A few days ago I was having coffee at one of my favourite places when in walked a Conservative MP from an era prior to the Harper times. He immediately sat down and began talking about how he was glad to be out of politics in Ottawa, given all that has transpired in the last few years. He then went on about being retired and brought up some of the challenges he is witnessing in our community.
“When I was in the House, Glen, long before your time there, we’d have good friends in other parties and we’d head out for drinks or dinner, and always the subject came around to the legislation we were debating or voting on. And you know, we found we agreed on more than we realized. There were times when some of us changed our votes as a result of those talks. Nowadays you have no choice, especially with a partisan government.”
It got me to thinking about this blog post and the next step required for citizen dialogue to be effective. It’s all about the search for mutuality. John Lennon once said that, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy pursuing other plans.” In Ottawa, those “other plans” are all about party politics and rooting for the team. Yet in my time there I was approached my numerous MPs from all parties who wanted to know about my kids and tell me about theirs. They were curious as to our work in Sudan and often talked about how they volunteered at their local food bank. They were talking about life and not their party.
When citizens get together to talk about ways to improve their community, it is what they discover in the course of their discussions that often leads to more breakthroughs than mere opinions. If talk is all about “you share your ideas and I’ll refute them with mine,” then there’s nothing that can be discovered. It is actually in the humanizing of our thoughts that new ideas and better communities are discovered – not through argument but empathy and understanding. In its own way, conversation is a political art form. It gets people to share experiences and not just rigid opinions.
Sometimes the most important things being shared are emotions – fear, anger, insecurity, joy, love of family. And many times it is those sentiments lying behind the words that are the most eloquent. As business guru Peter Drucker puts it: “The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.” Remember the story I told in the first blog of this series about the developer and the ostracism he felt at a community meeting? He could have argued outright, but instead talked about his insecurities at being seen to be a bad guy. The effects were immediate. People swiveled in their chairs and listened intently. Soon enough they were not only attempting to understand things from his point of view, they were understanding them.
This is the beauty of citizen conversation: it isn’t out to win, but to share ideas. It doesn’t so much have an end game as it does a process. And that’s exactly what it is. That first post talked about rigid positions, even ideological ones, and the need for citizens to get their frustrations on the table. But then it moves on to the next stage of understanding why everyone is at the table and that it’s bigger than their point of view. Our last post was about moving on from that to finding alternatives through conversations and not just prescribed agendas. What we are talking about now is the next logical step. People have aspirations, despite varying views. They all want productive, safe, smart, green and caring communities, but those commonalities are often eclipsed by negative experiences, cultural leanings, or even political ideologies.
The great Albert Schweitzer used to say that the tragedy of life is what dies inside a person while they yet live. It seems as though modern politics is all about the decline of ideals, the death of hope, the acceptance of decline. At some point it will recover, but not today and not soon enough. As citizens we need not accept such a fate. We grew up believing our country and our communities mattered – we mattered. We felt our place in this life was important and that we could make it better. We believed our natural world was worth preserving and that no child should be trapped in poverty. Instinctively we understood that productivity didn’t need to bring depravity along with it and that our brothers and sisters in our aboriginal communities deserved every chance that we had. We wanted to honour our elders and prepare a prosperous and learning path for our children. We wanted to be Canadian because that meant something.
Those things have been dying in us because we’ve permitted politics to disillusion us and our love for all things material to cheapen it. But that is not us – not by a long shot. We are better than this. The moment we begin our progressive discussions with others, seeking solutions and understandings, that spirit of youth reaches out from with us and it is our desire for better lives that drives us towards better outcomes for our communities. We do not have to die while we yet live, and neither do our communities. We all share in our desires for life and it’s in our dialogue that we will discover each other.