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As a couple of friends have pointed out, some of my recent blatherings about voting may seem inconsistent with my “brand.” You know, civic engagement, the responsibilities of citizenship, the obligations we have to society and to each other … yawn.
Can’t be too surprised that that’s not a huge part of the conversation these days. There’s a lot invested in making sure it isn’t, and that shouldn’t be much of a surprise either. The more people are all wound up and angry and yelly and distracted, the less energy and attention they have to focus on the underlying stuff. Fill the window with dead cats and all that.
But once again, maybe we step back and look at this within a larger historical context (dear god, I’m going to hit myself in the head with a hammer — ed.). Let’s reframe this over the course of the last 20 or 30 years. What’s been happening?
The gutting of the public sphere.
The devaluation of civil society.
The emasculation of public institutions.
The dismantling of the social safety net.
Austerity, privatization, deregulation, outsourcing, yada yada yada, all served up with noxious sides of deficit hysteria and tax cuts, and the attendant kneecapping of government’s ability to act.
All predating Stephen Harper, nasty though he is. Again, think back a few decades. Brian Mulroney. Jean Chretien. Paul Martin. Running through it all, like a river of toxic slime: the successive implementation of the same agenda. “Free trade” regimes that concentrate more and more wealth and power in fewer and fewer hands. Nods to the knuckle-draggers aside, Harper’s just peddling more of the same. Seriously, can anyone point to a substantive change in the country’s direction over the past few decades?
All of this has been encouraged and paid for, of course, by the CEOs, the international investor class, their flunkies, and their cheerleaders in the corporate media, along with the Serious and Responsible People who guard the parameters of conversation and gaslight everyone else into thinking that whatever’s left of the “middle class” shares the same values and interests as the business elites. And always with the same themes: need to compete and obey the diktats of the market. Trade barriers need to come down. Labour flexibility. Capital mobility. Safeguard the rights of investors lest they take their money elsewhere. Anything that interferes with the accumulation of private profit becomes a target.
And what’s the effect? Well, what happens to anything that’s consistently attacked, demeaned, belittled, stripped of resources, and corroded? Gradually but steadily, the fabric of society wears away because the things that hold us together and allow us to act with common purpose are systematically undermined. We are isolated, exhausted, and/or distracted in the face of economic precariousness. What’s the point of acting collectively? What can we accomplish in the face of impersonal global forces which, we’re told over and over, are inevitable and irresistible?
Is it any wonder that the notion of citizenship starts to mean less and less? Is it a coincidence that the avenues for meaningful engagement are closed off while we’re distracted with the latest shinyshiny?
I’m not necessarily suggesting there are no differences among Harper and the opposition leaders in terms of policy or commitment to democratic ideals. But I do fear that the sustained assault on the things that hold us together has gone on for so long, and that the damage to our body politic has been so profound, that it may be too late to restore it.
This has been going on for decades. Does anyone really think a mere change of government is going to fix it?
Back in business, at @HuffPostCanada. An excerpt:
… there’s more: Critical thinking, civic engagement, respect for the meanings of words, the role of government, the language of the market, but the overarching theme here is, or ought to be, the common good.
As we head into a federal election this fall, then, can’t we resolve to make this our touchstone? To the extent that we hear coherent positioning and messaging from any of the contenders, let’s ask ourselves: will this enhance the public good? Will this build a sense of community, of common purpose, of commitment to the greater good?
Divided against each other and manipulated, or resolved to combine our efforts? I know which way I’d go.
“You’re bloody well right, we need to tax and spend. We’re living with the results of decades of NOT taxing and spending, and what have we got? Buses that don’t arrive. Chunks of the Gardiner falling on our heads. Crumbling infrastructure. Poisonous inequality. Epidemic levels of child poverty. It’s way past time we fixed this, instead of embracing the failed policies advanced by the austerity advocates and other mouthpieces for the far right.”
What I’d love to hear from progressive candidates, not just in the municipal arena, but almost any other context. Stop letting the flimflam artists of the Right use “tax and spend” as a smear. Things cost money. Taxes pay for things. Socialist, left-wing, progressive, whatever. Morans and poo-flingers can call it whatever names they want. A fella can dream.
That @cityslikr fella is onto something, as usual.
We’ve gone over this before, and we’ll no doubt go over it again (can’t you just get to the point? Jeez … — ed.), but in light of the themes that seem to be dominating the conversation, it bears repeating: to what extent does “conservatism,” as currently defined, bear on sane and sound fiscal policy?
Recall our recent wankery on The Public Good. One of the consistent messages, I hope, was that government is not a business, and should not be run like one. Several goals, some more achievable than others, I admit, but here’s one: let’s banish market fetishism and the language of the business school from any and all discussions of public policy. Government is here to serve the public good and advance the well-being of the community and its citizens. It’s not here to make a profit or enhance the brand or increase shareholder value. Any talk of deficit reduction or debt reduction needs to be evaluated in that light.
That’s lecture 1. Lecture 2 is, once again, about the meanings of words, and reclaiming the conservative tradition. I can’t stress this enough: reduced to its essence, what is conservatism other than Respect For That Which Has Gone Before? If you’re a true conservative, doesn’t that mean you work to identify and preserve what your predecessors have built?
And in the context of Toronto / Ontario / Canadian politics, doesn’t that include a generous social infrastructure? A series of programs, policies, and commitments that underpin the entire fabric of community? A wholesome ethic of mutual support, common provision, and a sense that we’re all in this together, greater than the sum of our parts? A narrative that ties it all together?
That’s essential to the Canadian character. That’s what makes us who we are. It’s one of those things that you have to respect and preserve if you want to call yourself “conservative.” You don’t get to attack it with chain saws and flaming arrows while screaming about Teh Deficit and still be in the club.
Are you stuck in traffic?
Waiting for a streetcar or bus that may never arrive?
We didn’t get here by accident, of course, and god knows there’s plenty of blame to go round. While the current mayoral administration bears particular responsibility for its consistent lies and pandering to an ill-founded sense of entitlement and manufactured resentment, allied to a transparent and patently destructive divide-and-conquer strategy, it did not do this damage all by itself. It’s had plenty of help, from the province and Ottawa, and from provincial agencies theoretically mandated to prevent this kind of thing from happening in the first place. From the Harrisite barbarians spitefully filling in a tunnel that had already been started, to the provincial Liberals’ initial decision to turtle on the shit-canning of Transit City, to the more recent nod-nod-wink-wink reactions to extravagant and undeliverable signals in the context of provincial by-elections, much of the blame can properly be laid at the doors of Queen’s Park as well. As John writes:
… we can — and should — ask what the orchestrated gutting of the $8.4 billion LRT master agreement, signed by Metrolinx, the City of Toronto and the TTC in November, 2012, will ultimately cost Toronto residents. And we can ask whether the Liberals, in effect, bought a Scarborough by-election last summer by agreeing to bankroll a subway while side-loading well over a billion dollars — the actual sum is unknown — in surplus cost to Toronto residents.
To re-cap: Between the feds, the province and the city, governments have committed $3.05 billion to a three-stop subway that will cover less ground and take longer to complete than the $1.8 billion, seven-stop Scarborough LRT.
Really, take a few minutes and read through the entire series. It isn’t pretty. Staff recommendations, expert advice, and evidence-based warnings all ignored. Public servants kneecapped. Persistent and calculated misrepresentation and lying. Well-considered and fully funded plans torn up for temporary political advantage. Millions of dollars down the toilet. Why, it’s as if we’d left essential matters of good governance in the hands of petulant four-year-olds!
And you’d think, what with us being in the middle of a provincial election, we might have a chance to discuss this intelligently. Yeah, well. Given the current state of public and political discourse, you might not want to hold your breath. I’ve tried, without much success, to get the #FactyEvidencyTransitStuff hashtag trending on the Tweeter, but a guy can dream. (What can I say? Perhaps I don’t have as much of a future in vaudeville as I’d hoped.)
But really, John’s already said it. We’ll return to this theme in the larger context of peak oil and the putative War On The Car, because this is just one symptom of a much more widespread social, political and discursive dysfunction, but at the end of the day, where has all this gotten us? Millions of dollars deeper in the hole and no further ahead on transit. How does this advance the greatest good for the greatest number? How does this represent pooling of resources, combination of expertise, or harnessing of collective efforts?
It’s hard to see how this serves The Public Good.
With today’s lesson, we focus on one of the most loaded topics in public conversation: taxation. Strap in, it’s going to get a little bumpy.
It’s easy to hate the idea of taxation, I know. And god knows, there’s a lot invested in cranking up that hatred. We’ll examine the reasons for that investment in due course, but for now, let’s just focus on first principles: taxes are the price of civilized society. We don’t live in Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature, wherein all are at war with one another; in return for a measure of security and as a step up from anarchy, barbarism, and incessant war, we agree to surrender a degree of our autonomy to this larger thing called “society.” It goes back a ways — farther than Rob Ford, David Miller, or Mel Lastman, in fact. Farther back than Agnes MacPhail, Nellie McClung, John A. MacDonald, Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, John Locke, the Magna Carta, Jesus Christ, and maybe even to the point where humankind started to record history. It’s a robust and resilient thing, civilization is, but it’s not unbreakable.
And what is the fundamental characteristic of civil society? It is a collective commitment to pool our efforts, to live by common norms and rules (more on that later), and to combine our efforts to accomplish, as a group, that which we cannot accomplish on our own. You know — roads, hospitals, civic infrastructure, collective defence, electricity, running water, clean air, and other things conducive to the public good. We act together to do things for the collective benefit.
And how do we accomplish those things? By pooling our resources. By paying taxes. That, in its most basic terms, is what taxation is. We determine collectively, through the democratic process and our elected representatives, what our social priorities are, we pool our resources, and then we allocate our pooled resources in accordance with those priorities. In other words, we “tax” and “spend.” It’s not right or left. It’s not socialism. It’s not capitalism. It’s not liberal or conservative. It’s not evil, it’s not confiscation, it’s not theft, and it’s not dictatorship. It’s government. It’s what government does. All the frippery and bullshit that’s been thrown at it just clouds the issue.
So now that we’ve established what taxes are and what they’re supposed to do, let’s talk about their role in democratic governance. Healthy, livable and functional communities, I’d respectfully submit, are not built by people who focus on keeping taxes low. Let’s make our biases clear straight off. Emphasizing low taxes at the expense of everything else isn’t just shallow thinking any more. Given the failures of far-right governance and the damage inflicted by years of devotion to so-called “austerity,” I’d submit that it verges on sociopathic.
Make no mistake, dear friends. When you cut taxes, you kneecap government’s ability to act in The Public Good. And that’s its role. Government is there to enhance the public good by working to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number. It’s not there to make a profit, it’s not there to strengthen the brand, it’s not there to generate returns for shareholders. There will be more about the fetishizing of The Market and The Private Sector later, but for now, let’s just focus on government’s core function.
And it’s here that we must re-emphasize the non-partisan nature of this little project. It’s not as if I’ve made my feelings about the Toronto mayoral shitstorm a secret, although I’ve been trying to dial it back for a while, but let’s be clear: this is not about Rob Ford. It’s easy to get caught up in the crack, the coarse boorishness, the racism, the sexism, the homophobia, and the other non-stop embarrassments, and lose sight of the fact that it’s the whole small-government, private-sector-market-fetishizing, low-taxing, union-hating mindset that’s toxic. It’s a mindset that rejects the whole notion of the public sphere as such. That’s what’s captured the mantle of “conservatism,” and that’s what needs to be pushed back.
The pushback starts with the shallow and destructive fixation on “respect for taxpayers.” Forget about the current administration’s spectacular failures and hypocrisy in that regard for a moment, and let’s focus on the misdirected emphasis and the attendant enfeeblement of any collective commitment to The Public Good. When you reduce the relationship between people and government to one of taxpayer and tax collector, you’re inevitably setting up a dynamic of resentment, hostility, smallness of mind, and meanness of spirit. It’s a very sad, angry and limiting view of citizenship, of our collective well-being, and of public life. This isn’t conservatism. It’s destructive, atavistic bullshit.
You want evidence? Well, let’s work those critical-thinking skills, shall we? Just ask yourselves whose interests are served by such a poisonous agenda. From this, healthy communities, committed citizens, and well-appointed public spheres do not spring. It’s fine if you’ve got the resources to buy your own infrastructure and retreat behind the walls of your private enclave, but I’d submit it’s not too healthy for the rest of us.
We are citizens, not just taxpayers. Not residents, not customers, not voters, not consumers. We are more than that. It is with the idea of citizenship that we express our sense of community and our aspiration to work together for the greater good. As citizens, we have obligations to one another, and to something bigger than our individual interests — and it is through our collective action and our contribution to public resources that we fulfill those obligations.
I don’t mean to sound sanctimonious (strangled derisive laughter — ed.), but I haven’t got much time for people who bitch about “goddamn government wasting my tax money.” News flash, folks: it’s not your money. It’s society’s money, to be spent in accordance with duly determined public priorities. You get to have a say in that determination through your elected representatives and the democratic process, but you don’t get to take your ball and go home if you don’t get the results you want.
You can bitch and moan and begrudge every nickel you pay in taxes, or you can have a healthy society. I know which way I’d go.
ETA: I’d be remiss if I failed to acknowledge the guidance of my wise friend Alex Himelfarb here. He’s more eloquent in his sleep than I’ll ever be wide awake.
ETA: Trish Hennessy also. She and Alex are the finest civic and moral guides a fella could ask for.
Good day everyone. When we left off yesterday, we were talking about vigilance and dedication regarding the meanings of words.
Let’s review: the main takeaway from the last post should be that words are the most basic currency of citizenship because they’re the means whereby we share ideas and communicate with one another. It’s for that reason that we have to respect their meanings and guard against attempts to subvert them. We can’t allow words to be stripped of their meanings and repurposed; if we allow our opponents to do that, to define the terms of the conversation, we’ve lost before it’s even started.
However, all that vigilance about words, language and clarity isn’t going to be much use if we don’t use those words to advance The Public Good (Chuck Heston voice — ed.). This brings us to today’s subject: civic engagement. One of the obligations of citizenship, it says here, is participation in the civic life of your community. (Suppose I should have a widget that flashes and makes “woop woop” noises when I get all sanctimonious or something.)
This project is going to stay resolutely non-partisan because I don’t want people to blow it off for ideological or political reasons. At least not until they’ve read the first two or three sentences. But it’s no secret that low voter turnout is a matter of concern, not only in Toronto, but at the provincial and federal levels as well. And it’s not just in Canada.
So, back to first principles. The right to participate in matters of public concern isn’t a given. Not everyone in the world enjoys that right. (Let’s just set aside, for a moment, the question of whether the mechanisms whereby we exercise that right are working as well as they should.) And if you don’t participate, you don’t get to complain when things happen that you don’t like. If you want good things to happen, if you don’t want debate to be consumed with stupidity or irrelevancies, you have to take part. It’s no guarantee, of course, but sitting at home with your thumb up your ass pretty much guarantees the opposite.
No easy way around it, my friends. You leave it to others, you have no right to complain, and as we’ve seen from the past couple of decades, you end up with dictatorship or the corporatist equivalent, whereby governments are systematically stripped of the ability to act in the public interest when it conflicts with private profit. The decline in public participation is part of what makes such arrangements easy to tart up and pass off as “free trade.”
As I often do, I’m going to cite my good friend Daren on this one.
They’re all crooks and liars anyway. Nothing you say or do will change anything anyway. What’s the use? Just keep your head down and blindly lash out every 4 years or so in the voting booth. Throw the bums out! Keep my taxes low. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Democracy in a nutshell.
Sorry, no sale. This is an abdication of the most basic responsibility of citizenship. When you take that attitude, you enable the worst elements and instincts in the body politic. The non-stop clusterfuck on display at City Hall over the last three years ought to be all the evidence you need. And really, it’s not much of a leap to draw the connections between that and the resources invested in keeping us lazy, cynical, and disengaged, because truth told, democracy is messy. I think it was someone much smarter than me who once described it as the worst form of government in the world, except for all the others. Couple that with the so-called Fair Elections Act, which has been described as a cynical and misleading effort at voter suppression, and the importance of civic engagement becomes even more evident.
Ultimately the only source of legitimacy is a mandate from the electorate, regardless of the dysfunctions of the FPTP system or the ease with which institutions of governance can be captured and subverted. Certainly one can raise questions about the source of that mandate or the mechanics of how it is generated — in fact, raising such questions is at the very heart of civic engagement.
It’s worth noting, for that reason, that that’s why the corporations and lobbyists and string pullers do not want engaged citizens — we just gum up the works and get in the way. Democracy, as someone once said, can be messy. But that is all the more reason to stress the obligations of citizenship, and the need for people to participate actively in the civic lives of their communities.
I’m dwelling on this at some length because it’s important to push back against the regrettable and, frankly, indefensible tendency for people to blow off their civic responsibilities with the arch suggestion that they “don’t want to get mixed up in politics.” As I’ve written previously,
One of the hallmarks of contemporary political discourse, or more accurately, the sewer into which the modern right has dragged it, is the characterization of undesirable things as “political,” and the corollary implication that anything tainted by the stench of “politics” is undesirable.
Sorry, nope. Governance is, at its essence, a process of determining public priorities and allocating public resources in accordance with those priorities. Inevitably, some of those priorities will be judged more important than others, and therefore assigned more resources. That process is a series of value judgements — judgements that are informed, one hopes, by a commitment to the public good (Chuck Heston voice again — ed.) and to arriving at solutions that achieve the greatest good for the greatest number. Again, I’ll recycle my own argument (Sanctimonious Wanker warning):
In prioritizing things and deciding how much to spend, we are invariably making value judgments. We are negotiating with others and making trade-offs. In other words, we are Engaging in Politics. There’s nothing to be gained by deluding ourselves or trying to convince others that we are not.
In sum, then, politics is inherent in civic engagement. It’s not dirty and it’s not sordid and it’s not icky, despite the efforts invested in trying to make people think it is.
Dirty, icky and sordid. That’s not what politics is, and it’s not the tone that should characterize our public conversation. We can do better. We can demand better. We can establish a context wherein both we and our representatives and public servants are induced to do better. Tomorrow: inclusion, privilege, and above all, a call for a return to civility.
Welcome back, class. Yesterday’s lesson introduced the notion of critical thought and the importance of linguistic and discursive clarity. (Dear lord, he’s a wanker, isn’t he? – ed.) Why is it important? Because language is the most basic currency of citizenship — the means whereby we exchange ideas and communicate with one another. We can use it, as I advocate, for advancing the public good, or for less noble purposes. It’s in the interest of pushing back against the latter that we’re focusing on this.
When I kicked off this little project yesterday, I was resolved to keep it non-partisan. That may be a bit of a challenge given the subject of today’s lesson, given the extent to which public discourse has been debased over the past few decades. But that’s precisely what makes it so essential.
Let’s note at the outset, then: that’s what lies at the core of our mission to reclaim the language. Insisting on adherence to the plain, traditional, and historical meanings of words isn’t a partisan exercise: it may seem that way, but that’s because of the way those words have been stripped of their meanings and repurposed for whatever destructive and/or anti-social agendas may temporarily waylay our attention.
This provides a reasonable segue into one of the most important ideas I’d like to reclaim: conservatism.
Perhaps it’s just my own Pollyanna / Rodney King naivete, but I’ve never believed conservatism to be incompatible with progressive ideals or a sense of social justice. At its heart, the conservative sensibility means identifying the most worthwhile things in our collective history and traditions, and working to enhance, safeguard, and preserve those things. It means due regard and respect for what our ancestors have built and for what generations of Canadians have fought to accomplish, and working to protect those things from those who would tear them down for ideological or financial reasons. And it carries connotations of compassion, community, civility, and respect, among other things. It’s a body of intellectual and political legacy that cannot simply be swept away with a wave of the hand.
As Edmund Burke once argued (oh, Christ, again? What is it with you and Burke? — ed.):
Burke was attempting to counter the ripple effects of the French Revolution, but his arguments are as compelling today as they were in the 18th century. It requires a profound effort of the will, not to mention what Orwell might have described as “goodthink,” not to see the parallels between the subject of Burke’s discomfiture and contemporary efforts to stunt, neuter, or even tear down established social programs, the post-war welfare state, traditions of making decisions on the basis of impartial expertise, and any other public initiatives aimed at reducing poverty, inequality, and other social stressors. So, recapping an argument I’ve made before: you don’t get to bring blowtorches, sledgehammers, and meat cleavers to attack well-established programs or the social fabric, never mind the constituent elements of civilized society itself, and still call yourselves conservatives. What you’re doing has nothing to do with preservation.
This is the damage done by 30 years of right-wing nonsense. And let’s not make this mistake, folks. This isn’t conservatism. This is destructive atavistic bullshit. So let’s be wary of people calling themselves conservatives, and ask ourselves whether they’re truly honouring the work of our predecessors, and truly consonant with the conservative tradition.
Lots more in the related links below. Let’s move on and talk about … elitism.
Apart from conservatism, it’s hard to think of a word or an idea that’s been more disfigured. In contemporary political discourse, it’s become a lethal weapon. It’s been invested with connotations of snootiness, condescension, contempt, unearned privilege, exclusion, and disdain for the mythical, good old ordinary, “real people” folks so beloved of today’s right-wing icons. It’s as if someone took an ordinary word and subjected it to deadly doses of disfiguring radiation and/or chemical experiments; what we’re left with is some hideous mutation with little resemblance to the original. So let’s push the goalposts back on this one as well.
What is elitism, really, other than the idea that important decisions should be made on the basis of the best available information? When did that become a bad thing? When did thoughtful reflection, respectful discussion, prudence, and dispassionate debate, detached from any emotional animus toward one’s opponents, become anything other than part of the basis for good governance?
We’ll discuss this in more detail when we address the notion of complexity, but for now, let’s reaffirm: expertise, education, and attention to detail are good things. They’re things we want in our elected officials and public servants, regardless of what they’re discussing or what level of government we’re looking at. When we’re making billion-dollar decisions about the future of our city, province, or country, I want those to be the touchstones. I don’t want those decisions made on the basis of gut instinct, manufactured controversy, cultivated resentment, divisiveness, lapel-button slogans, shallow disengagement, belligerent ignorance, or transparent misdirection. And lest anyone think I’m talking solely about the municipal realm, consider this: destruction of the long-form census, muzzling scientists, vote suppression on spurious grounds, kneecapping loci of expertise, not to mention antipathy to the whole notion of expertise itself, all aggregated under a misguided hostility towards “elitism,” can’t possibly help but be antithetical to good governance.
There’s more here than I’ve got room for within the confines of a single blog post, but for the moment, here’s a partial list of words that have been co-opted and need to be rescued. For whatever reason, they’ve been stripped of their meanings and invested with unholy connotations that are, as set out above, antithetical to the functions of civil society, citizenship, and good governance. Rather than means of communication and exchange of ideas, they’ve become weapons: they’re calculated to spur emotional responses, means of manipulation and demagoguery, rhetorical brickbats used to shut down reasoned debate. We need to be wary of anyone using these terms or phrases without a healthy respect for their plain meaning:
This isn’t an exhaustive list, of course, but you see where I’m going, I hope. One of the most powerful weapons we’ve got in fighting manipulation and misinformation is a simple insistence on the plain and unadorned meanings of words, without imposed connotations or partisan agendas. Tomorrow: more on language and its importance to civic engagement.
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:
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.