The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: society

Digital Citizenship

Now that he’s out of public office, former President Barack Obama has been going more public with some of the causes that carry special meaning for him, as has his wife Michelle. To be clear, he’s not calling for an increase in the quantity of people to expand but the quality of how they utilize their online resources to better their communities, their countries, their world.

Recently the Obama Foundation issued a challenge to better examine digital citizenship – its potential and pitfalls. The positives everyone is aware of: broader engagement, developments in real time, massive education opportunities, and the ability for everyone to have a voice. But the former president is worried that a whole negative side is emerging from these advantages. As he put it to college students recently in his hometown of Chicago:

“We now have a situation in which everybody’s listening to people who already agree with them. Rather than expanding their viewpoints, or perhaps even changing them, millions are instead surfing the Net for those things that affirm what they already believe. Obama believes this is happening, “to the neglect of a common reality that allows us to have a healthy debate and then try to find common ground and actually move solutions forward.

As a result, the Obama Foundation is focusing less on digital participation and more on what it terms “digital demeanour.” So it asks its online website visitors to answer some basic questions at the outset:

  • Who’s a model of digital citizenship in your world?
  • What habits to do you want to change about your online life? What’s one simple thing you could do to improve your “digital health?”
  • What people or organizations do you think exemplify digital citizenship when it comes to questions of embracing difference – of thought, identity, or any other variable that you value?

This all sounds great, but Obama has been increasingly voicing his concern over those online trolls and haters who use the medium to blow up their communities instead of building them. And some troubling new research is validating his worries. It’s not just about the fact that Internet can bring out the worst in people, but that such individuals desire their worst to be on public display.

Researchers from the School of Health and Psychology at Federation University at Mount Helen (Australia) discovered that, though trolls may indeed possess a certain sympathy for a subject or group of people, never turn it all ugly and vindictive as a result of their psychopathy. They are astute enough to know what really hurts people or brings out the insecurity in others and use those traits as they engage in online activity. Many hold to important causes like climate change, equality, poverty, race, etc., but their real desire is to harm others. In other words, their hateful state of mind overpowers their care for such causes in a way that it destroys any hope of collaboration or solidarity.

The research concluded that, “creating mayhem online is a central motivator to trolls.” Moreover, research also confirmed that trolls were likely to be high in sadism and have a strong desire to hurt others.

Research like this is something Obama and his foundation are closely following, for good reason: such individuals are relentlessly are looking to destroy others online at the same time as they purport to believe in valued causes – like citizenship itself. Obama knows well enough that most citizens avoid such caustic voices. The problem is that those naturally inclined to collaboration, goodwill, or compassion remain silent to such a negative online presence. The former president is increasingly calling for citizens who care about their community and their country to emerge from their hesitancy and denounce such pathological behaviour, just as they would if it happened on their street or in their business or school. Digital citizenship means little if it can’t be guarded or defended.

The poet Robert Frost used to say that key to preserving freedom was the courage to be bold. This is what Barack Obama is calling for. But the time will come when we will have to speak out online and denounce those who demean, malign and destroy others online. Compassionate opinions build solidarity and understanding; malignant opinions are a cancer leading to death. Obama thinks the time has come for us to join in the former in order to defeat the latter.

The Governing Cancer of Our Time

In what could only be seen as a stunning defeat, the author of the Art of the Deal found himself unable to close. Instead of “draining the swamp,” as he had promised, Donald Trump found himself drowning in it.

Regardless of which side one stands on the recent showdown in Congress, the event signaled again that hyper-partisanship remains “the governing cancer of our time,” as David Brooks and Bill Clinton each put it. Each side blames the other, year after year, and now decade after decade, but the result always leaves good policy initiatives lying in burning ashes. In his attempt to browbeat a recalcitrant political establishment and special interest groups, President Trump invariably became part of it all, forcing the division even further.

No matter where we look in a modern democracy these days, compromise seems not so much a dying hope as a lost art. The venerable traditions of civil discourse and hard work to attain common ground no longer seem practical to political activity. As a Member of Parliament a few years ago I was proud to second Conservative MP Michael Chong’s beleaguered attempt to reform Question Period. It was sincere, well thought out attempt to recover a saner version of politics that generated a lot of support outside of Ottawa but little interest within Parliament itself. It’s to his credit that Chong has taken his campaign for a more accountable and civil politics to a higher level in running for the Conservative leadership. Still, while respected, he occasionally feels like a credible voice crying in the wilderness in the midst of partisan mayhem and political dysfunction.

It has always been true of our politics that elected representatives joined existing factions and frequently clashed with those who disagreed with them. Yet common purpose was possible and frequently resulted in effective legislation that assisted in governing a diverse and often divided populace. Such occasions are now so rare as to almost be forgotten, despite the nobler intentions of most politicians.

Whether it was the outsider Trump promoting health care reform or insider Justin Trudeau promising electoral reform (both campaign promises), the result has been a lack of closure and more partisan division than had existed before such efforts. When opposition parties performed due diligence in Parliament’s electoral reform committee and sought what appeared to be a sincere compromise, such efforts were ultimately ignored in favour of the status quo. Whether or not this was due to partisan intent, the result was that a unique moment for political innovation and common ground was lost.

As David McLaughlin noted in a Globe and Mail article in 2013 during the previous hyper-partisan effects of the Harper era:

“Faithful to the partisan glue binding them to their parties, our political class is doing everything possible to diminish, demean, and destroy the precious commodity they actually hold in common: their own political integrity. In their relentless attacks on everything and everyone on the opposite political divide, they continue to devalue the basic political currency – trust – essential between electors and elected in a democracy. We, the voters, are the losers.”

Yet we voters are often part of the problem, often utilizing social media to fling invective out on anyone who disagrees with us. The dysfunction of Parliament has coursed its way into the electorate in an endless feedback loop of animosity. Traditional media, in order to compete, too frequently places its own emphasis on political conflict in search of readers and viewers.

We all share in this declining democracy that concerns us all. The divisiveness of our politics today can only result in eventual inaction for the public estate. Increasingly, research informs us that the hyper-partisan mind can be a wicked thing, that politicians don’t know how to break out of it, and that our modern societies are receding into dysfunctional isolation. There is no easy way out of the mess we have all accepted or even created.

Partisanship has been a historical player in effective politics, both giving and clarifying choices for voters. But it has now become so pervasive that it seems that no one has a choice anymore. We have all been drawn into the swamp Donald Trump now finds himself in. Only the collective will from both politicians and the people to find common ground can put responsible choices back on the table of our public life. Common ground will only be found when we once again find common resolve.

Is Our News Ripping Us Apart?

My wife and I spent some time in Ottawa last week testifying before the Human Rights Committee concerning the deteriorating situation in South Sudan. I noted a number of changes in Parliament since my sojourn there as a Member of Parliament ended six years ago, chief of which was the collective sense of tentativeness among the elected officials. That’s because the world has suddenly become far more complex, and at times threatening. Politicians are getting their information from all sides, both pro and con, and in doses that would challenge anyone.

That’s mostly opposite to the challenges citizens are facing regarding how they get their information. According to a recent Abacus Data survey, Canadians are becoming increasingly addicted to social media as their preferred source for political news – doubling in only the last two years. In a revealing statistic, the research paper discovered that 17% of respondents didn’t have cable or satellite television at home, although they did have an average of 5.8 devices connected to the Internet. Only 1% got their news from print newspapers.

So, like their politicians, citizens are getting news from everywhere around them. But there is one key distinction: Canadians are increasingly shaping what they get to suit their taste. This reality is threatening to our cohesion as citizens. The Abacus study found that Twitter users were twice as likely to get into a squabble as other social media consumers. Squabbles aren’t a bad thing and essential to debate, must unless common ground is discovered the repeated fracturing of society continues unabated.   As the report itself reported regarding Facebook users:

“Canada’s most active Facebook users tend to feast on a diet of news and information that is catered specifically to their interests, values, and ideologies. The more active Canadians are on Facebook, the more limited their world view.”

Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, predicted what all this would mean: “The technology will be so good, it will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them.” It used to be that we were informed and shaped by what we got from traditional news services. Today it’s the other way around, as the news industry molds itself more exclusively around what we are interested in. The news industry is changing us in the similar fashion to how we are changing the industry.

Internet pioneer Esther Dyson predicted something like this would happen, when she wrote, “The great virtue of the Internet is that it erodes power. It sucks power out of the centre, and takes it to the periphery, it erodes the power of institutions over the people while giving to individuals the power to run their own lives.” Okay, we get that. And we get that the news industry is scattering to the periphery as well. But what if one of the casualties of that phenomenon is that the centre can no longer hold? This becomes the greatest challenge to modern politics, and judging from what I witnessed in Ottawa last week few have adequate answers to the dilemma. What if we need to come together to confront our greatest challenges but discover we lack the capacity to do so? Politicians, in a rampant age of populism, worry about this every day and how they might manage it.

Democracy has had a great run, especially in the years since the Second World War. And yet while it has won almost all of its battles, winning the war has always seemed just out of reach. That war, of course, was to create a better, more equitable and peaceful world, a place where our differences were never powerful enough to overcome our common ground. Ultimately the greatest casualty of democracy isn’t truth or freedom, but the gradual erosion of that very common ground that held us together, despite our distinctions. We didn’t make it inclusive enough and weren’t duly diligent in resourcing it. And now when we need it, we discover it’s fractured.

A connected world can’t be built merely on our differences. We require a new kind of democracy, a new narrative, a new world of inclusiveness. That will become increasingly difficult to achieve unless we come together to build it and our politicians make themselves relevant again by building the social and economic structures to make that possible. It is time for all of us, our politicians included, to come together to write a new history by shaping it rather than fearing it.

Photo credit: Martin Nitalla

Is It Really That Bad?

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OKAY, WE UNDERSTAND WHY SO MANY AMERICANS feel as if the world is getting worse, especially following Donald Trump’s significant triumph in this week’s Indiana primary. Millions are now really worried that the ascendancy of “The Donald” is a sure sign that everything is in decline. But hold on. America’s difficulties right now aren’t necessarily a harbinger for the rest of the world, or even for itself. Consider some other signs.

These past few decades have seen a war on death itself. Since 1990, those dying from AIDS have declined by 25%, by tuberculosis, child and maternal death by 50%, and by measles 71%. As a result, global life expectancy since 1950 has increased from 47 to 70 years. Furthermore, despite the occasional terrorist event, the cities of the developed, and increasingly developing, world have shown a clear decrease in their crime rates – all this despite that fact that over 50% of the world’s population now lives in cities.

And then there is global poverty. Since 1981, the proportion of people living under the global poverty line ($1.25 per day) has decreased by 65%. That means that 721 million fewer people were living in poverty in 2010 than in 1981 – a truly remarkable figure. But we shouldn’t be lulled into a false sense of optimism. The majority of the 721 million are now living on about $2.50 per day). It’s an important increase, to be sure, but there is still much further to go in the fight against global poverty

Due to terrorism and more published stories of criminality, people can forgiven for thinking that the world has become a more violent place. But the statistics don’t bear that out. The number of those killed by war has become almost non-existent compared to previous decades. In his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker, a Harvard professor, claims that we are living in the most peaceful time in human history.

Since the mid-19th century, global adult literacy rates have greatly improved, from an estimated 10% in 1850 to 84% in 2013. Here’s how the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) put it:

“In the mid-nineteenth century, only 10% of the world’s adult population could read or write. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, UNESCO estimates that over 80% of adults worldwide can read and write at some minimum level. This unprecedented social transformation occurred despite the world’s population quintupling from about 1.2 billion in 1850 to over 6.4 billion [by 2006]… Literacy today, in its many manifestations, has become a vital set of competencies and practices, interwoven in the fabric of contemporary societies.”

And now let’s look at America – increasingly the Land of Trump. Yes, it might be in something of a political mess at present, but there are signs of hope.

Between 1973 and 2009, the number of violent crimes in the U.S. has dropped from 48 to 16 per 1,000 people. Twenty million more Americans have health insurance than in 1990. Numerous American cities are winning the war against homelessness. More Americans are getting engaged in the political process at all levels than at any time in recent memory. Women are making significant strides in business, politics, non-profits, and even the sciences and economics. Increasingly, American cities are becoming more progressive and with that has come to a generation of problem-solvers eager to make a contribution.

It’s true that many things have gotten worse in the United States in recent decades, and the rise of Bernie Sanders particularly highlights the tensions that have resulted from this neglect. Yet despite all this, we have to acknowledge where advances have been made, where social justice has balanced the scales, and where progressivism has begun to have serious effect.

My favourite TED talk presenter is Hans Rosling, a Swedish doctor and world-renowned statistician. He uses data in an energizing and enlightened fashion to reveal advances in the world that few might notice. But he is aware more than most that remarkable challenges remain that could halt everything – climate change especially. Yet he doesn’t match the good news with the bad, but instead with a challenge: “You have to be able to hold two ideas in your head at once; the world is getting better and it’s not good enough.”

Should Donald Trump rise to the presidency, the future will become the great unknown. Yet it’s important to recall that most of the positive changes noted above came regardless of good or bad politicians. In the house of the citizenry is where the real dynamic for good or ill lies, and as long as engaged citizens play their respective roles, solitary political figures face tremendous hurdles in achieving their grand designs.

 

Witnessing Change is Never Enough

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YESTERDAY WAS MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. DAY, so we spent some time watching his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, only three months before John F. Kennedy was slain. The rhythm and passion of his phrases still struck deep chords. He wasn’t trying merely to reconcile various groups of people, but was striving for a world that had a more equitable future.

It’s only proper that we appoint special days to remind us of our ideals and what we believe to be our greatest aspirations, but there’s a difference between honouring someone and participating in changing the world by following in their footsteps. Some people like King and his wife, Coretta, naturally accomplished that, but for the rest of us it is a constant effort to get outside of our own worlds and into the broader one that requires our participation more than anything else.

In his speech King reminded all of us that acts of charity must be angled towards justice and real systemic change if they are to be truly effective. He talked about taking political actions in order to change public policy. As his wife reminded millions not that many years ago, an important part of her husband’s “dream” was ending poverty through societal reformation. When he spoke of his children living in a world at peace with those who don’t judge others by the colour of their skin, it wasn’t some mere sentiment but a plan of action that ultimately cost him his life.  Yet he chose to insert himself into the political debate of his day at a cost of great personal insecurity.

The difficulties in these present days must remind us again and again that it is never enough to have leaders; there must also be co-dreamers. And it is never enough to only dream of a personal world, but of a collective one that strives for justice for all people, in every nation.

One of my great friends in Parliament during my tenure there was Carolyn Bennett, now Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs. In a recent interview she was asked how she would know that she had been successful after taking on such an important file. She could have talked about full health on reserves, open education for all indigenous people, or a successful conclusion to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women file. Instead she noted that she would feel truly successful when the average Canadian finally understood the great collective injustice against our indigenous brothers and sisters and had sought to alter their own inactions in order to bring about a better day.  You can listen to that remarkable interview here.

She was right, and so was Dr. King. Our ultimate goal must be to change ourselves, to arc our actions towards justice, self-reflection, and personal transformation.

The picture at the top of this post talks about “witnessing” the dream, but that is never enough. We must be active participants in making it happen, of being witnesses “to” that ideal but taking our own personal risks at shaping a better future.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” King said. Well, right now, there are things that really matter before us and no leader, no Prime Minister or President, will change our future unless we participate and shape it ourselves – policy without people is just a platform. Or, as King better put it: “The ultimate measure of a man or woman is not where they stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but in times of challenge and controversy.” It is never enough to just witness the change; we must be energized witnesses within it.

 

 

 

 

 

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