Who Defines Better?

By Jason Menard

Today, former elected representative Glen Pearson posted his latest statement on voter apathy and the need for citizens to be “better” to ensure that we get “better” representation.

But who defines better?

It was an interesting monologue (I wouldn’t say it’s designed to spark a conversation because, well, he doesn’t allow comments on his citizen engagement-focused blog.) But missing are the answers to two questions: better for whom? And does everyone really want this version of better?

In it he said, “Alas, citizens are fascinated, even upset about what they are witnessing, not just with the Ford saga, but in the sorry state of politics collectively in our land. But instead of determining to pull together to change the narrative, they remain isolated and frustrated.”

Missing from this bold statement are some important qualifiers. Like “some,” “selected,” and “a few.” Unless I missed the meeting that all sides have now reached a common consensus. And there are a lot of assumptions in that statement.

Before we get to the isolation, let’s start with the frustration. While it is true that I am frustrated, it’s not necessarily with politics. Rather, I’m frustrated with politicking.

For example, I’m often frustrated with my voice being conscripted by interest groups deigning to speak on my behalf. I’m frustrated with hyper-partisan viewpoints from all colours of the political spectrum being uttered as statements of fact. And I’m frustrated with assumption of right.

I have an opinion. Just one out of many. No more or no less valid than anyone else’s. But I also refrain from insinuating that I speak for everyone. I speak for myself and, generally, I get supportive feedback from people who agree with me. But I don’t assume that I speak for everyone.

For example, during my recent discussion with Mayor Wanted, I received this statement: “After consulting with a number of people that I respect in the community I have removed the last line from the posting. Most did not agree with your position, although a few did, but could see how people could interpret it incorrectly.”

I have no reason to doubt that statement. After all, the overwhelming majority of people with whom I spoke agreed that the Mayor Wanted project was open to abuse and partisanship. Different viewpoints and we obviously walk in different circles and that’s fine. All I know is that I’m confident that my circle includes people from many walks of life, areas, and political viewpoints.

But, again, this exchange proves why it’s so dangerous to project assumptions over a broad group of citizens.

All this preamble to get to the initial point: who defines better?

There are those who are heavily invested in politics, either for personal interest or personal gain. And there are those who stand up and say that everything – and everyone – they disagree with is wrong.

That’s their choice, but to automatically project that belief upon the masses is a bit of a stretch. With so many differing opinions out there, who has the right to determine “better?” And how can one dare criticise others for not working towards a version of “better” in which they may have no interest?

For example, I have never, nor likely will I ever, vote Conservative/Reform. Yet, despite my displeasure with the ruling party, I’m sure there are a number of people who disagree with me and are quite content with the status quo.

Locally, let’s take ReThink London. An admirable cause, whose intents I support. But there are those who are quick to use it as the foundation for setting a future mandate, which to me is very scary.

I asked ReThink how many attendees they’ve now had and received this in reply: “We now have 14,500+ participants. While some are repeat, approximately 70 per cent are unique via the web and 78 community meetings.”

So assuming those 10,150 people are truly unique (I would think there’s some overlap between Web and community meetings, but I’ll extend the benefit of the doubt), that means less than three per cent of the city’s population (using 350,000 as a round number) has participated.

Conversely, in the 2010 municipal elections, 39.91 per cent of the city’s eligible voters cast ballots, establishing a mandate and expressing their view. Even if I use the 2010 number of eligible voters (262,028) as a baseline for ReThink, the ‘unique’ participants still only number 3.87 per cent of the city’s population. So which of the two establishes a better mandate? Why are we so quick to neuter a council elected by nearly 40 per cent of our voter base, yet embrace a guideline established by such a limited group?

This isn’t to bash ReThink; this is to show the danger of assuming mandates or general intent from a small minority.

Which, again, brings us back to who defines better?

I believe that Mr. Pearson is displeased with the government and has the best intentions for improving it. But I also think it’s dangerous to assume that displeasure extends to a broader public without considering the alternative.

And that is maybe, just maybe, a lot of people are happy.

For example, I often hear from those outside my particular neck of the words about how horrible my councilor is in my ward. I read the statements about her alleged incompetence or alleged lack of intelligence (often uttered by those allegedly most fiercely against bullying, oddly enough), but I also have the pleasure of seeing the people in her constituency who appreciate her efforts and who have directly benefitted from her involvement in the community.

I appreciate that there are those who brandish the Fontana 8 (despite its seemingly revolving membership) or the Fontana Ate monikers at the drop of a hat. I get that you don’t approve with the current council. I join you in disapproving of some of this council’s actions. But I also disapprove of some of the actions of the “chosen ones” in council.

And I’m also fully aware there are a lot of people in this city for whom politics are not as important. The question that begs to be answered: is it possible that a majority of Londoners are happy with their representation?

Is it possible that happiness is not defined by council, but by themselves. They just want to be happy. They engage with the community in many different ways – maybe not in the most overt or attention-seeking ways, but in ways that are just as vital.

They participate in schools and churches; they volunteer their time and effort to various organizations; they run scout groups and kids’ sports programs. And they live their lives.

So isn’t it fair to question whether they’re truly “isolated and frustrated” or are they just content to let the political wheels turn, while they live their lives?

When it comes to engagement, I firmly believe there is no minimum threshold. And to suggest that citizens have an obligation to reach a defined level is supercilious. If someone wants to go to work, come home, and pay their taxes, that’s enough. If that makes them happy, who am I to decide that’s wrong?

If people choose to focus on their own neighbourhoods instead of advocating for the cause célèbre of the day, that’s their choice as well. If it makes them happy, that’s enough.

Pearson states, “We got what we voted for and now we’re paying for it. We need better politicians, but our only way of achieving that target is to be better citizens.”

The danger of that statement is the ellipsis that’s inherent after the word citizens. That ellipsis is the assumption that any one group can determine what’s best for everyone.

Maybe, just maybe, there’s a majority of people out there who are content with letting the city work in the background, so they can focus on themselves, their families, and their day-to-day life. Though I choose to live my life differently, I most certainly can’t argue with that decision. Maybe we need to ask ourselves whether “better” is the right term?

Maybe we need to ask the question that could bring a scary answer to some: What if people are content with their representation?

What’s so often defined as apathy, may actually just be differing priorities. And if focusing on other issues in life is what makes people happy, then who am I to argue?

Building a ‘better’ city doesn’t mean guilting or forcing people into action. It means making access to the means to affect change open to all — not just in selected regions, using restrictive tools, but taking the democratic process to the people. It means literally taking your show on the road, giving people the opportunity to share with you in their own neck of the woods, and not expecting them to come to you.

Who defines “better”? Because every time I’ve heard that, the missing words — that aforementioned ellipsis — are inevitably, “for me.”

I guess if I were to define “better,” it’s this: a city where we appreciate everyone’s contributions to our community without judgement; a city where engagement isn’t qualified by where you go and what you do, but rather how you make your community better; and a city where we respect that other people have differing priorities at various points in their lives, and we have no right to assume that their efforts, beliefs, and priorities aren’t “good enough.” And a “better” politician is one who represents the entirety of his or her constituency through discussion, negotiation, and interaction.

That, to me, would truly be a “better” London that it’s safe to say many of us would agree with.

But, again, many — not all.

7 thoughts on “Who Defines Better?

  1. Forrest Bivens

    Two quick points Jay…

    First, ‘better for me/my interests’ w/o judgment of others definition of ‘better’ is what I read here and I couldn’t agree more.

    Second, as I define apathy it’s directed at those who complain the loudest about societal inequities, political corruptions and the like, then do absolutely nothing. They do nothing when it comes time to act, engage, contribute or vote.

    At some point if one is dissatisfied enough to be vocal about it, action is required to effect a ‘better, better’.

    Well thought out post…

    1. Jay Menard Post author

      I agree that people “should” take action, but if all they want to do is complain then that’s their prerogative as well. We can’t assume to know motivations or scenarios.

      I’ll use myself as an example. I don’t often talk about my situation because, well, why would I? But we were in a car accident a decade ago that’s left me in permanent pain and my wife in worse pain and unable to work. So I do what I can, but between working (single-income family), taking care of my daughter and ensuring she has all the opportunities she can enjoy, and doing work around the house to alleviate my wife’s pain and discomfort, I don’t have the luxury of hanging out at council meetings or attending think tanks.

      While I do other activities, such as regularly talk to my elected representatives, work with my daughter’s school, and donate time to other charities/activities, that’s my choice. I could easily just sit back, write a blog, and complain. That would be my prerogative.

      If you didn’t know me, you could say, “Well, I’m not going to pay attention to him until he does something. I never see him at council or at meetings, so his opinion is invalid.” But knowing more, would you be so quick to levy that accusation?

      We don’t know why people sit back and do nothing. Maybe they don’t care. Maybe they don’t have the luxury. If I had no kids and my wife worked, I guarantee you we’d have the luxury of being way more active. But to me attendance isn’t participation. Participation is encouraging all people, embracing their views, and trying to come up with a better solution.

      And, at some point, if one is dissatisfied enough to be vocal, they usually do something about it — they vote.

      Thanks for the comment.

      1. Forrest Bivens

        Thanks Jay for taking the time to reply!

        Alas, the weakness of communication through written text rears itself as usual.

        I believe you DO participate, contribute or whatever we care to name it. This blog, your conversations with elected officials…all are contributions. I believe this, when combined with voting, purchases the right to complain if so desired. These are your chosen levels of participation and I’ll not dare to critique that! Of course doing none of the above gives you the right to complain as well; that’s called having a pulse. 🙂 I’ll also reserve the right to view the pulse-only folks as apathetic if nothing but complaints emanate. I’m hoping my comments are being understood?

        So to be clear…and to use language that lends itself to said clarity, I believe we either vote (at a minimum) or remain silent and accept what government sends our way.

      2. Jay Menard Post author

        And just to be clear, I didn’t think you were referring to me. I was just using my own experience as an example of how perceptions could be misguided without knowing backgrounds. That’s why I’ll never criticize someone who just complains.

        I believe, strongly, that even if you only write a blog or make a critique, you must at the very least suggest something that makes the situation better. But even if all you can do is complain, it’s up to those of use who want to do more to take that information and use it to help formulate our solutions.

        Oh, and I have been accused of using Straw Men in the passed (erroneously, but whatever), so I figured if that man was going to exist, I might as well use me.

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