The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: civility

Yelling Past One Another

Just how difficult our politics have become turned up on social media feeds this week and in traditional media. As is often the case, Twitter failed to live up to its ideals by suspending the account of Alexandra Brodsky, an advocate for gender-free violence in education. She works at the National Women’s Law Centre and is no stranger to verbal conflict. When she received a number of harassing tweets from anti-semitic trolls, Brodsky took the unusual step of posting screenshots of the offensive tweets on Twitter. She also reported the occurrences to Twitter, asking that they suspend the offenders, some of whom posted, “Welcome to Trump’s America,” and “see you in the camps,” along with images of the Holocaust. It wasn’t hard to see why she was upset.

Twitter, in a move that it later reversed, responded by suspending Brodsky’s account instead, stating that she would have to delete the offending words and images before her account could be unlocked. “So let’s get this straight: Twitter still hasn’t suspended all the bigots I reported, but they have suspended me for calling out bigotry,” she subsequently wrote on Facebook. Twitter eventually wrote Brodsky, admitting their mistake, but that was only after Buzzfeed News pressed them on it. The actions of a courageous woman advocate weren’t enough in themselves to reverse Twitter’s decision. The entire scenario revealed once-again Twitter’s inability to deal effectively with the abuse problem that thousands of its users have asked the company to act on.

But then came news of another unfolding story, this time involving Dairy Queen, and with a better conclusion. When the owner of an Illinois Dairy Queen vented racial slurs at one of his customers, she complained and the police got involved. When they interviewed the owner he admitted to the charge, claiming that he was willing to go to jail over it, and saying that he was “fed up with black people.” When the Washington Post reported the story, Dairy Queen moved in quickly and shut down the operation. Community complaints over the incident were vibrant enough that the chain said the location would not be opened until a new owner was found. When the offender realized what he would lose, he apologized, but Dairy Queen has stuck by its plan to find a new proprietor.

“The most practical kind of politics is the politics of Decency” – Theodore Roosevelt

What is happening online is the “new frontier” and until average citizens learn to behave with decency, even allowing for their strong opinions, there is no way we can reach the place of respectful accommodation that citizens must attain to make politics meaningful again. We seem caught in an endless loop in which citizens, and frequently their political representatives, can no longer protect the public space enough to keep the democratic experience itself a healthy one. Traditional media itself has played this game as well, often playing “gotcha” journalism despite how it ruins public trust and pits citizens and interest groups against one another.

What are our options as citizens? Unless the public space can become an arena for ideas, insights, respect, forgiveness, and collaboration, then all that will be left will be conflict at both the political and the community level. The choice is ours. But as long as online attacks continue unchecked, citizens and politicians will withdraw into the privacy of their lives and the best ideas and perhaps future solutions will never get an airing. For citizens tolerating such attacks, railing against the political class for their animosity and dysfunction carries a level of the farcical, for we are proving no better at governing ourselves.

There are numerous reasons why our politics have arrived at the point where modern societies seem incapable of finding key solutions to our greatest ailments: unemployment, climate change, terrorism, human migration, social and economic inequality. One of the underlying causes has been our growing inability to frankly discuss our differences in ways that can bring about consensus. In so many ways we are yelling past one another and in the process entrenching people in their positions rather than drawing them out into useful dialogue. There’s a reason why former president Theodore Roosevelt claimed, “The most practical kind of politics is the politics of Decency.” Without it there is no practical way of moving ahead; with it we can begin again to locate our commonalities and begin building once more instead of tearing down.

Down to You and Me

There is only one way that civil society makes sense, and that’s if we disagree – a lot. Sounds counter-intuitive, I know, but consider the average coffee shop banter in any local hangout.   You hear friends disagreeing all the time, most often with good-natured humour, but crossing verbal swords nonetheless. If civil society is to work, it must include everyone who wants to take part, and since we are all unique in our opinions and outlook on the world around us, it’s inevitable that there will be just as many points of view as there are people.

A troubling trend in recent years has been the propensity for citizens to expend great energy with those who mostly agree with them, primarily online. It’s natural that human beings seek out likemindedness in others, but if we only end up in separate camps of thought, how can a neighbourhood, a city, a country, even the world, bring all of these constituencies together? Historically, civil society organizations – service clubs, churches, neighbourhood associations, even community-minded businesses – brought together great varieties of people for causes greater than just giving opinions. And to a large degree they worked, not because one viewpoint won out over another, but because people attended to take on a vastly bigger task than merely gathering – supporting charities, building schools (or fighting to keep them open), helping flood victims, holding fundraisers for hospitals or soup kitchens, and so many more worthy initiatives.

It’s important to be civil when in public, but that only serves as the springboard for greater things. To comprehend this better, it’s good to consider how the word civil and polite came about.

Civil originally came from the Latin term civilis, which meant “relating to a citizen” and to his or her ability to move through public life. Politics and polite have similar beginnings. Essentially polite meant “smooth,” denoting the idea not so much of sophistication but the ability to get along well with others. Put all this together and we see that civil society is designed to be populated and empowered by citizens who developed the ability to work together for the community’s good.

It is this precise element that seems to have gone largely missing in our professional politics of the day. Whether it’s due to gross partisanship, animosity, or lack of fitting work experience, the dysfunctional politics on display today can hardly be defined as “smooth” or “civil.” Around much of the world harsh political conflagrations seem to have become the order of the day. With Donald Trump’s inauguration only a few days away, and with the sabre rattling emanating from both sides of the political spectrum, it remains a difficult thing to hold out much hope that the democratic decline in recent decades can be reversed. And as long as citizens themselves remain deeply divided on issues it could be that democracy’s best days are now behind us.

It is up to citizens to see what they make of this – any political success will now depend on their ability to choose and channel their elected representatives towards the great task before us. This isn’t about parties so much anymore but people and it’s unknown if we are up to the task. The old sage Walt Whitman comprehended this truth better than most when he wrote, some ironically, in his By Blue Ontario’s Shore:

O I see flashing that this America is only you and me,

Its power, weapons, testimony, are you and me,

Its crimes, lies, thefts, defections, are you and me,

Its Congress is you and me …

Natural and artificial are you and me,

Freedoms, language, poems, employments are you and me,

Past, present, future, are you and me.

 

I dare not shirk any part of myself,

Not any part of America good or bad.

Democracy can only be functional when the great, moving mass of humanity somehow discover a way to bring themselves and their differences to the table and hammer out a future together. Realistically, politics is all about conflict – each person or group or association with their own likes and dislikes. The secret is to manage the tensions – not by merely electing representatives, but being polite and civic ourselves, as citizens. If we can’t accomplish that, then chaos can’t be far off.

 

 

 

The Only Way Forward

“When civility is illusory, war is inevitable,” wrote author Steve Maraboli not long ago. You don’t have to look very far for verification of his claim. While people will make nice in the next couple of weeks for Donald Trump’s inauguration, it won’t be real and it won’t be effective at creating cooperation.

We are increasingly living in a world where there is little common space where people of different opinions can hang up their weapons of verbal combat at the door before they partake in productive policy exchanges. There is already blood on the streets of Washington D.C. but it’s just not the literal kind. People are learning to hate, despise, mock, jeer, troll, attack, belittle and demean at levels rarely seen in the public space. And it plays itself out in local hangouts, the various forms of media, and even at the recent Golden Globe awards.

Suddenly “being nice” isn’t so nice anymore. Even progressives who mocked Donald Trump’s arrogance and rhetoric have turned ugly as a result of the election. But this isn’t about who won; it’s about who voted. Trump successfully garnered over 60 million votes on his way to victory (yes, I know, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote).   This wasn’t just some muckraker who bludgeoned his way to the White House. Donald Trump capitalized on the angst citizens were feeling towards the political system. Like it or not, he connected with voters in ways that were stunning. And the point is that he had the help of millions of Americans. This was a troubled democracy in action, for all its foibles.

The key now isn’t for those who lost to pour out their wrath on every political institution, but to begin the hard process of creating fair and respectful places of dialogue and debate in the public arena in order to bite back on the encroaching hatred. In democracy, the winners are supposed to be the citizens – they voted freely and are expected to abide by the results, whether or not they like it. But if both sides – winners and losers – remain angry at one another, no one will win.

If Americans want to halt the decline, it won’t be by electing Republicans or Democrats, but by rising above their own disenchantment and anger. It has been clear for decades that the partisanship of the professional political classes has become increasingly dysfunctional, regardless of which party held the power. This is what politics has become in many countries, and not just in America. Its only solution is to discover new ways of showing respect, creation places for consideration and dialogue, even when we don’t feel like it. Or as Kevin Stirtz put it: “To work best democracy needs a diversity of thoughts, ideas and expression. This is only possible with civility.”

“I hold to the idea that civility, understood as the willingness to engage in public discourse, is the first virtue of citizens” … Mark Kingwell

In an era where everyone looks to venues to give their opinions, it is vital to remember that democracy’s strength isn’t in its opinions but in its consensus. Unless this is achieved among citizens and politicians, democratic decline is inevitable. Civility doesn’t get in the way of truth but is rather what is required to make truth discoverable in the public arena. Exercised properly, civility opens the door to consensus by keeping the players in the room long enough to establish common ground.

The key to recovering our political health is to interact with those we might disagree with without holding their opinion against them. The point isn’t to best them, but to find accommodations so that we can live together based on our commonalities, while yet respecting our distinctions.

These are hard truths, but then again these are hard times for democracy. It is all about making civil society real. If our political representatives can’t do it because of party affiliations, then the millions of citizens who no longer belong to such parties must find ways of making politics real and workable again. There is no diversity without tensions, but neither should their be public spaces without respect. Far from being passé or redundant, civility might prove our only way forward.

The Weak Man’s Imitation

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IT WAS OBAMA’S LAST STATE OF THE UNION address, so he threw out the challenge to the entire chamber – “Fix our politics.” That sent all sides scrambling to lay blame on others for the sorry state of the political order in the United States. Yet the reality is that they are all to blame. With the present campaign under way there are virtually no signs that anything will get fixed.

Which isn’t really what people hoped for in Canada. Our national election behind us, following a decade of dysfunctional politics in Parliament, there was a subtle hope that the nastiness of Question Period and the relationship between the parties would show signs of improvement.

With Parliament resuming this week it had the sad feeling of deja vu all over again. The new House Speaker, Geoff Regan, ran for the position by saying he would fight for a more civil House of Commons. I know Geoff fairly well. He meant it and had refused to throw the mud when he was an MP. So, when he heard the chirping in the Chamber, he stood, saying that it wasn’t a good sign that he was hearing noise “from more than one side.” He attempted to add that the Commons was the “crucible of democracy” and that while vigorous debate was natural, incivility was not. Even as he tried to finish, the Conservative caucus heckled him, which no doubt was discouraging to more than just the Speaker.

We had hoped for better and we still do, but this was a bad start. And it wasn’t just the Conservatives. Although the NDP had earlier circulated a petition calling for an end to heckling as a “counterproductive behavior,” the party leader and his followers pitched right in to the melee. Nor were the Liberals quiet, despite their promise that as a government they would, “restore dignity” to the House.

This is where we come in … the sooner the better. We have to weigh in just as pollster and writer Bruce Anderson did recently when he composed a column for the Globe and Mail titled, “The Speech I Would Write for the Next Conservative Leader.” He believed that it was time for the Conservative Party to have an honest conversation with itself if it ever hoped to win back the favour of the Canadian people again. Anderson’s words, especially the following, proved powerful:

“We’ve forgotten what it’s like to try to persuade someone of something … Spending our days attacking others to energize our base produces immediate rewards, but the bill comes due eventually … Somewhere along the way, we confused the idea of being passionate about our ideas with being obnoxious to people outside our party. Regular people don’t live their lives with their knuckles and teeth bared, and they don’t like people who do … So let’s regroup and aim high.”

Well, they didn’t elevate their conduct this week and will have a difficult time growing support if they maintain this pattern. And if the other parties continue pitching in, democracy itself will be the ultimate victim. We have to act as Anderson has done, by speaking up, by writing our local MPs, and insisting on better if governing is to get better. Heckling isn’t free speech, and Parliament shouldn’t be the bigot’s last sanctuary.

In his Passionate State of Mind, author Eric Hoffer wrote: “Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.” True, and if the “imitation game” continues on into this winter session, feebleness will once again hold our politics and our civil spirit in its grasp.

The Partisan Mind (3)

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Sean O’Casey noted a few years back: “Politics – I don’t know why, but they seem to have a tendency to separate us, to keep us from one another, while nature is always and ever making efforts to bring us together.”

Citizens recognize this reality and, to a point, permit this kind of tension in the public space because people often hold to different opinions and a free flow of ideas hopefully brings us better solutions.  But citizens have been patient long enough with the new kind of politics that seeks to divide, conquer, and eventually subjugate.  They now reject it.  In the place of progress, they are forced to make do with polarization and paralysis in government.  Under such a construct, the term “partisan” has become a bad word.  That’s too bad really, for Nelson Mandela was a partisan and Agnes Mcphail, this country’s first female MP, was a partisan.  So were Lester Pearson, Tommy Douglas, John A. MacDonald, and Jack Layton. 

The political order has botched things so badly that anyone from the political world with a strong opinion is often avoided by the public.  Again, that’s a shame, because policy matters and people who believe in solutions and put them out there matter. 

In a world where more and more citizens are opting out, the fate of our modern democracy might very well depend on, of all people, the partisans.  This sounds counter-intuitive, I know, but at a time where public policy is failing and politics itself has been hollowed out from the centre, it is going to take citizen investment to get things right, not those who have checked out or who maintain a frustrating form of sterile neutrality.

But it will take a new kind of partisan, and not necessarily the NDP, Liberal, Conservative or Green variety.  There will be those who are rightfully bent out of shape about what is happening to our communities, or who worry about joblessness or the environment.  There will be mental health advocates and affordable housing champions, voices for small business and innovation, and a growing chorus concerning the fate of the middle class.  Not all of these, perhaps even most, will opt to press their case through established political parties.  They will speak to whoever will listen, but they might not take out a membership or attend a convention.  The established parties need to learn from this and open up their policy processes to these broader voices, seasoned experts, and those with lived experience. 

Make no mistake, such voices are partisan, and powerful in their own right.  Partisanship isn’t just about politics but also the public space, and for too long we have attempted to force these two together.  Thanks to political dysfunction, a different way of working with the non-political partisans will have to be discovered.

Yet partisans beware.  What we don’t need are those people rabid in their points of view, who can’t listen respectfully to others, or concede a point when required.  We don’t need to bring over the madness of the political extremists to our public venues. Average citizens who haven’t signed on to any party are free to stand for their conscience, whereas their political counterparts must adhere to the party line.  Let’s not ruin it by taking the worst of politics and applying it to the best of our communities and our public conversations.

Let’s not be partisans first and citizens second; nor even the other way around.  Let’s be community first and permit the rest to fall into its proper place.  If our divisions are hurting those places where we live, then let’s beat our weapons into plowshares.  If our politics is dividing the public space, let’s put aside our partisanship for progress.  If my opinion matters so much that I just won’t accept any other point of view, then I can become my community’s worst nightmare – a zealot with no respect.  We need to assess policy on its merits instead of reverse-engineering our arguments in a manner that can’t introduce any enlightenment because we are just too angry in our points of view.

We need to keep in mind that politics and politicians are only a small part of our body politic.  By far, the much larger and more vital component of that body is … us.  Should we permit ourselves to be manipulated into ideological positions that are irreconcilable with those of others, then we have just succeeded in replicating the worst of politics all over again. 

Make no mistake about it: I am a partisan.  I believe in equity and that the poor have a place among us.  I believe my wife is my full and equal partner and I am fierce in defending her right to lead our family when it is required.  I will fight against homelessness and for the right of small entrepreneurs to establish their businesses in my community.  I want to leave my kids a sustainable world and I greatly desire that other nations find peace and equality.  I will fight for my city to be organic and not autocratic.

This list, like your own, could go on and on.  Those of us who care for our country are partisans whether we like it or not.  The secret is to display that kind of partisanship that puts community first.  Who knows, in the process we actually might rescue the political order from itself:)

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