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.