The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: negativity

Opting In by Opting Out

One of the consequences of missing the mark on predicting the future is not only confusion, but disillusionment. It’s happening with democracy at this moment in time, leaving many feeling more isolated from the political process than ever.

An example is what has occurred with the activities of mass media or social media. Futurists used to say that these new forms of communicating news and information would bring citizens deeper into the political process, leading to a democratic renaissance. In reality, we have discovered that what has occurred in recent years actually completed the alienation of people from politics and from one another. Throughout the process, anger levels remain troublingly high.

Washington Post columnist David Von Drehle used this troubling reality as the title of his recent column – “Americans Are Addicted to Outrage.” His opening paragraph on social media’s effect on our citizenship put it right out there:

“Addiction compels you to chase a high that only makes you feel worse; it reduces you to a lesser version of yourself. And you can’t stop because deep down you don’t really want to change.”

You don’t really want to change. That is one compelling statement, considering we live in a era of vast change and we often want to help lead it. And it ultimately leads to our sense of isolation and ineffectiveness.

This all brings us back to the “image versus substance” argument so prevalent 30 years ago. George Orwell’s 1984 pictured Big Brother’s total monopoly of the media machine and it all ultimately led to systemic slavery. Like it or not, and often without realizing it, the modern citizen is molded and activated by the subtle ramifications portrayed through todays media – social and, increasingly, traditional.

New venues for communication ought to have enriched democracy, and to a certain degree they have. This was the great hope of the early pioneers of radio and television, and for a number of decades it appeared as though the potential for the technology was being realized. The media served the democratic experience well enough as an important and controversial mediating voice for citizens, a corrective mechanism that analyzed power and at times checked its abuses. In a real way, the media empowered its readers and viewers, primarily by providing them with the much-needed information they required to make enlightened decisions.

Yet, over time, the media lost its way by gravitating towards a subtle form of elitism, often converging its own views with those of the political and financial establishment. In the process it increasingly failed in its purpose to democracy and citizens began to scatter. In response, traditional media began pursuing heat as opposed to light. In its place came social media, fervent in its belief that it could reconnect people to the important issues of the day. All of us hoped it would speak adequately on our behalf because it would be us doing the communicating and creating a place for ourselves in the political debate and change politics as a result.

Now, over a decade later, we are flummoxed. Increasingly we discover that friends and associates are attempting to reconnect with themselves and one another by signing off of Facebook, Twitter and the other digital options. Connecting by disconnecting – that’s not how it was supposed to work. In a frenetic world of loud opinions, people are increasingly craving the quiet voice. Instead of ranting they seek reflection. And in the place of endless new information they look for timeless values that have endured for millennia. Yates, the poet, predicted such a state when he wrote of people who discover, “the visible world is no longer a reality and the unseen world is no longer a dream.” Sadly, citizens have all too frequently been reduced to the role of sullen spectators, perplexed and frequently lost in a vast array of opinions instead of truth.

None of this bodes well for democracy, which calls on citizens to struggle for collective progress as opposed to individual causes that remain isolated from broader realities.

Where does all this leave us? To return to David Von Drehle’s column, which might be democracy’s best hope for the moment:

“So we’re left to get ourselves sober. Switch away from the televised outrage orgies that masquerade as news. Resist the urge to get worked up about stupid stuff that knuckleheads say. Spend more time among reasonable people doing healthy things.”

2016: Do What’s Missing


THIS PAST YEAR WAS A MIXED BAG for most of us. Mirroring our own personal highs and lows has been a larger world with both turbulence and progress. On the individual side, many of us will regret old resolutions unfulfilled and make new promises today in hopes of improving ourselves, and our circumstances. But what of the bigger problems of the world? We don’t even know where to begin in all the complexity.

Somewhere deep down must come the understanding that these two dimensions – personal and collective – are intertwined at the deepest of human levels. We lash out, at least in our minds, at perpetrators in Syria or North Korea, in politics or in finance, finding in such figures the reason for the world’s ills. It’s easy to reason that way, and we do it all the time.

In every place in the world where violence, corruption, racism or ignorance are prevalent, it all started because individuals shut down the lights in their heads and followed the attitudes of others. Untended and unchallenged, such illusions eventually broke out into the open simply because good people either didn’t show up or were too blinded themselves to spot their own culpability. We are all guilty of this and likely know it, but we fail to fully understand the effects. In priding ourselves that we are not “like them,” we find it easier to cast judgment or insult. The Internet is often full of good people whose bias becomes magnified or whose anger fuels divisions, and they are cheapened in the process.

There is a difference, a subtle distinction, between being not wrong and being right. By frequently justifying our lack of action wherever there is injustice and maintaining we would never be guilty of such things is a terrible way to begin the New Year. We must begin resolving to do what is right as opposed to what is the least risky.

Our willingness to judge or demean, especially on social media, has a dire human cost, whether or not we acknowledge it. Despite all the human suffering and isolation that yet remains in our world, we fail to understand that our own critical attitude, individually or collectively, in its own way only adds to an already difficult situation. It is relatively easy to point fingers, but another thing altogether to take risk and move more deeply into understanding.

Yes, the big players all have to do more, and quickly, but when they sense citizens themselves wish to play no part in the healing of the world, they find reason to delay action on everything from climate change to refugees, from inequality to gender bias. They will know we are truly serious when come together and shed the ignorance of our own judgments and then they will act.

Michael Hyatt recently said: “Don’t ask what is wrong, ask what is missing.” Perhaps we will discover that the missing ingredient might very well be ourselves. We all have judgments and critiques and they are useful to a point. But when they keep us from coming together to overcome our greatest challenges, then the key inhibitor to effective action might be within our own attitudes.

This is the first day of 2016, a new year with new opportunities. Given what we face at this present moment in history, what we need aren’t more New Year’s resolutions but personal willingness to take risks and make ourselves part of the conscious solutions as opposed to continually being part of the benign problems. Personal freedom is not merely the absence of responsibilities, but the ability to act on what our best for our own generation, even if it makes us vulnerable. Courage isn’t the absence of fear, but the presence of values worth sacrificing for.

For a good many Canadians there is a sense of newness, a freshness of ideas and possibilities, in the air and the hope that political parties will search for enough common ground upon which to build a coordinated response to our greatest challenges. But unless we as citizens make that happen among ourselves, politics will never rise to the challenge. Let’s stop looking for what’s wrong and search for what’s missing. Should we discover it, 2016 will no longer be a time of wishes delayed but of promises realized.

Our family leaves today for South Sudan for the official opening of a high school we have been building there for some time. We will also be overseeing the women’s and environmental programs we have been running in the region for a number of years. These blogs will continue later in January. In the meantime, Happy New Year everyone.

Democratic Recession



WHEN THOMAS FRIEDMAN OF THE NEW YORK TIMES recently drew attention to the 2006-2014 Freedom House finding that democracy is declining worldwide, it likely not to many were surprised. Places like Turkey, Russia, along with various countries in Africa and Asia, appear to have lost the handle on democratic progress that they possessed a mere decade ago.

But when the report circled back on the affluent West, it didn’t mince its words:

“Perhaps the most worrisome dimension of the democratic failure has been the decline of democratic efficiency, energy and self-confidence in the West at large. After years of hyperpolarization, deadlock, and corruption through campaign financing … things have become increasingly dysfunctional.”

No surprise here either. An economic recession is often described as a significant decline in economic activity that lasts more than few months, effecting everything from GDP and real income to employment and production. What’s currently taking place in our politics has been going on for years and shows little sign of improvement. We’ve readily noted how partisanship on both sides of the 49th parallel has disillusioned citizens in general, but the effects of such dysfunction are now obvious.

So, yes, our political estate is in trouble. Or as Bloomberg News put it in a headline last month: It’s Official. Partisan Rancor Worst in Over a Century. Then there’s Canadian journalist Andrew Coyne’s headline: Antics in Question Period Illustrate the Charade Our Politics Has Become.

But democracy, and efficient politics, also requires an effective citizenry if it is to succeed. There are signs that some of the hoped-for political engagement in the process is experiencing trouble.

The only way to counteract bad politics is good citizenship; there really is no other way around it. We can see what happens when politics can’t adequately handle power, but what if citizens themselves are experiencing great difficulty in handling their tools of engagement into the political process?

Signs of these perplexing problems are becoming more apparent on social media. Could it be true that we have permitted Twitter to become “Power Without Responsibility,” as some claim, or is it possible it’s not giving us power at all? Tough questions.

I’ve increasingly run into well-meaning citizens who are taking what they term “Twitter breaks” – for a day, an evening, a week, even for holidays. When probed as to their reason, it’s always the same. It’s tough to manage a consistent presence on social media because the overly negative attacks are increasingly poisoning the waters. Some have seen their important relationships strained as a result. When author Michael Naughton noted recently that, “Social media is a shared delusion of grandeur,” he found a level of support he believed wouldn’t have been forthcoming even a year ago.

Citizens dedicated to a better kind of politics, and the public good, are confessing the fatigue of it all. Comedienne Amy Poehler, turning serious in a recent interview, affirmed,

“I want to be around people that do things. I don’t want to be around people anymore that judge or talk about mere opinions or what people do. I want to be around people that dream and support and do things.”

In our hunger for a better and more productive way of living together, perhaps Henry Buckle’s insight is carrying increasing weight with us: “Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.” We all know social media is merely a tool, like political power itself; how we use it is what matters.

One thing is certain – a well-meaning citizenry desiring to engage and improve the democratic estate is growing disillusioned, taking breaks, attempting to recover from personal attacks they have received or unintentionally delivered. If our politics are to improve, it won’t work to merely bemoan the divisiveness of the political class if we practice the same thing. We need to better use our tools of engagement.  If we believe we must, in fact, lead the way as citizens, then it’s time we built on the understanding that merely giving opinions isn’t the same thing as a workable collaboration.  Democracy in recession? Certainly, but that’s a coin with two sides.

Community Engagement Podcast (4) – The Humiliation Factor

Desperate times cause politicians to do desperate things.  It’s tough enough for our communities to face difficult times, but when we take on the process of undermining our efforts at building for the future by attacking one another, then there is no hope for rebuilding.  Being at the receiving end of government dysfunction doesn’t mean we have to adopt the politics of negativity to succeed.

Click the player below to listen to a five minute podcast on this subject.

The Slide From Wonderment to Bereavement

cliffsI spoke to a highly respected Canadian on the weekend who had told me six months earlier that he was strongly considering running federally in the next election. Then things changed. “When I told others I was considering running, I was immediately put in a box. Prior to that no one questioned my commitment to the country and to sustainable corporatism; now I’m already being hammered by supporters of the other parties. I talked to my wife and we both felt that if that’s what modern politics is like, we wanted no part of it.”

A sense of sadness came over me. Our country just lost another highly capable talent in the political spectrum. What are we doing? The refusal of good people to run for politics is now gaining traction in numerous media stories and in each the current state of political agitation and partisanship was the culprit.

I tried to remind my friend that it actually wasn’t average Canadians that behaved this way but those responsible for party fortunes. He acknowledged it immediately, stating that in his home region of British Columbia he had received nothing but high respect from fellow citizens in coffee shops and various venues. But then he asked the deadly question: “Glen, you’ve been there. Can you assure me that the next Parliament will put aside this kind of tribalism and get on with the business of governing the country? Can you?” I had to say that I couldn’t offer any guarantees, but that my experience had taught me that only a renewed sense of citizenship could keep politicians behaving productively and respectively. We both had to acknowledge that Canadians just aren’t at the point where they are ready to use their clout to reform the parliaments and city councils of Canada.

How have we come to the point where a minority of hyper-partisans, comfortable with using overtly negative means to label people even before they run for office, usurp our historical place as citizens to encourage those we respect to run for office? We can’t choose good people if they aren’t in the contest.

There are few people left in this country who won’t acknowledge the sorry state our politics has gotten itself into. One well-know journalist recently chronicled her own misgivings by calling it her “35-year year voyage from wonderment to bereavement.” Toronto Star columnist Chantal Hebert has been covering federal politics long enough to have seen it all. She recalls the terrific national debates during the Mulroney era, where, “what was on the mind of the House of Commons was also on the mind of the country.” Those days are now gone.

One of the highlights Hebert recalls was hearing sovereignty leader Lucien Bouchard deliver, “the most passionate defence of Canada’s peace-keeping role that I would have occasion to hear.” Compare that with the eerie reception received by Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird at the United Nation’s vote on the statehood of Palestine. You can see the troubling reception by watching the brief highlights here. The last place Canadians would ever anticipate their country receiving such a stony reception would be at the General Assembly of the United Nations. Canada’s stolid support for Israel is the choice of this government, but to have built its position on the ashes of what was once this country’s certified international peaceful reputation is deeply saddening for anyone who has understood our past. Politics has clearly become a divisive force in Canada and through our presence in international venues.

Canadians have collectively drawn a clear distinction between partisan personalities and those of the more principled variety. The title of a recent Andrew Coyne column tells the tale: In Canada, Credibility Trumps Power. And It Isn’t Even Close.  He highlights the clear respect citizens have for Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page, Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney, former Auditor General Sheila Fraser and even her lesser-known successor, Michael Ferguson.  As Coyne cogently puts it:

[Politicians] have institutional power. They do not have the broader power that comes with credibility, of being able to shape events not directly, but indirectly, through the expectations and actions of the public. The governor can assume the public’s trust, and plans policy accordingly. A prime minister, having squandered the public’s trust, cannot.”

It’s not just the lost trust that matters; it is the means by which it was lost that really counts. As Coyne concludes: “Politics is about packs; the more ruthless, more disciplined, more pack-like of the parties mauls the others into submission … And so each learns to scrape and smear, to manipulate and deceive.”

Which brings us back to my friend on the west coast.  Is it any wonder that this respectable person would opt to sit the next one out? He understands perfectly well Chantal Hebert’s closing words: “I have spaced my visits to the Commons; there is only so much corrosive rhetoric one can be exposed to before one’s soul becomes corroded.” In this case, discretion does become the better part of valour. The only problem is that, once again, we have lost another highly qualified person to run for public office.

How long this goes on is up to us as citizens. We can stop rewarding the muggers with mandates and provide opportunities to those who refuse to play that game. Again and again the choice always comes back to us. That’s democracy in its essence.

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