My Apology to the City of London — It’s Time to Grow Up

By Jay Menard

Name-calling, questioning people’s intellectual capabilities, mocking, snide supercilious comments, mean-spirited personal attacks? It’s somewhat sad that the very behaviour that we discourage amongst our children has become the culture of choice for on-line discourse in London, ON.

I learned very early on that you don’t have to like someone and you don’t have to agree with them. But you have to be respectful of everyone and their perspective. And, most importantly, you have to value their efforts and ideas.

Sadly, it’s a lesson lost on many of those who purport to work for a better London, Ontario.

The hypocrisy is staggering when one considers that the people who are quickest to criticize bullying, demand understanding for people with physical and/or mental challenges, or lament the lack of opinion and involvement in our community, are often at the front lines of the on-line mocking, insulting behaviour, creating an exclusionary environment, and — sadly — perpetuating a form of on-line bullying.

And let’s not get into the larger legal matters of libellous and slanderous commentary.

Of course, perish the thought that you suggest there’s a better way to discuss. You open yourself up to insinuations that you’re living in a patchouli-infused, Kumbaya-singing, Pollyana existence. Well, break out the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism, because if I’m going to be accused of tamtamming my way through life, then I’ll do so banging the drum for a better form of public discourse — and hopefully others will join in the rhythm.

Satire is an art form, but too many choose to engaged in its paint-by-numbers version. On-line, from name-calling of local councillors to mocking intelligence, London is rife with the toilet version of the humour perfected by Rick Mercer, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert*.

We don’t need to be an acquiescent society. We don’t need to stop questioning actions, motives, and decisions. Being respectful doesn’t mean swallowing whole everything that we’re fed by our government. But there’s a way to question that elevates discourse and fosters an environment where all ideas are encouraged, examined, and appreciated.

Attack the idea; not the person.

It’s a simple concept. And it’s increasingly rare to see. Our partisan nature of our political system has put that form respectful analysis firmly on the endangered list. The idea itself is secondary (or even tertiary) to from whom it came (and, sadly, often from where that person lives).

I’m not perfect in any way shape or form. I can be a snarky, well… asshole, in one-on-one conversation. I’ve made jokes, comments, and poked fun with friends in discussions. But when I put my thoughts to paper (or on-line), I’m damn certain to afford everyone — and every idea — the respect it deserves. And I’m always willing to support my idea (or debate someone else’s) on its merit alone.

In every comment I’ve made on this blog (and, to the best of my knowledge, on Twitter and Facebook as well), I’ve attempted to live by what I learned early on as a young journalist: Criticize the idea; not the person. And don’t merely say something’s wrong, offer suggestions to improve.

On-line, that moment a personal attack becomes a pillar of your argument is the moment I stop listening.

Maybe I’m being unfair, but I really don’t care. I’ve advocated about the need, if you’re going to engage in on-line discussions, to follow people from all sides of the political spectrum and not just those who fall in line with your thinking. But I’ve recently added a caveat to that — I now only follow and engage in discussions with those that I know will interact respectfully.

And that’s a personal thing. I can only speak to my one-on-one interactions. But if you’re going to devolve into personal attacks when interacting with me, I believe you’ve forfeited your expectation that I’ll respect your opinion. More importantly, I think you undermine all of your opinions because now I question your motivation

Since I’ve unfollowed a few of the worst offenders, the quality of my on-line experience has been vastly improved. The diversity of commentary is still there, but the ideas are allowed to come shining through as they’re no longer drowned out by puerile nattering.

Do I agree with everyone on council? No? Do I think everything they do is right? No. But I’m damn certain that they deserve my respect for trying to make a difference? Today, Dale Henderson has been pilloried for his YouTube channel. He’s been mocked for anything ranging from a perceived lack of intelligence to accusations of downright craziness.

Yet those are personal attacks? What about the idea? All of those who lament the fact that council is not “engaged” (however they choose to set their personal engagement bar, of course) are missing the point that this is a great, cost-effective way to share messages with one’s constituency. Perhaps if it was from one of the on-line community’s favoured sons or daughters, the idea would be met with more respect.

Conversely, Paul Hubert’s much-ballyhooed survey has been lauded for its engagement. Yet I have very real concerns with extrapolating anything from it. Where is the statistical significance? Was the execution of the survey not done in a way that easily allowed interest groups or specific demographics to undermine the results?

To me, that survey has as much value to the process as a London Free Press on-line poll. Little whatsoever. It’s one tool in what should be a much-larger toolbelt.

But despite what I feel about the survey’s execution, I applaud Mr. Hubert and Mr. Henderson for their efforts. The ideas have merit — and how I feel about one or both shouldn’t matter.

Sadly, if I took a poll of the on-line community, I’d likely be in the minority in that.

In the end, I govern my on-line interaction in the same way that I teach my 11-year-old daughter to navigate the playground: be respectful of other people; don’t use personal insults or name-calling; and value everyone’s perspective and background.

We tell our daughter that we all have personal situations that we deal with (something she knows quite well with two parents who suffer from chronic pain), but that doesn’t give someone the excuse to swear at you, yell at you, or call you names. Sadly, that type of rationalization and justification runs rampant on-line.

Most importantly, we tell her that if someone can’t play by those rules, then they’re proving that they’re not worth her time. Walk away and then the burden falls to them to earn back the opportunity and respect that they’ve squandered.

In December 2012, I made my promise to the city; this is my apology to the city. I apologize for the wasted opportunity and the wasted effort. Londoners have a lot of differing opinions, ideas, and skill-sets that we could use to come up with solutions that benefit us all. Yet until people are willing get out of the sandbox, and treat both people and ideas with respect, this city will remain in a state of perpetual pre-pubescence.

It’s time to grow up.

(*ed. note: there seems to be some confusion to this statement. I’m not decrying Mercer, Stewart, and Colbert as toilet humour; instead I’m drawing a parallel to the difference between the mastery of those comedians’ work and the bastardized version we experience on-line. Both are political commentary, but one version is well done; the other is a puerile bastardization)

21 thoughts on “My Apology to the City of London — It’s Time to Grow Up

  1. qualitypunk

    I see where you are going with this post but you lost me with calling Rick Mercer et al ‘toilet humour’. Seriously reduced your argument, you may not like their humour and yes sometimes it gets rough but to dismiss it outright as ‘toilet humour’ proves you haven’t seen some of the thoughtful segments of those three shows. Find Mercer’s YouTube and watch some of his rants, you’ll find he is saying much of what you have said in your post.

    Reply
    1. Jay Menard Post author

      Ed,

      I think you misread what I intended to say… I said, “London is rife with the toilet version of the humour perfected by Rick Mercer, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert.”

      I’m not calling their efforts toilet humour. I’m saying that the criticism we see in London is the toilet version of the humour perfected by those men. Not calling them toilet humour…

      They are true social satirists. However, devolving into the name-calling and stereotyping in the name of political commentary is an poor man’s version of their art form.

      Reply
  2. susantoth

    Totally agree, Jay, but I would suggest you talk to Anne Marie about the survey, she can give you some inside scoop about how it was run, how they cross-checked results for accuracy. She is also very upfront about the value of the survey. It is not meant to be a poll in terms of accuracy, but I believe saying its value is nil is a big statement if you haven’t reviewed the methodology behind the survey.

    Reply
    1. Jay Menard Post author

      I don’t think I said it had no value — just little in terms of overall representation of the city. I think it’s one representation and I appreciate the effort (as I stated). Just on-line/e-mailed surveys tend to skew to a specific demographic; just as LFP on-line comments, etc.

      Now, is it a cost-effective way to take the pulse of a certain segment of the city? Yes. Is it fair to say, “This is what Londoners think?” Probably not. But to take a city-wide survey to the populace (as opposed to this one, where people had to come on-line) would be far more expensive.

      Like I said, “…it’s one tool in what should be a much-larger toolbelt.”

      Now, I may be more sensitive based on my Pat O’Brien experience, where he used a “survey” on his newsletter to his own supporters as his “proof” that our region was against gay rights. To me, surveys need to be much more rock-solid if you’re going to use them (or infer any suggestions from them) as “proof” of a much-larger belief.

      Reply
    1. Jay Menard Post author

      If you feel so… I’d be open to examples where I’ve named-called and engaged in that behaviour. I believe I do my best to be fair, offer suggestions, and attack the idea. But I’m not perfect and can always learn. Care to share where you feel where my kettle’s boiled over here?

      Reply
  3. Sean

    Hi Jay

    A bit of a strawman argument, here, no?

    You erect the caricature of demonic cyber villains engaged in mob-like bad behaviour, even bullying, and set yourself up as the lone voice of reason and arbiter of civil discourse. Quite the job if you can get it.

    Better yet, your posting is a generalized ad honimem. You attack the straw man, representing your caricaturized opponent, as being uncouth and bullying rather than providing a discourse on discourse which would be the meat of the matter of the idea that you put into question.

    The best part, of course, of erecting a straw man to be knocked down is that it it can only be knocked down by you leaving yourself the luxury of cutting the grass with all those who come forward to challenge your assertions. Because, as surely you know, without specifics, all that remains with which to do battle is shadows.

    I think you can do better.

    Respectfully.

    Reply
    1. Jay Menard Post author

      Fair criticism… but no where do I set myself up as the lone voice of reason or arbiter of civil discourse. In fact, I think there are a number of people who feel the same way that the best way to find creative solutions and move forward is to do so together.

      Yet, without naming names and pointing at people directly (for which I would have been equally criticized), I think it’s a fair and common statement that much of the London, ON-Twitter-based conversation and political discourse is toxic.

      You’re entitled to your opinion and as for your assertion on a discourse on discourse, I would think my simple outline of “here’s what we teach our daughter; let’s apply it on-line” is a fair commentary to that statement. If you’d like me to Roberts-Rules-of-Order a document, that’s fine, but in a (too-long-to-really-be-a) blog post, it’s not appropriate.

      If you honestly feel the straw man does not exist, that’s your opinion. My experience — and one that seems to be shared by others — is that the “caricature” is accurate and prevalent. Nothing wrong with me wishing for a more polite forum of discourse just as there’s nothing wrong with your decision to ignore that in favour of the status quo.

      Reply
  4. theviennacafe

    But the purpose of straw man allows you to engage in exactly the sort of discourse you are decrying, attacking the person, unnamed but cariacatured, rather than the argument, or in this case the idea.

    You ask, “but no where do I set myself up as the lone voice of reason or arbiter of civil discourse.”

    Well, you do not set yourself up as the “lone voice of reason”, fair enough, but certainly an exceptional voice of reason when you say, “Sadly, if I took a poll of the on-line community, I’d likely be in the minority in that.” And who determines what is polite and civil discourse for the purpose of this discussion other than you? That is arbitrary and subjective and perhaps colored by bias.

    I don’t think there is any need for Robert’s rules of order or a treatise to adequately discuss the nature of public discourse in a blog posting. I think it has been accomplished before.

    Reply
    1. Jay Menard Post author

      We’ll agree to disagree here. You call it a straw man; I say it’s an archetype. You say I’m engaging in the same sort of discourse; I believe my focus is on how to better the level of discussion.

      I would love to know what bias you think I have. In fact, in all of my commentary, I’ve stressed the need for inclusion, support, and an appreciation of all views. And I think to suggest that name-calling, snide commentary, derision, and insults are up for debate because “who determines what is polite and civic discourse…” is not something I’m willing to waste my time on. If you are comfortable engaging and supporting this type of conversation, that’s your right.

      I just don’t have to read it (which is why I’ve culled my Twitter list); nor do I have to participate. I would never restrict my sphere of influence and commentary based upon whether someone agrees with me or not, but I will do so if that person, group, or people can’t exercise common courtesy. Everyone gets a pass once in a while, but repeated incidents undermine the debate. You may choose to support that; I don’t.

      Reply
  5. theviennacafe

    You have the inherent bias of believing yourself to be correct or more correct than your opponent.

    You know, our legal and political systems are founded upon the adverserial system and the reason for that is because rigourous examination and debate tends to separate the chafe from the wheat.

    So it is fine for you to say that you refuse to entertain this person with that argument not on the basis of the merit of the argument put forward, but purely on the basis that you disapprove of the manner in which their arguments are put forward.

    So then one may argue that s/he only objects to the manner of argument in that it attacks the person. But we know from our adverserial system of justice that motive is key to intent and action. So a person’s character and past history may be relevant to a person’s present actions. For example, it may be sufficient for some to argue that the Gates Foundation is altruistic purely on the investments it makes on the ground, but to others it is entirely relevent that the benefactors of the Gates Foundation are heavily invested in GMO patent technologies and will profit handsomely from their wholesale expansion in Africa.

    The way to better improve the level of discussion, IMHO, is to acknowledge that you have a bias toward your own viewpoint, as we all do, and that in human relations ideas are not always separate from the motivations and persoanl interests of those promoting then and then adopt some of your own advice by being respectful of everyone while acknowledging that not every perspective is equal in value (do you value your neighbours opinion on brain surgery to the same degree as your brain surgeon’s? I thought not).

    Have a great weekend.

    Reply
    1. Jay Menard Post author

      I think you’re missing the point. Nowhere do I propose to be all altruistic. Of course I have a bias to my own opinion; but I also repeatedly have stated that my opinion can be swayed with quality discourse and new information. I find the attitude that “I’m only going to consult with those I agree with and ignore dissent” more dangerous.

      I have a lot of people that I follow with whom I’m almost polarizingly opposed on many issues. Yet I have better discussions (and more respectful ones) than some people with whom I align more socially and politically. The reason? Because of a respect for other people’s ability to respect all opinions.

      Again, this isn’t a debate as to whether I have all the knowledge. In fact, I’ve repeatedly said in the past that I only know what I don’t know. However, the point you’re missing is that it’s not wrong to ask for a more courteous discourse. No need for name calling, creating offensive caricatures, or mocking people instead of discussing their ideas.

      If you support the latter, that’s your prerogative. Personally, I don’t. That’s all. But I’d rather debate the topic at hand.

      Reply
      1. theviennacafe

        But the point you’re missing is that you’re guilty of your own crime of arguing personalities rather than the issue by having erected a strawman caricature and then attacking it. Seriously, and really no disrespect intended, but arguing “those” people are rude and insolent and mean says nothing at all about Internet discourse and more about your objection to those unnamed persons and we all know every story has two sides. Take care.

      2. Jay Menard Post author

        Please re-read. You’ve determined its a strawman character. Personally, I feel there’s a lot of piss-poor behaviour on-line: name-calling, insulting politicians’ intelligence, etc. I don’t want to participate; you obviously want to argue the technicalities. Again, choose not to engage with me — it won’t be the first time I’ve been unfollowed. If you don’t value my thoughts, that’s your choice. If you want to perpetuate a toxic environment, that’s your choice as well. However, I’m not alone in feeling that this environment is extremely restrictive and exclusionary. For all the talk of valuing other people’s opinions and participation, the community tends to be daunting and restrictive. I would think in your position with EL, you would value an open, respectful, and polite level of discourse. Just because people disagree, we don’t need to get down to being rude, offensive, or attacking the person. Again, its the idea that we should discuss.

        There are people I like personally, whose ideas I can’t stand. Conversely, there are people I don’t like, but I’ve agreed with their opinions and value their input. Personally, I don’t think it’s right to suggest that Councillor Henderson is crazy; I don’t find insulting caricatures of the non-chosen ones amusing or beneficial to the debate. You do. Fine…

        You’re entitled to that opinion. I’m entitled to be fed up of that, which is why I pick and choose with whom I engage now. You obviously believe I have one person in mind (that seems to happen a lot recently, yet no one ever asks if that’s true. Why let facts get in the way). In this case, my strawman, as you like to call it, is a composite of at least 10 people who have engaged in specific behaviours. If you want to deny those behaviours exist on-line, you’re welcome to.

        Every story does have two sides. I’ve put mine out and have defended it publicly. Sadly, there are those who are inferring other sides to my post, which is their prerogative. Again, don’t bother asking. I’m not sure who you think “those” are, but you’re probably wrong. But asking me might prove that point.

  6. David Winter

    At Least Jay gives a crap…I cant believe how many people Always think they have the answer, But if they did, they would not be the armchair quarterback…

    Reply

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