respective subdivisions. One gentleman from the development industry was in the room and effectively expressed his difficulty in being portrayed in such a negative light. He acknowledged that many in his field didn’t behave well, but others did and they should be respected for their willingness to work with citizens and make amendments to their building plans.
The effect on the room was inspiring. People went out of their way to attempt to understand what he was saying and kept referring to him as their new “developer friend.” When the session was over, many stayed behind to ponder the issues with him even further. That is true dialogue in its nutrient form – the expressions of interests, strongly held, but open to adjustment. They are two monologues that through geniality of disposition find ways to turn words into dialogue. As one old writer of ethics said: “Before the tongue can speak, it must lose the power to wound.”
There are citizens out there who express no desire to even be open to altering their position. In so doing they make progress impossible and citizen engagement immaterial. True dialogue can begin with positions, but should end in understanding.
Next: From Interests to Interest