Careless memes often appear in my Facebook feeds. You know, the kind that target a political figure the page owner reviles, accuse the individual of destroying a province or country, label the person an idiot, and call for support for these ideas from the public. Most of the time, I ignore them. That’s not a wise course of action, though. As they circumvent the principles of discourse, these memes subvert our political process. They are dangerous.
I understand why people resort to this kind of expression.
· It’s easy. Just take a photo, add some bold print, some expletives, a generalization or two, and some inflamatory names.
· It allows venting that needs no thought.
· It often gets a reaction.
· It requires no knowledge of the issues, no information on various perspectives that impact on the issues, no details or support for any of the accusations levied against the person.
The meme is a missed opportunity for discourse. So too is ill-advised action. As an example, let’s consider the actions of some members of the youth wing of the Canadian LabourCongress at an October 25, 2016, Q & A with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. You may remember that some attendees at this dialogue session with Trudeau turned their backs on him as he spoke. They wanted to underline that he had let them down, that he had, in effect, turned his back on them, and they were giving back in kind. Even when one of those protesters had an opportunity to ask a question, he kept his back turned to the microphone and to Trudeau. The Prime Minister expressed his disappointment at the rudeness, you may recall, and indicated his willingness to answer the question when the individual would face him. The individual maintained his pose, and the question went unanswered.
I admire Trudeau’s response in that situation. (If you read on, please press pause on your assessment of Trudeau and his government’s first year in office. This post is not that analysis. Its purpose is rather to focus on the ramifications of the choices we make to express disagreement in a democracy.) In staying calm and answering the questions of other attendees, Trudeau highlighted the importance of discourse. For government to work, elected officials must connect with their electors often to hear their concerns, to obtain feedback, to get ideas, and to keep people engaged. Citizens must, in turn, share their opinions with their representatives.
Discourse does take work. It means that, as citizens, we must :
· do our homework, and be informed;
· let our opinions be known;
· be open to sources of information that comment on all sides of the issue, even those we don’t agree with;
· take the time to articulate views, resisting the temptation to use attack strategies;
· adopt a problem-solving stance, remembering that generating a thoughtful and sustainable solution to an issue is more important than perpetuating an ideological view;
· maintain an open mind;
· keep partisanship at bay;
· remember that problem-solving takes time. Issues that have existed for decades can’t be solved in a year or two or even three. There’s no magic bullet, no matter what some might want us to believe.
· relegate protest strategies to the next line of defence, should the grievance process built on discourse fail.
I wonder, though, if the people who post accusatory memes or resort to ill-timed protest realize how destructive those actions can be. No matter who the politicians are, no matter their political views, mainstream or extreme, no matter the individual’s own position relative to those views, generalizations, attacks, name-calling and disrespect have serious consequences. We stand to pay a very high price if we skip over discourse and head straight for protest.
No matter your appraisal of Trudeau, we do have a prime minister who puts himself out there. He makes himself vulnerable in various forums to answer people’s questions, and he does so regularly. He knows going in that some people will be hostile. No matter what people may think, the man is not naïve; he’s lived his entire life in the public eye, much of it in the age of social media. Quite lucid about what he is about to do, still, he does it.
Two things here. One—we know full well what happens when a leader locks himself or herself up in the ivory tower and refuses even to have press conferences, never mind to engage with people in a situation that is not controlled. Two—Rudeness, sadly, is a common feature in assemblies on contoversial subjects. In various professional forums I have facilitated, I have often had to answer questions and explain delicate positions. It takes determination and strength of will to remain calm and professional in the face of personal attack. So, then, if Prime Minister Trudeau continues to face rudeness and hostility rather than discourse when he interacts with Canadians, what would be his incentive to persevere? Why not just retreat to the ivory tower? It’s a lot easier. Isn’t it in our best interest to provide positive reinforcement to politicians who engage, not treat them with scorn or disrespect?
After all, don’t we want the best and brightest to see a life of service in politics as a rewarding career option? For me, that’s a no–brainer. Of course. Of course I want people who are clever, experienced, astute, honest, and charismatic to take a risk and run for office. People who truly have a social conscience and want to serve, and who might even have to sacrifice more money in the private sector. If a potential candidate anticipates invective, personal attacks, ridicule, harassment on social media, or even threats on his or her family, why bother? People need gratitude and reinforcement, not abuse. We will get the candidates and the politicians that our response deserves.
What if discourse doesn’t work? What if efforts at rational argument are ignored, scorned, or worse, discarded? Then, we must protest. I am an idealist, though. Even in protest, there’s no place for unsubstantiated claims, invective, name-calling, or threats. Let’s do the work that civic engagement demands. We are better than resorting to easy action and facile memes.
Image source: Source: https://www.smith.edu/discourse/
Image source: Source: https://www.smith.edu/discourse/