The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: public space

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.

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.

Angry Birds

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“I ENGAGED WITH TWITTER DURING THE LAST FEDERAL ELECTION, as my interest in the party positions grew, but there’s been so much vileness tolerated on that platform that I’ve decided to just delete my account,” a friend from Montreal told me recently.

It’s a sentiment one increasingly encounters, especially among Millennials. Perhaps more serious are those refraining from joining Twitter in the first place as a result of all the well publicized high-profile personal attacks on Twitter in this past year – one of the likely causes of the company’s inability to grow its market share to the degree it had hoped. As former CEO, Dick Costolo put it last year, “We suck at dealing with abuse.”

All of this forms an important lesson for Canada and its politics, still early into a new federal government phase. Justin Trudeau’s Liberals had used social media masterfully during the last election campaign, summoning a few million new voters as a result. Others political parties, even Senate members, are engaging along similar lines

Yet the “rules of engagement” with social media for a successful link between citizens and their representatives are still being developed and not all the experience has been hopeful. Twitter especially, once a favoured tool for rapid fire political engagement, has also been the preferred instrument for permitting hatred, racism, and intolerance into what was supposed to be a more positive experience of politics in the public space.

Only a decade ago, the introduction of Twitter, along with Facebook, blogging, and digital comment sections supposedly presented a new, more exciting method for engaging Canadians. There had been the growing belief that traditional institutions were reticent to take such risks and these new forms of communications sprang up in the belief that average people could share their opinions and ideas in the public space. Living with such amenities for the last few years, however, has also introduced us to the understanding that such venues which have few rules for engagement can often sink to the lowest level of participants – trolls, stalkers, haters, even the hyper-partisans. Twitter especially has been embroiled in all the controversy.

Maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised. As complaints against the company over its permissive abuse policy have mounted, Twitter executives, especially CEO Jack Dorsey, appear less than pro-active when it comes to user complaints regarding abuse. Writing in the New York Times Insider last week, John Weisman reported he just quit Twitter (he had 35,000 followers) as a result of the following note he received from the company: “We are unable to take action given that we could not determine a clear violation of the Twitter rules.” This was all he received after being attacked for months with anti-Semitic comments, Nazi iconography, photos of the gates of Aushwitz, and worse. Following many requests for action from Twitter, and the rather milquetoast response mentioned above, he pulled the plug. The relationship is over, as it increasingly is for thousands of others.

Within the administration ranks of Twitter there has been a cost as well. The resignation last week of its head of consumer product division, Jeff Seibert, has merely been the latest of such departures. Its four co-founders each pushed one another out, according to Nick Bilton in Vanity Fair. He goes on to list other recent resignations at senior management levels.

Much of the turbulence has been around the company’s underwhelming abuse policies and the growing effect that approach is having on Twitter’s brand. Perhaps the outer rancor is a direct byproduct of the inner management turmoil – Twitter’s own DNA. As Bilton effectively chronicled CEO Dorsey’s stubbornness and sadness over the loss of close friends and co-workers and their refusal to now speak to one another: “It was such a good team. It just became screwy, and confusing. I don’t know what happened. I don’t regret it. I feel sad about it.” Perhaps the inability to feel regret is part of the problem.

The importance of social media to the national political conversation and to politics itself is irrefutable. Yet should the venues of that online dialogue produce more rancor than refinement, more umbrage than understanding, then the opportunity for citizens to have effect on the issues that matter to them will be diminished. Fortunately some online venues are placing more rigor within their comment practices, leaving citizens to engender meaningful exchanges. But as long as huge firms like Twitter remain lax in their accountability policies, the danger to our political estate remains worrisome.

For years we witnessed Ottawa’s Question Period become a source of national embarrassment. If citizens, then, in their efforts at political engagement on social media, participate in disturbing practices far worse than even the House of Commons would condone, then both sides of the democratic equation – citizens and their elected representatives – will equally share blame for the decline of our public estate.

 

When Government Disappears

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THE SIGNS OF IT ARE EVERYWHERE – university tuitions almost out of reach; poverty both systemic and entrenched; the decline in research almost across the board; significant cuts to foreign aid and diplomatic initiatives; and an increasing sense that Ottawa might as well be situated in some other country.

Then there is the emotional damage created when a people no longer look to the future with a robust sense of optimism or to government with any real kind of expectation. This collective decline in optimism is, in every way, as significant as the previously mentioned challenges.

Government itself is changing and it’s in the process of disappearing. The so-called “austerity agenda” has crippled numerous regions, including southwestern Ontario, and the much hoped for “austerity dividend” never really arrived. Proportionally, it seems as though only the wealthy and corporations are better off for all this. Governments, once so essential to our collective and individual quality of life, are in retreat but show no inclination to inform us that they are slowly leaving the field.

For three decades now the message has remained consistently the same: governments are to big, corporations require more tax breaks, and citizens do too. And so we bought into the rhetoric, watching with increasing alarm as the things we valued and cherished continue to be chipped away in favour of global competitiveness and domestic restructuring.

And it’s all gotten us where exactly? Phenomenal wealth has been created even during our times of restraint but it feels less and less like it descends into our lives. The tools we require to function as a prosperous and affluent nation no longer seem in our hands. Our public infrastructure – roads, railways, harbours, airports, electricity and water – will require literally billions to repair and upgrade, but that isn’t likely to happen when we can even contain the costs of spiraling post-secondary education.

In dealing with this decline in discretionary spending, governments feel they have only one option: slowly disappear from public expectations. And though it appears to be working (Canadians continue to feel less confidence in government’s ability to solve our greatest obstacles), the result is that the country itself is functioning less and less. We would never anticipate constructing a St. Lawrence Seaway today or expanding rail service across the entire country. We know better than to expect that from governments that continue to cry poor.

Part of the reason governments can shrink back into the background is because citizens have been doing the same thing. With little engagement and persuasion possible with their political representatives, Canadians feel they can do little else but provide for their families and perhaps focus instead on their local communities. Some battles are being won, but the war will be lost if we continue down this road.

With capitalism and democracy beset by numerous interconnected problems, and wealth housing itself in international venues far away from our beleaguered communities, it appears likely that the partnership between economic prosperity and social justice is no longer strong enough to carry us into the future. Three of the top ten economists listed by The Economist magazine – Paul Krugman, Thomas Piketty, and Joseph Stiglitz – worry that the historical consensus between these two important partners is perhaps beyond repair. The only thing that can restore it is a healthy democracy, where citizens successfully transition their ideals into the political space. But that’s no working so well now either.

This is precisely this time when visionary politics is supposed to show up, just as in the past. Instead, we have political parties looking to the middle-class to help them capture government when their ultimate concern should be for the welfare of all Canadians, not just one sector.

Naturally, there will be those who resent such thoughts, claiming things have never been better. But we all know that view is no longer saleable. Globe and Mail columnist, Lawrence Martin, reminded us recently that we are enduring the lowest run of economic growth in eight decades. He says the economists he has spoken to expect the trend to continue. He quotes Ivey Business School’s Paul Booth’s concern: “If we have another decade of growth at such a low rate, a whole bunch of economies, including emerging economies, will catch up and pass us by.”

If our political and economic elite maintain that the only answer to this is to head down the same course but at a faster rate, then our decline will only come that much quicker. Our only way of keeping governments from fading away from their responsibilities is to challenge them to present us with new and different visions for discovering a more equal and sustainable future and for us as citizens to be willing to invest in that future. Like it or not, government is us, and we can’t lose it without losing ourselves.

The Hole in the Stuffed Shirt

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DESPITE THE FACT THAT MUCH HAS BEEN SPOKEN AND WRITTEN about it, I often find myself wondering if we really know what the public space is. Those fighting for their communities talk about it all the time, as do those who vigilantly hold to free speech. Is it shared transportation, parks, open concepts, shared venues, tax dollars at work, arts enthusiasts, or Internet freedom?

I spent much of yesterday asking people to define the public space for me and heard a hundred answers. People love the concept but have trouble landing on its substance. Toronto has its own Public Space Committee. Good on them, but that’s a rare thing in most of our communities. Instead what we have is an idea, a kind of aspirational place of the mind where people go to define what they want together.

I have a word for it, but some likely won’t take to it: democracy. With all the power brokers out there in the world, it is nice to know that there’s a mechanism where we can fight back against the usurpers, cooperate with the dreamers, and hopefully select people who can represent us in legislative arenas. But even the term “democracy” itself conjures up lots of opinions.

Today the City of London unveils ReThink London, in what has been termed, “Canada’s largest citizen engagement exercise in its history.” It has been exciting, arduous, hard work and inspiring. Some of us have fought for it from the beginning, but others who hold to certain advantages see it as a threat to their holdings. Average citizens have come together to say that a shared dream is more vital than a lucrative one and that we have reached the stage where our future matters more than our present.

So, for the sake of all of us, here is a definition of democracy that holds the public space in mind. It was written on the July 3, 1943 edition of The New Yorker by E. B. White. I submit this wonderful reflection as a wish and a context for ReThink and a citizen’s desire to burst the bubble of exclusivism and usher in a new age of shared community and humanity:

“We received a letter from the Writers’ War Board the other day asking for a statement on ‘The Meaning of Democracy.’ It presumably is our duty to comply with such a request, and it is certainly our pleasure.

“Surely the Board knows what democracy is. It is the line that forms on the right. It is the ‘don’t’ in ‘don’t shove.’ It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is a letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth inning. It is an idea which hasn’t been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It’s the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the rationed coffee. Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of a morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is.”

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