The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: social media

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.”

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.

Someone Buy Twitter – Please

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THE RUMOURS HAVE BEEN CIRCULATING FOR WEEKS, all driven by one pressing question: who will buy Twitter? For a time, some were certain the Disney Corporation was making a bid. More serious seemed to be the talks with Salesforce. Then someone mentioned Google, but that seemed to be more wishful thinking that anything of substance. Ultimately, it appears that they all fell through, or weren’t serious offers anyway.

Intriguing in all of this is that the millions of Twitter users want it to survive – just not in its present shape. The company is currently valued at $20 billion (U.S.), but its user growth has flatlined and Twitter itself is talking about its willingness to sell. Sales have been off and some of its recent efforts at rebranding itself have proved lackluster at best. CEO, Jack Dorsey, has been able to reverse the company’s fortunes after a year of dedicated effort.

Underlying all of this has been the disenchantment with Twitter’s abuse policy. When the company launched, Dorsey believed that his policy of little to no censorship would create a vast open space of dialogue with a 140-character limit that would self-discipline itself and lead to a new way of civic engagement. It’s now apparent that his outlook was naïve – the weeds overgrew the garden. Abuse has run rampant. Stalkers and trolls have raged unfiltered and unguarded. Women have been shamelessly attacked and society contains more shadows than perhaps Dorsey or the rest of us figured.

And yet for those of us still using Twitter, there remains something of the innovative in it. It’s at its best when users openly, and respectfully, debate, cajole, inform, and perhaps even persuade. Yet our disenchantment over the last few years came with the realization that the worst of human nature was slowly creeping up and choking our more noble aspirations. When Dorsey refused to censor the abuse, users just started opting out of discussions because of the inevitable attacks from people only out to muckrake and never refine. Sadly, Twitter didn’t have our backs when the going got rough.

Technology correspondent Nick Bilson was asked what he thought about this last week and his insights more or less nailed it:

“I truly do believe that one of the reasons the company’s future is so uncertain is because Twitter is too nasty, or in some instances, too dangerous … I think if the company banned everyone who was mean on the platform, their numbers would vanish, the stock would fall even more, there’d be cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria! I mean this sincerely, but it’s really sad what happened to the service. I barely ever use it anymore, and precisely because—to quote Louis C.K. when he quit Twitter —it just doesn’t make me feel good.”

Ultimately, for the democratic experiment, this is tragic. When Bilson is forced to conclude that, “I think, at the end of the day, that the grand experiment of everyone in the world having the opportunity to converse in the same chat room didn’t work out so well,” there’s something in his words that we can all identify with – the worst of us ruined the opportunity for the rest of us.

Do we want Twitter gone because of its idealistic view of human interaction? Hardly. But it would be good to see it improved. And since the present leadership remains willing provide cover for the illegitimate attackers, it’s time for something new and different that can still build on the strengths Twitter continues to maintains and develop. For that to happen there must be the selling of the company to new visionaries who understand intrinsically that you can’t successfully sell a social app that isn’t social.

Twitter was an experiment on how we would be together, and it hasn’t ended up pretty. It’s not just the company that failed; we too failed to have one another’s backs and opted for a kind of remote involvement instead. Twitter users have looked in the mirror and, for many of them, they haven’t liked what they have seen. But it is too useful a resource of citizen-to-citizen democracy to be tossed aside because of its willingness to harbour abuse. We can only hope that some civically responsible company will buy it and turn it to the better angels of our collective nature.

Shaken, But Not Stirred

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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.

Too Soon Gone

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Image by Getty Images

Read this post in Huffington Post here

LIKE MILLIONS OF OTHERS, I WATCHED in deep sadness the tragedy that befell British MP, Jo Cox – murdered brutally outside her constituency office by a lone assailant. I read the accounts in the news, followed its implications on Britain’s Brexit movement, and just overall felt a deep sadness for her family.

But one image remained with me: Cox’s shoe, lying on its side, even after her body was removed. A powerful woman once filled that shoe. She was no regular political aspirant, but a true believer in the nobility of humanity and its capacity for hope and change. She had spent a decade as a relief worker for Oxfam in both the U.S. and Britain, later transitioning over to fight slavery for Freedom Fund, and landing a position with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation just prior to her entry into politics. Her all too brief record in Parliament was one of tackling leaders, including David Cameron and Barack Obama, and a relentless desire to defend the defenseless.

Jo Cox wasn’t only a bright light in the political firmament, but a testament to those human rights and development workers who come to realize that it’s only through the power of effective legislation that true change can come … and stick. Her world was literally the world, and no Parliament could have been large enough to contain a spirit like hers. In so many ways she had become the antithesis of so many in politics, or as C. G. Jung would put it: “You are what you do, not what you say you’ll do.”

Yet Cox had one problem, a big one, and it was to lead to her death. She wasn’t merely fearless, but vocal about it. And in a world increasingly encroached upon by hatred, she became an inevitable target. She instinctively understood that she was entering dangerous waters and requested extra security measures when attackers online viciously herded after her. Eventually, following three months of requests, the help was granted, but, sadly, her sudden end would preempt the extra detail.

Our modern world takes a certain delight in trashing politicians – their egos, ambitions, constant compromises, even what we think are their cushy jobs. My personal experience following five years in Parliament is that most politicians are struggling to be relevant and true to their ideals in face of relentless pressures.

One of those challenges is dealing with citizens and groups through social media. It has become an essential step in the relevance of any political representative and the good ones do it well. But as assaulted figures they become the preferred target of the haters, those trolls and anonymous digital attackers what take a particular delight in fulfilling their dream by destroying the noble dreams of others. And so to serve is also to suffer the thousands of arrows heading in a politician’s direction every week. However, the longer social media venues tolerate it, and the law turns a neglectful eye, the more dangerous has the political world become. The moment hateful words remain uncensored, the quicker evil does its diabolical work, for, as author Jerry Spinelli put it, “If you learn to hate one or two persons … you’ll soon hate millions of people.” This was the world Jo Cox’s very courage caused her to enter and the result is not a national but an international tragedy.

Perhaps that why the photo of her empty shoe on the street had such a devastating effect on me – no one would ever fill her shoes again. She was a bright voice in a world of dark voices, silenced by idiocy. Her children and her husband must now navigate a future without her sun on the horizon, and politics must attempt to move on despite the loss of one of its guiding stars. No one can fill her shoes and no one can wipe away our tears.

Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, clearly put the choice before us: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference … And the opposite of life is not death, it is indifference.” The only way Cox’s senseless death can be redeemed is when we, as citizens, purge the hatred from among us by living for same ideals of this one too early gone.

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