Oscar Wilde used to wonder if people really knew themselves, what was truly unique about their personalities. At one point he said: “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinion, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”
I used to think that statement a little bleak, until a couple of weeks ago, when, in a discussion with some engaged citizens, I asked who they really were and received a kind of collective blank stare. I pressed and eventually there emerged a list of the books they liked, who their parents were, where they went to school, and what kind of politics they supported. It was clear by the time it was all over that no one was happy with their answer simply because they hadn’t put a lot of time into it. Moreover, the subject virtually never arose when they were with others.
It got me to thinking that perhaps this is one of the key reasons why citizens experience so much trouble pulling themselves together to bring about the very changes they seek – unsure who they are individually effectively negates their ability to find the kind of common ground that requires a form of collective sacrifice.
I spent my first year in Parliament on the Access to Information, Privacy, and Ethics Committee and almost the entire time was taken up with the subject of “Identity Theft.” In other words, each of us had something that somebody could take. But it was all technical stuff – driver’s license, credit card numbers, hospital records, social security number. There’s big money in stealing such things I discovered, and even more money spent in preventing such pilfering. All of it was about our legal status, not our personal ideals, foibles, sense of humour, or capacity for compassion. It didn’t take me long to realize that actually this was how Ottawa viewed Canadians. They were legal entities that had to be governed by laws. Increasingly their main attraction was that they were voters; everything else kind of paled in comparison.
I learned that Canada’s original peoples were observed only through the lens of treaties and financial arrangements. In such a perspective, the hundreds of aboriginal women gone missing and presumed dead barely rippled the water of parliamentary attention. Climate change was about carbon taxes, cost-sharing with provinces, the economy of the tar sands and pipeline deals. It all left little room for children with a more dangerous future, the extinction of species, or the sustainability of communities. Realistically, government was about winning aggressively, not governing judiciously. People were ultimately voters who could also donate money to keep the machinery going.
Those visiting Ottawa consistently remark about how inspiring the Parliamentary institutions were – House of Commons, Supreme Court, the War Memorial – but how alienated they felt by politics itself. I literally witnessed one teacher attempting to cover the ears of a young student watching as Question Period descended into a kind of verbal madness.
Democracy, citizenship, and government only matter as people know what they’re about – what they believe in, are willing to sacrifice for, and how they come together with other citizens and communities to forge a way into the future. The less we know who we truly are, the more those governing us hand us empty prattles instead of effective policy. We are tolerated more than taught, enticed more than enlightened, excused more than exalted.
Ultimately democracy isn’t about the country but its people. The capacity of a population should be the fundamental goal of all things legislative and debated. Our political system is rightfully predicated upon the belief that we make the choices through a rather intricate system of self-government. For that to be effective we must know what we’re about, who we are, and what we want. It seems to me we’re not so sure of such things at present. We merely know that we don’t like the representative politics of the day.
“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will,” Bronte quotes Jane Eyre. In our modern world that is an extremely rare accomplishment. We are informed what to buy, diminished by numerous political parties, provided limited options on how to better our communities, and work endless hours for a capitalistic machine we can’t comprehend. We like to believe we are free to decide for ourselves but often discover that the options available to us are, in fact, limited to a few agreed upon choices.
And so we become isolated from our communities because of the very lack of creativity, imagination and gathering. Our cities seem to grow along a kind of pre-determined path – only not determined by us. It all leaves us kind of lost, looking a lot like others around us, and feeling like pawns played in a game by someone else.
At the heart of human experience lies this eternal desire to define whom we are, instead of having someone else do it. As citizens we have the legal status for such a pursuit; it is the tools that we are missing.
For the next while we shall study “identity” and how we determine it for the betterment of our communities and our children. Citizens are only as effective as they act in direct connection to whom they are – their identity. In all too many cases we have permitted someone else to steal it.