Sorry, dear friends. More sanctimonious wankery coming. It’s what I do.
It’s election season in Toronto, and now in Ontario as well. My good friend Daren’s been on top of the, er, developments at City Hall in more detail than I can possibly match; if you’re not reading his updates, then start. Today. (Guy’s got a stronger stomach than I have.) Ed Keenan, Jude Macdonald, and Neville Park should also be on your must-reads.
Nothing new there. What I’d like to do, rather than compete with their everyday engagement, is to set out a broader context within which I hope we can approach the choices we’ll have to make in the next few weeks and months. In an ideal world, those choices would be informed by a thoughtful commitment to the public good; that sounds fairly obvious, but as we’ve seen over the past couple of years, things are never that clearcut.
So what do we mean when we talk about The Public Good? Over the next little while, I’d like to set out the essential elements. (I’m upper-casing it because I want it to sound as if it’s being read by Chuck Heston. Please note as well that I’m not using it in the narrow economic sense.) Broadly, it includes, but isn’t limited to:
- Critical thinking
- Clarity and accuracy in language
- Civic engagement
- Civility and inclusion
- A realistic and mature appreciation of the role of taxation
- Recognizing the role of government as an agent of our collective well-being
- Embracing the notion of citizenship and its obligations
- Appreciating that governance, good or bad, is a complex endeavour
- A realistic approach to transit, energy use and efficiency that recognizes the unsustainable nature of reliance on private automobiles
- A rededication to the seemingly quaint notion of truthfulness
- Demanding more of ourselves and our would-be representatives
- Respect for the public sphere
This is not intended to be partisan. It is not about the mayor, nor is it about any individual councillors. Those of you depraved enough to follow me on the Twitters know what I think about the day-to-day craziness of municipal politics. This is, I hope, a much broader and longer-term program geared to renewing and enhancing our understanding of, and dedication to, The Public Good. As we evaluate candidates — incumbents and challengers alike — policy statements, proposals, track records, and the public conversation itself, we must ask ourselves: Does this further the public good? Will it help to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number?
So let’s talk about critical thought and the public conversation.
Critical thought isn’t an elitist skill, and it’s not the same thing as criticism. At its most elemental level, it’s simply the ability to evaluate evidence and follow chains of reasoning. It’s about being able to see shades of meaning, and recognize that things are rarely black and white. It’s about the ability to hold more than one idea simultaneously, and seeing merit in positions that contradict one another. In sum, it’s about being willing to embrace complexity.
Approaching an argument critically means evaluating its validity in the face of supporting evidence, of competing claims, of analogies and comparisons, and separating what is worthwhile and convincing from what is not. Does this follow logically? Is it on topic? Is it supported by the evidence, and does the evidence relate to the point being advanced? How well does it stand up under examination? How well does it stack up against other points of view? If we accept A, does it mean we must accept B as well? Do the arguments and evidence marshalled in support of A necessarily apply to B?
It’s not high-level elitist academic thinking. It’s simply what equips us to filter out bullshit and trivialities, and identify and retain valuable information. It’s what enables us to think for ourselves, rather than just swallow what other people want us to believe. It’s the first thing we apply in deciding whether or not something advances The Public Good. It is, as I’ve said, the most essential thing in the Citizenship Toolbox.
So. Now that we’ve established the intrinsic value of critical thought, let’s look at the medium whereby we exercise it: language. Like critical thought, words and language are the most basic currency of citizenship. They’re the means whereby we communicate with one another.
Obvious, one would think. So why are we focusing so hard upon words? Because for the last few decades, if not longer, words themselves have become a battleground. Their meanings have become contested; one of the most insidious attacks on the Public Good has manifested itself in campaigns to strip words of their meanings and repurpose them for other ends. It’s not just about their definitions, but their connotations and the contexts within which they’re used. Stripped of their meanings, words can become weapons. Instead of enlightenment, they can become tools of obfuscation, manipulation, even violence. Part of the obligations of engaged citizenship, I’d argue, is winning them back and reinvesting them with their original meanings.
I can’t overstate the importance of this. Since words are the most fundamental things we use to communicate and exchange ideas, we cannot leave their definition to those with nefarious agendas. If we let others define the terms for debate, we’ve lost before we’ve even started. Reclamation of the discursive turf is fundamental not only to critical thought, but to the greater good. Whose interests are served by the debasement of public discourse? Who benefits from muddy thinking, manipulation, and volatile emotions rather than calm, rational, civil debate?
Tomorrow, we’ll examine some of those words and attempt to rescue them.
- Community, citizenship, The Public Good, yada yada yada. More to come | #TOpoli #onpoli #cdnpoli
- The Ford follies, and framing the discussion | #TOpoli
- Robert Reich: The Decline of the Public Good
- Toronto’s transit future, LRT, and the need to win back the words | #TOpoli
- Politics, decency, and finding common ground: the restoration of civility | #TOpoli #cdnpoli
- Citizenship, critical thought and Giorgio Mammoliti