The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: opinions

Shaken, But Not Stirred


I SPENT THIS LAST WEEK IN SCOTLAND, and it was clear from the places I visited that people feel swept up in an array of key events that left them at a loss at their own individual place in it all. The Chilcot Report was released on my first day there and everywhere people were glued to their screens, mostly angered that they had been duped into supporting a war that Sir John Chilcot himself concluded was driven more by ideology than information.

People were discussing the implications of Brexit wherever I journeyed, including a fish and chips spot where two people in the booth next to us bemoaned the reality that they had no idea what would happen next.

This is the world as we know it, and, in developed nations around the world supposedly constructed on the primacy of the individual, people seem more lost than ever, feeling little hope that they can change the arc of events. It all reminds us of the movie Roger and Me, where Michael Moore is denied the right to meet with officials from General Motors because he “didn’t represent anyone.”

Politics increasingly views the public as divided into various groups representing a myriad of issues and leading to great divisions within society itself. Every cause imaginable now has spokespeople active anywhere where an audience can be captured. Such groups have always been present and are essential to any healthy nation, but of late their numbers are so numerous that one key group is repeatedly overlooked: the public itself.

Average citizens continue to represent the great unknown. They are the deciding factor in elections but remain difficult to read. They hold to their convictions yet refuse to broadcast their intentions. They hold to their opinions but don’t feel the urge to broadcast them to everyone. Most don’t belong to activist groups and the majority barely interacts with social media, where most of the animated groups seek to make their connection.

For those in government, individuals can seem only to matter if they are connected somehow to this or that activist group. That remains a misnomer, as the majority of Canadians, Americans, or Brits keep their convictions largely to themselves or to select friends in a coffee shop. Treating such citizens as part of a group only drives them more into their isolation. But when given a chance to emerge, as with Brexit, the results can be earth-shaking.

“I was not designed to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest.”

While social media grows increasingly inflamed over this cause or that, the majority of individuals are merely getting along with their lives, providing for their families, volunteering at charities, or helping their neighbours. They are nobody’s fool and refuse to be counted in the great battle of “us versus them.” They neither like to be labeled nor appreciate attempts to recruit them by phone canvasses. Private interests will never secure the change they seek until they find some way of mobilizing these average citizens through a sense of fairness and understanding – characteristics often rare in groups attempting to change their world in a moment’s time.

Governments can spend their days repeatedly responding to the activists (which is one of their responsibilities), but should they not find effective venues for energizing the majority of Canadians just getting about their personal business, then no sense of political change can endure. Most Canadians are not political, but they are cultural and work together through their institutions. They form the living embodiment of Henry David Thoreau’s observation: “I was not designed to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest.”

In Britain at present, perhaps even in the U.S. and Canada, it is the average citizen who has emerged to reveal a strength unequaled by all the various groups with a cause. The world may be in chaos around them, but they have their act together.

Expressions of Interest – Citizen Engagement Podcast (34)

True dialogue can begin with positions, but it should end in understanding.  “Before the tongue can speak, it must lose the power to wound,” said an old philosopher, and we need that insight now more than ever.  Free riders come to community engagement exercises with only one purpose: to impose their views on others.  They can’t compromise, no matter how well versed they are on the issues – and so the community suffers for their lack of belief in that community.  Starting with two monologues is okay, but they must end in dialogue if progress is to be made.

Just click on the audio button below to listen to the five-minute podcast.

A Life More Important Than Words – Citizen Engagement Podcast (33)

The genius of democracy is not how right, or even how smart we are.  It is how open we are to find compromise that will permit us to move ahead as a citizenry.  Our present democratic state is mired in rigidity, in policies that won’t budge, and in characters than think having a strong opinion is the same as possessing strong truth.  No leader can deliver us from this and no government can legislate an open mind.  There’s work to do and humility is the one great essential if we are to succeed.

Just click the audio button below to listen to the five-minute podcast.

From Interests to Interest

It all was rather bizarre. Attending the peace talks between north and south Sudan in a nice hotel outside of Nairobi promised to be a challenge. It had been Africa’s longest running civil war, with millions killed and even more displaced. But the point was that people were tired of it – all the killing, the lost generation, the poverty, the hopelessness.

Wisely, the Kenyan mediator had opted for three rounds of meetings spread out over a couple of years. The first round was just as I described in yesterday’s post: anger, fierce positioning, recriminations, blame, and inflexibility. Yet behind it all was a growing understanding that the nation itself couldn’t survive in its present state. Nevertheless, there had to be venting and ideological speeches.

The suspicions effectively expressed, the leaders of north and south then entered into that second important phase of development in progressive dialogue – the moving from interests to interest. Despite all their protestations and issues, there was that one clear recognizable reality behind it all – without peace, nothing was possible. Eventually, that goal began to emerge out from all the other points of debate until it began to frame much of what came after. To our amazement, Jane and I watched as the two sides began breaking off into twos and threes over coffee in some secluded shady spots. We could tell something was happening – not significant, but a lessening of animosities that had been exacerbated because of the earlier speeches. They went from being foes to seekers of that larger goal.

Without a larger purpose, what’s the use of dialogue anyway? It’s not the same as general talking, the kind you overhear in coffee shops everyday. It’s there to find common ground for a reason. Yet all too often we’re more concerned with our points of view instead of the overall reason we are communicating in the first place.

If we are to get someplace with these kind of conversations, then we must be careful not to blow up the bridge through our passionate rhetoric in the earliest stages. As Dale Carnegie used to note: “When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion.” In arenas of age-old animosities, like in that Kenyan hotel, this is a given and must be permitted to work itself through a process.

Citizen engagement often doesn’t carry such dire consequences of failure, but it’s still relative: people judge from the situations they are in, not someone else’s. They hold their positions sincerely and seriously, and yet they wouldn’t be in the room if they didn’t recognize that there is a better place to get to that’s farther along than where they are at present. Their community’s future will require such efforts by dedicated people, no matter how opinionated they are.

For our community conversations to have meaning they must be more flexible than firm, be more tolerant than talkative, and pragmatic more than positioned. The people who accomplish this best are not necessarily the smartest or most eloquent, but those possessing dispositions conducive to friendliness and encouragement. In fact, the smartest ones are often the most distressing and jarring in their conversations. They forget that those they are trying to best actually come from emotional places that are important to them and must be respected before any advancement towards compromise can be made.

In the most effective process of dialogue, the ardent debater begins to learn the early skills of an adroit diplomat, and that distinction is essential in citizen engagement. Good citizens practice empathy over emphasis. The ability to listen is obviously essential, but first must come the understanding that the other person is coming from someplace meaningful to them. For whatever reason, they have chosen this place to plant their flag and it’s important that we acknowledge that reality before we can get anywhere.  Should we wish to pick a fight at the outset, it’s not the rationale that will be rejected but the lack of respect for their belief system. Or as Carl Buechner once stated in a speech to professional negotiators, “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

Without realizing it, the citizen that develops empathetic instincts actually becomes the bridge on which two positions can meet, effectively becoming a change agent just through the very ability to put themselves in the other person’s shoes. It’s a remarkable gift in short supply in many situations.  For all intents and purposes, that person uses silence while others resort to talk. Without such silence there is often nothing but noisy opinions and protestations. It is the ability to refrain that eventually produces the opportunity for understanding.

John Kennedy once told a group of politicians: “If we are strong in our care for others, our strength will speak for itself. If we are weak, words will be of no help.” In other words, if you can’t get outside of yourself and make time for the ultimate “interest” over your own “interests,” then the conversation is already over. We require serious citizens, aware that the ultimate reason why dialogue is necessary is, at all times, more important than the dialogue itself. The Sudanese, to their credit, learned that skill over a couple of years. But for us it will all depend on whether we possess pliable natures, not rigid arguments.

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