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)