The mote and the beam

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“Hide witch hide, the good folks come to burn thee;
Their keen enjoyment hid behind a Gothic mask of duty.”

Jefferson Starship: Mau Mau (Blows Against the Empire, 1970)

I was thinking about those lines recently. They seemed appropriate given the events in town since last spring. I was also thinking about what Gord Hume wrote in 2011:

“Explosive internet columns, blogs, and opinion pieces that do not seem to be overly-burdened with concerns about facts or accuracy are now being added to the traditional media mix, and have further aroused this toxic brew.”
Gordon Hume: Take Back Our Cities, Municipal World

Toxic certainly describes the political atmosphere in Collingwood these days. It’s been a rough campaign season, although I have to say thanks to the support I and some other members of council have received from residents. It’s good to know the poison has not seeped into every pore. Not everyone listens to the harridans of hatred.

Treason has done his worst: nor steel, nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing,
Can touch him further.
Shakespeare: Macbeth

Coffee mugIt’s a sad day indeed for this community when any person is judged guilty solely on an allegation from a blogger, without any evidence, without even hearing his or her side. Just innuendo, rumour and gossip. And increasingly more often, outright lies.

What happened to our Canadian sense of justice and fairness?

A former politician recently called the attitude among the local negativists as a “lynch mob” mentality and referred to the madness of the McCarthy era. Both seem, sadly, true.

But I have to add: Honi soit qui mal y pense – evil be to him who evil thinks.

Who would have thought anyone in this small, quiet, beautiful town would be so shamelessly determined to hurt and demean others? I simply don’t understand that. It’s outside my ken.

I never understood bullying. And now we have the local cyberbullies pointing their fingers at us and call us bullies when we stand up to them and demand accountability; who damn us for asking questions of staff after they spent years castigating and accusing staff themselves.

Ah, the hypocrisy never ends, does it?

It sometimes disheartens me, demoralizes me. Maliciousness affects our families, our friends and neighbours. It is, as Gord Hume wrote, a toxic brew; and it keeps getting stirred by this small group.

[pullquote]Social media rewards partisanship. It is the nature of the medium that like-minded people talk to one another and reinforce one another. It is easy to dismiss any aliens who challenge your prejudices. Unquestioned prejudices shrivel into slogans and labels.
keller.blogs.nytimes.com[/pullquote]

These attack posts, these accusations are not about engagement, or debate, issues, process, or even democracy. Never have been. Democracy comes with responsibilities; social media doesn’t. They’re not about civil debate; the mature exchange of ideas and views. They’re not the Collingwood way of engaging one another.

They’re simply about hurting someone else, about smearing them, discrediting them, demeaning and belittling them, getting revenge for a council decision they didn’t like. Just like in the school yard: bullies, grown up to be cyberbullies.

There’s always been a political agenda playing in the wings. This term it’s been replete with dirty politics, name-calling, smears, lies and self-righteous but groundless accusations. Some say it’s part of a generations-old feud between Liberals and Conservatives. Or just a longstanding personal animosity between some current and former politicians. Others say it’s big-city politics, or Harper politics, or American politics. Doesn’t matter: the relentless personal attacks, the denunciations, the accusations have continued unabated, their angry clamour growing louder with every week as we approach the election date.

Any opportunity for an engaging debate on the issues, even for simple explanation and exchange of views, was scorched away by the ongoing vitriol. Who can be heard over the continual schoolyard shouting, the lies and taunts?

Hatred and anger thrive on social media and some people take advantage of that. As Bill Keller wrote in the New York Times:

  • Social media rewards partisanship. It is the nature of the medium that like-minded people talk to one another and reinforce one another. It is easy to dismiss any aliens who challenge your prejudices. Unquestioned prejudices shrivel into slogans and labels.
  • Immediacy encourages snap judgments, and once you have voiced your judgment to the wide world it is more difficult to retreat from it. Sree Sreenivasan, the chief digital officer at Columbia University, has said he spends an average of three to five minutes composing every tweet he sends. But that goes against the Twitter grain, where I suspect most tweets take three to five seconds.
  • In a crowd – and the Internet is the ultimate crowd – there is a temptation to SHOUT to be heard. This is especially true when comments are unfiltered, and the crowd noise consists in large part of nips and jibes and sneers.
  • Anonymity – and much of social media still permits anonymity – is license to be vicious.
  • The Web culture is simultaneously elitist and anti-authoritarian, as you might expect from a universe that (for now) skews young, educated and attentive to fashions. The technology is open to all; the ambience is more clubby.
  • It is always on, and it gets inside your head. If you are a kid hounded by the class nasties, or an adult being punished for an unpopular view, there is no escape.

Mayor Cooper said at one council meeting that, “Council has not been without its detractors…” That’s true of every council. But never before have I seen the relationship been so adversarial, so personal, so accusatory, so caustic, so petty, so vicious – and so blatantly untruthful.

We cannot stand together as a community, cannot even open a discussion, until the vitriol ends.

That choice is not in council’s hands.

A good, hard-working, dedicated council was rendered partly dysfunctional when a CBC reporter alleged one member of council filed a complaint against the others with the OPP over council’s decisions – without ever confirming the story with police or identifying the alleged source. No one on council has (yet) admitted guilt, but trust was broken by that allegation and never regained. It spread its poison. Not to mention the complaint is wholly without justification: it was just more dirty politics.

Who gains from such actions? Not the community. A community fed a diet of fear, anger, hatred and malice won’t heal itself. Won’t move forward. It remains polarized while some people seem remarkably joyous at the dissension and distraction, to delight in the damage such allegations are causing to the community at large.

We on council are all just ordinary people; local residents who chose to become part-time politicians and serve the community. We got into politics to give back to the community; not for power, not for money. We’re at the table because we care. We’re just trying to do our best in a challenging, ever-changing and complex environment. We’re your neighbours, your co-workers, you see us in the grocery stores and local shops, on the trails, out with grandkids or pets, attending community events. We are just like you.

And we had the courage to put our names forward to take on the responsibility and liability of running for council.

It doesn’t take any courage to criticize us wildly, to belittle and smear us and make wild accusations, especially on social media. Cyberbullies aren’t brave. They just sit at their computers and make up angry stories,allegations and often outright lies.

Until spring 2013, I believed – no matter how we disagreed over issues – that everyone on this council was trying to do what we all truly felt in our hearts was best for the community. Not for ourselves. The CBC story raised the spectre of hidden motives and personal agendas, made us all wonder who was pulling the strings in the background. That’s the effect such allegations have.

Fueled by constant attacks from aggressively angry bloggers with personal and/or political axes to grind, full of sound and fury, the whole community was affected – and our town’s reputation deeply hurt.

Mistakes

We make mistakes. We all do. It’s part of the human condition. Who among us is so perfect we don’t make mistakes? No one lives a life without them. It’s how we learn. What matters is how we learn from our mistakes, how we improve and grow.

But some only see the mote in another’s eye, not the beam in their own. They crucified us, never seeing that their own actions simply worsened things, that they created savage divisions and animosities throughout the town.

It’s easy to stand on the sidelines and throw dirt when you’re not the ones tasked with the responsibility of making the decisions, especially on social media. It’s easy for the bloggers to point out the mistakes we may have made (in their opinion, anyway) when they never have to stand under public scrutiny themselves, when their personal lives are never under the microscope, when they don’t have to suffer the incessant insults and the personal attacks they themselves throw at us.

Nothing gets better this way.

The anger, the vitriol, the disinformation, rumour and whispered accusations have left a scar that will affect councils long after us because the framework for future relationships is being set today. Future councillors will be vulnerable to the same tactics: bullying, gossip, innuendo; the unsupported allegations, the whisper campaigns, the lies. Turning resident against resident, smearing more dirt around.

How does that benefit anyone? Cui bono? Those on the campaign trail touted by the bloggers as the chosen candidates for municipal office? Or the would-be kingmakers who are grooming others to take on the council roles? Certainly it doesn’t benefit the rest of the community. Is this what you want for Collingwood’s future?

Who will want to run for office in future knowing what lies in store? Who will want to to risk ridicule and scorn, to expose him- or herself and family to such public flagellation, just for the entertainment of those who conduct the whipping? Who will want to be the next target of the bloggers? Who will want to have their private conversations on Facebook aired in public for ridicule and accusation? Who will want their children taunted in school over spurious allegations?

And who deserves a government formed of those same bullies whose actions drove good people, caring people away from the political process?

I ran for office again this term knowing I would be attacked and bullied for doing so. I put my name forward in part because I did not want the bloggers, the negative candidates, the attackers and liars to win and defeat all the good we have stood for this term. We deserve better: we deserve a good council because this is a good town.

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