Poet Robert Frost used to say, “I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew. Writing a poem is discovering.” That’s one of the great things about poetry – it registers in the minds and hearts of people even before it is understood. All who love poetry know exactly what I’m talking about. You don’t have to “get it” at first reading to be moved by it.
Citizen engagement is like that. Some people attend such exercises merely to show off their intelligence, sometimes actually demonstrating the opposite. But the majority come to such gatherings with a sense of expectation, a belief that perhaps something might come of all the effort. ReThink London is like that, too. The more sessions we have, the more we get to know some of the other participants and understand their context. Yet we are all aware we have been on a journey. It began with opinions being expressed but quickly gave way to peoples’ interests being brought into line with the ultimate goals of the exercise. The agenda was allowed to evolve organically from the engagement process instead of being imposed. Humanity crept into conversations once we learned to capitalize o the emotional values behind the debates as opposed to the specific points themselves. This opened the door for understanding through silence and listening as opposed to just talking and making points. These are the various stages these blog posts have explored.
Now comes the good stuff. We communicate with strangers in ways that are more formal and, at times, guarded. But with our friends, family and business associates it’s not so much the words we use to communicate but nuance, tone, inflection, humour, and occasionally even touch. Some of my greatest friends are my books and my music, but it’s never the exactitude of the phrases or the precision of the notes that bring satisfaction. Rather, it’s the familiarity of good thoughts and emotions, the inspiration that comes considering subjects that are meaningful. All good friends bring this to us.
With those we are becoming more comfortable with we provoke, prod, explore, comfort and sometimes stretch. Behind all of our words lies the awareness that we are getting to know and appreciate one another better. It is one of the building blocks of community and civilization. It’s the distinction between a stranger and a neighbour; in fact, it’s what turns strangers in neighbours.
In Ottawa, there wasn’t that much mingling that took place between the political parties. I was never comfortable in such separation and sought out others who I felt could better me as a legislator and also dispel some of the loneliness I was feeling. Friendships grew quickly and almost immediately we began using language that was different from how we officially addressed ourselves in the House. To be sure, we spoke of the subjects dealt with in the Chamber, but it was less formal, more open to new thoughts and ideas. When my time ended in Parliament, one government minister called our home to express his regrets and his words will always remain with me. “Glen, you gave me permission to be vulnerable. In talking about your loneliness, I could talk about mine. You always spoke of your family with such delight that I was comfortable in talking with you about my own relationships. Ultimately, you helped me to come to terms with the reality that politics is more about cooperation than competition. We did some good things together, didn’t we?”
There it was – doing good things together because we were human and not because we were merely defending our own points of view. We need this in our grassroots politics, this language of affiliation and emotional respect. For all the ado we make about voting, it is, in many ways, the least human thing we do in democracy. We usually go to the polling station alone, show some ID, secretly hide ourselves in a little booth, put our decision on a piece of paper, drop it in a sealed box, and leave. No one knows how we voted, or why. They have no idea what motivates us or if we really believe in what we’re doing.
Citizen engagement is actually a far better window into citizenship than the voting franchise. In some countries they hold festivals on voting day, celebrating their right to choose regardless of affiliation, and often talking of why people voted the way they did. That is voting with engagement and opens the door for our discussions or options in ways that are progressive. The right to vote isn’t for individuals but citizens – members of a community with obligations and rights. It is a grand exercise, built not upon our actions as individuals but our acknowledgement of our communal life.
How we talk in our citizen engagement exercises is often more important than what we say. Our tone can make our words palpable or rigid. We can be curious about others or we can be condemning. And that more we talk with one another, the more formalism and divisions fall away in favour of familiarity and flexibility. With such tools at our disposal shared outcomes become far easier to attain. That stranger that we referred to earlier is transformed into a neighbour through empathy, and that kind of understanding comes over time – it is a process. Imagine it: a community built upon dialogue instead of always dividing over opinions. In the end, this will be the greatest accomplishment of the engagement process.