By Jason Menard
Politics is wasted on the young — mentally young, that is.
Before I get accused of being ageist, let me clarify that statement by saying that the real bane of political discourse is immaturity — and manifests itself across all demographics.
I know socially and politically mature teenagers and I know middle-aged people who are childlike in their application of socio-political thought. Political maturity isn’t about age; it’s about a willingness to learn and a willingness to accept that we’re not infallible.
The politically immature see things in black and white. They are quick to apply superficial labels to ideas that helps them ignore the deeper messages lying within (or, even better, throw out the Straw Man defence). And it’s understandable reaction because one of the hardest things to deal with as you grow up is the realization that you, frequently, are wrong.
In our youth, we are confident we know everything. We buoy the limited knowledge we receive with the passion and confidence of youth. It is why protests are so popular in high school. We have supreme confidence in our convictions because those convictions have never been tested.
Because, for the most part in high school, our worlds rarely extend beyond our own nose, or that of our circle of friends, it’s easy to see the world in clearly defined rights and wrongs as they relate to our own beliefs. When we are introduced about injustices and issues, we are quick to stand up and say that’s wrong!
But as we grow up, we learn that there are no black and whites for the world — those only exist for our own individual circumstances. When trying to find solutions at a societal scale, we learn that there are different perspectives and different needs out there. And it’s emotionally jarring.
It’s easy to say, “Stop buying Wal-Mart shirts because third-world nations are being exploited.” It’s harder to think, “If I stop buying them and those factories shut down, what happens to the people’s employment opportunities? Will they starve” or “How do we balance the need to do better with the fact that those shirts are all that many people can afford in their already strained budgets?”
Nothing exists in isolation. As we grow up, we learn that effective opinions and ideas shouldn’t either. In a perfect world, your solution may be right. But we live in a far from perfect world.
That said, we should never let perfect get in the way of better.
My family’s needs and perspective are not going to be the same as that of a senior couple or a young gay man. Even within my demographic, my viewpoints are not going to be the same of as someone the same age as me. As a married man with chronic pain in a one-income family with a chronically seriously injured wife, my views and needs are going to be different than, say, a perfectly healthy, married, two-income couple with no kids, or a single mother of three.
My priorities, needs, and obligations are different. Not better or worse, not more or less valuable, just different.
As we grow up, hopefully we’re exposed to new cultures and experiences. As a teen, my circle was pretty white, middle-class. As I grew up, my circle of close friends extended to Muslims and Jews, gay and straight, Latino, French, and English. My view of life is tempered by exposure to my friends’ experiences. I know a few cops and they’re good people, so I have a hard time when people criticize ‘the man’ for asking loiterers to move along downtown. That hard time is compounded when I remember that my friend had to flee his home country because he was in very real danger of being killed by their authorities for the ‘crime’ of being gay.
Now, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question authority. But is does mean we need to learn to temper our outrage reflex with perspective.
After all, passion is great, but without perspective it can be misplaced — or even counter productive.
Passion can manifest itself as aggression. Passion can be exclusionary. And if we’re serious about building a better community, province, or country, we have to build bridges, not put up walls. Sometimes that means actively listening to different perspectives, instead of dismissing them outright. Sometimes it means holding up our beliefs to scrutiny so that we can better them through criticism.
Partisanship in and of itself isn’t immature, but blind partisanship is. No one group, side, or philosophy has a monopoly on right.
Statements like: ‘They’ just don’t care; ‘They’re’ just apathetic; That’s just liberal/conservative dogma; and ‘They’ don’t understand are the adult equivalent of figuratively sticking your fingers in your ears to block out sounds you don’t want to hear.
And, in my perspective, that speaks volumes about that person’s immaturity. They may be on the left or right; they may be religious or secular; they may be male or female — but ignoring a discussion based on superficiality prevents you from getting to what may be a legitimate root cause.
I recently had the honour of interviewing some people at a Toronto veterans hospital. In discussing violent/challenging behaviour, I was told that they view behaviours as an expression of an unmet need.
In short, just because the presentation of the concern isn’t in the format that you approve, it doesn’t mean the concern isn’t legitimate. And it takes time, willingness, and an ability to listen to understand those needs.
I had the joy of living in Quebec during the latest referendum. And I experienced ignorance on both sides — both from the separatists AND the ROC who dismissed the issue as that of ‘dumb Quebeckers.’ The expression of separatism is wrong, but the issues that underly it — specifically, the concern about losing one’s culture when surrounded by a sea of nearly 400 million English speakers — are legitimate.
Locally, I see that in many on-line discussions. There’s a polarization at stake, with no sides willing to listen to what’s at the root of the discussion. And there’s an immaturity in many of its participants — assuming a comprehensive understanding of the issue when only looking at it through their own prism.
Then we wonder why our representatives in council chambers and houses of parliament exhibit childish behaviour and shouting.
Locally, I’ve had some great discussions with people who have travelled the world or lived abroad. But there’s no reason why someone who has never left The Forest City can’t gain that perspective. It just requires listening, learning, and challenging your own beliefs.
The truth is the best discussions I’ve had in London are with people who are passionate about an issue, but are mature and confident enough in their position to sit down and respectfully discuss the matter over a cup of coffee or in an on-line dialogue.
Again, it’s not about age: I’ve experienced that political maturity in conversations with teenagers; and I’ve seen that political immaturity manifest itself in people who are old enough to know better.
It’s hard to admit we may be wrong. It’s hard to acknowledge that our own needs may not be shared by a majority. And it’s hard to place an equal value on other people’s needs, lifestyles, and goals. It’s hard to find solutions that satisfy a little bit of everyone’s needs as opposed to chanting mantras about damning the haters/critics and barrelling forward on your own to promote a solution that satisfies all of your needs. It’s hard to listen to and find value opinions that run counter to your own.
But that’s what grownups do.