The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

The Human Code

I was honoured to host two soldiers who had just returned from Afghanistan. One asked if they could view Question Period. I hesitated. Wouldn’t you?  We all know what QP has become. “Of course,” I responded after a moment and personally ushered them to the gallery above the Chamber.

I don’t need to tell you just how bad it went. The soldier’s, “Is that what we’ve been fighting for?” said it all. It was one of my most humiliating moments in Parliament.

Following QP was the Foreign Affairs Committee, of which I was part. Prior to the opening members from all parties discussed the brutality of the recent QP. Some pressed for more civility; others for the Speaker to intervene more often; one implied that we were grown-ups and should just suck it up. “And what about our human code?” I said quietly. “Why do we do this in front of school groups? Do we feel proud if our kids watch us behave like that, or our constituents. This isn’t really about rules; it’s about character and we’ve all failed.” A silence descended on the room, prompted not by what I said but by each person’s own conscience.

In our modern world we have established so many laws and methods of procedure that we often permit ourselves to be governed by such inventions – as we should, because they are there for a purpose. But there arrives those vulnerable moments of humanity where, regardless of laws, we are all baptized into the same value. Over the centuries it’s been called “human law,” and it’s why we show respect for the deceased, deference to our elders, respect for moral nobility, and an intense respect for the fate of children. In such moments we don’t quote from some statute or precept; we respond in our refined human instinct and we act accordingly.

This week in London, Ontario one of our citizens was suspended by Twitter, likely for the harsh language and innuendos she used on a repeated basis. It set everyone back for a minute. It wasn’t about partisanship (though she is a professed follower of one party), but rather about respect and conduct.  Some have argued that her removal was only proper, while a minority defended the opposite.

It has been clear that the majority using Twitter in London are maturing with its use each passing month. It is seen as a tool for citizen engagement, and while the early days demonstrated a lot of labeling, recent use has revealed users who are growing more refined as citizens in how they communicate with one another – even those with whom they disagree. This wasn’t accomplished by Twitter intervening or regulating, but rather by the consciences of each person composing tweets.

Let’s face it, we’re all kind of new at this. Our democratic dialogue was primarily the domain of our elected officials and we most often took on the role of observers. Times have changed. As the political terrain has become increasingly soiled by partisanship and ineffectiveness, concerned citizens, like those tweeting in London, have begun to speak up and organize. It is my sense that Twitter has become more a tool of education and engagement than a mere sounding board in London in these last few months. This particular app is beginning to reveal growth in some of those who use it. But with hardly any rules or regulations governing its use, how do we make it work for our collective benefit?

I believe the answer is the same as it was in the committee meeting – the human code. If we can’t treat one another respectfully, how can citizens maintain community or democracy? Respect supersedes all of it, as does personal dignity, and the right to raise our voice. It’s a basic rule of thumb. Twitter should be an extension of what we would pursue and allow at our office, worship centre, community gathering, or civic celebration. Should the person banned on Twitter have carried out her agenda at any of these venues they would have almost immediately broken down. But for decades there have been codes of human conduct developing at these other venues; Twitter is relatively new and in the end it is we who have to reclaim its best advantages, not Twitter. It’s just like politics. As we watch it break down over lack of respect, it will never reform unless we demand it and show better in our own conduct.

Leo Buscaglia, in his Living, Loving and Learning, states, “Don’t walk in my head with your dirty feet.” This is exactly what the trolls or snipers on Twitter want to do, but protecting the civility of our minds is still the best way to move ahead with the new medium. Those who attempt to divide our communities into “them” or “us” have to deal with the reality that their actions are resulting in their being turned into someone else’s “them.” We must discipline ourselves as a community.

Twitter is not an empty board upon which everybody can just post their prejudice. Ultimately it is a tool of citizen refinement – it is what we make of it. Should someone be banned but learn from the experience and desire to rejoin, we as decent people should welcome their return. But first they must acknowledge that those who can’t discipline themselves in a public forum shouldn’t just expect that they can ruin it for the rest of us. We are Twitter’s greatest strengths and my experience of the last year has shown me that those strengths are growing. It will become one of democracy’s great tools, not just because of its openness, but because of how we learned to use it to show respect for the human code.

Humanity – “Is George Clooney There?”

“Is George Clooney right there, with you? Can you see if we can get an interview with him?”

This wasn’t the request I had been hoping for. Yes, George Clooney was in south Sudan, as was former president Jimmy Carter, but the real reason we were all there as international observers was to oversee the southern Sudanese referendum in an effort to attest to its credibility. It was big international news and had profound implications for all of Africa.

So I was a little taken aback when a Canadian national network reached me near the border of Darfur, virtually ignoring the significance of events swirling all around us and wanting to talk to the famed Hollywood actor. In truth, Clooney was confined to his room suffering from malaria, and Carter was everywhere – a respected international figure of peace and democracy who knew Sudan and its struggles well.

The reality that a people struggling for peace following decades of civil war was being eclipsed by a noted actor in their country was more than a little troubling. If any actor deserves some recognition for his part in drawing international attention to south Sudan and the destitute people of Darfur it is surely Clooney. He has done some credible work that would only be possible due to his notoriety.  Yet he continuously struggles with the penchant for individuals, governments and media to focus more on his fame than his passion for the Sudanese.

This is the age of humanitarian celebrities – all attempting to focus our attention on pivotal issues for the survival of all of us.  Some take their field work seriously; others appear in little more than photo ops.  But the attention on celebrities in such arenas points to two changing realities in our modern world. The first concerns affluent governments and their increasing retreat from aid and development commitments that had been promised only a decade ago. The vacuum left from the loss of serious attention to detail has opened the door even further for international celebrities to try to fill the void. It isn’t working to the degree necessary to curtail the growth of destitute poverty in our world – the numbers continue to escalate.

The second reality concerns our perspective as citizens and our loss of world interest in the plight of others.  That isn’t fully true in the area of disaster relief, however. Canadian generosity to places like the Asian tsunami or following Haiti’s devastating earthquake was indeed remarkable and uplifting. Yet in the long-term issues of climate change devastation, generational starvation, growing world hunger, chronic lack of health services, or physical insecurity, we seem to lose interest quickly, as does the media, whose lead we often follow.

As sovereign nations continue to pull into themselves due to the challenge of economic instability, it is only inevitable that we will begin to lose the solid advances we had made in such fields only a few years ago. The implications of this neglect are now ominous and no celebrity culture can save it.

On the other hand, the woman you see at the top of this post is a true hero and celebrity to many of us who have journeyed to Sudan. She poured out of Darfur with thousands of others a few years ago – in most cases without even the clothing on their backs. She was hiding in swamps with the others in order to avoid detection. She had come from much farther in western Darfur. Each time she attempted to settle with her family, militia, trained and supported by Libya’s army of Omar Khadaffi moved her on, but not before killing some of her relatives. When the West determined that Sudanese president Omar Bashir was a war criminal sought by the Criminal Court, the government often took its anger out on people like her.

She began traveling with 12 of her family, but only 4 survived. She lost her husband, sons, daughters-in-law, and her livelihood. But worst of all, by the time Jane and I interviewed her after she had journeyed hundreds of miles to where we were, she had lost her dignity – everything that had once made her who she was. She was a mess and her hair had begun falling out. In a word, she was “empty.” She had given everything to the survival of the children. Only 40 years of age, she looked 70.

There is no need to go into the lengthy list of tragedies she faced on that hectic journey. Our interview with her left us drained, as we realized neither one of us could come close to accomplishing what she had. Looking at her picture now, I see that she was more dynamic that any action figure, had more love for her lost husband than any romantic lead, and possessed a narrative as great as anything Hollywood could put together.

But she lives out of sight of all of us, and for that reason she doesn’t really matter. Her humanity, great as it is, has little effect on our own because we haven’t been paying attention to millions just like her. It’s the George Clooneys that really interest us. Good man that he is, he keeps telling us to focus on the need, not him.  But when a national network seeks to track him down in the wastelands of Darfur instead of telling the remarkable story of what was transpiring all around him, it is clear that our present humanity can only journey so far. We have miles to go yet before we sleep, and we have a world of hurt and suffering to consider as walk.

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