Nuance, complexity, and why progressives are frequently at a disadvantage | #TOpoli #onpoli #cdnpoli

Couple of quick thoughts about efforts to reform the voting system, spurred, as is often the case, by another thoughtful and well-crafted post from Daren.

I’ll confess at the outset that I haven’t really given that much thought to the various options, be they ranked ballots, single transferable votes, pure proportional representation, or whatever. The debate’s been carried by smarter and better-informed people than me. I’ll also disclose that I consider Dave Meslin, one of the guys working on RaBIT, a friend and a civic hero, even if I haven’t always agreed with him.

But that’s not my purpose today. As Daren observes,

those speaking under the banner (if not official endorsement) of Fair Vote Canada – the side of proportional representation and against ranked ballots – did themselves no favours.

I’m not taking sides in that particular debate because, as I’ve admitted, it’s complicated and I haven’t given it as much thought as I should. That the dysfunctions of our current First Past The Post system don’t really serve the needs of democratic governance ought to be self-evident by now; it underlines the need for serious and well-considered electoral reform, at every level from the municipal to the federal.

No, what concerns us today is the challenge posed by complexity itself. Daren’s not the first observer to note the internecine warfare among various progressive factions, whether they’re championing electoral reform, a particular set of social or economic measures, or even discursive change. It’s never especially easy to analyze arguments, to evaluate evidence, and to follow chains of reasoning — hence this little corner’s continuing fascination with the notion of critical thought and its importance to the demands of engaged citizenship.

It’s difficult to approach this without sounding all preachy (really? we hadn’t noticed — ed.), but that’s inherent in any worthwhile public-policy discussion. Anything that involves multiple objectives, multiple stakeholders, conflicting priorities, and finite resources is going to require a difficult process of analysis and evaluation. It takes time, concentration, and a willingness to embrace complexity, as well as an acknowledgement that such things rarely boil down to simple answers. In short, it’s about seeing nuance, making tradeoffs, recognizing shades of grey.

And that, I’d submit, is why those willing to engage that way are so often at a disadvantage. Not only are they asking more of their fellow citizens than the purveyors of simplistic catchphrases and lapel-button slogans — they’re also more prone to thrashing out their differences in public. The term “message discipline” isn’t an accident. When you can reduce complex issues of governance to bumper-sticker memes like “gravy train” or “strong stable majority,” you demand far less of people, and you give them an excuse to turn off their critical faculties.

It’s effective, but it’s also wrong, and it betrays not respect for people, but contempt. We needn’t delude ourselves that engaging our fellow citizens critically is an easy thing, but ultimately it suggests a great deal more respect for them.

To nuance, then, and to raising the conversation.

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From Campaign 2010 to Campaign 2014: framing the #TOpoli narrative

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It may be conventional, as we near the halfway point of Team Ford’s mandate, to expect a raft of think pieces, assessments, sententious analyses, and windy “Whither Toronto” wankfests. But enough about me.

Regular visitors to this little corner will be familiar, I think, with your humble servant’s fascination (obsession? – ed.) with framing, storylines, and narratives. It’s nothing new, of course; I harp on it because discourse – the words we use to talk to one another, the stories we tell each other, the themes we use in making sense of current events, the implicit assumptions – is at the very basis of civic engagement. It’s the most essential currency of citizenship. It’s from the basic discursive tools that everything else in the Citizen’s Toolbox – critical thinking, a sense of the public good, an appreciation for complexity – arises.

That’s part of the context for a discussion that developed earlier this afternoon on the Tweetr (kids these days). Regardless of what I may think of Team Ford’s approach to governance, you have to agree that the municipal election of 2010 was pretty much defined by the Ford campaign’s success in establishing and controlling the narrative. The messaging was so effective that with the exception of Joe Pantalone, all the other major mayoral contenders ended up buying into it to some extent. 

Nothing new or revealing there, of course. But as the subsequent two years have shown, there’s a big difference between campaigning and governing. Campaigning can be very effective when the messaging is straightforward and easy to grasp. Whether it’s truthful or constructive is another matter. Once you get into the nuts and bolts of governance, things get a bit more complicated. Either way, though, discourse and narratives matter. Words matter. Definitions matter. Connotations matter, because they’re all essential in establishing the terms whereby we communicate.

That’s not exactly a new insight either, and I’m not the first to suggest it, but I’d humbly suggest that it’s a lesson well worth repeating and establishing as one of the dominant memes for 2014. (I’m not tipping my hand or anyone else’s with this, I trust.)

It’s instructive, therefore, to read the tweets from Nick Kouvalis. Anyone tapped into Toronto politics knows about his role in getting Rob Ford into the mayor’s chair; as I’ve said before, regardless of what I may think about Ford’s politics and approach to governance, there’s no denying that Nick ran an effective and successful campaign. He knows about messaging and about mobilizing voters, and as the following collection of tweets shows, he’s got some insights we would do well to learn from. (Nick, why can’t you use your talents for niceness instead of evil?)

[View the story “Two years of #TeamFord, and what people voted for | #TOpoli” on Storify]

 

Perhaps it’s too soon. We don’t know what’s going to happen in two years. But I can’t help thinking that the difference between campaigning and governing is going to be central to almost every attempt to define and describe Team Ford’s record. 

Narratives, folks. Fasten your seat belts.

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Beyond Kevin O’Leary: the Occupy movement and journalism’s latest FAIL

Nothing’s highlighted the weaknesses of the corporate media better than their demonstrated befuddlement with this particular story.

The spanking laid on Kevin O’Leary by Chris Hedges last week is a particularly egregious example. In between the condescension, name-calling and insults, O’Leary also manages to make the story about him and getting called out for his boorish behaviour, thus taking the focus off the Occupy Wall Street activists and their motivations.

But this goes far beyond just one embarrassing moment on the CBC. Kevin O’Leary isn’t the only one seemingly at a loss because the movement doesn’t have designated spokespeople or official demands. Even a well-intentioned piece on a local news site seems to fall into the same trap:

Until official demands are released, it remains unclear—as with protests in other cities—how long they are prepared to stay, and what would constitute a victory for them.

No, it’s not hierarchical. It’s not broken down into easily digested soundbites. And it might not lend itself to simplistic he said / she said construction.

Reporters like an easy-to-grasp storyline. They like it even more when it’s spoon-fed. Genuine research, complexity, and nuance are time-consuming, and even intimidating. Who’s got time to struggle for genuine insights when you’re on deadline? Who’s got time to provide a genuine and detailed portrayal of how the Wall Street activists are conducting themselves, resisting the power of the state, organizing their makeshift community? Who’s got time to put the events of the past 24 hours in a larger historical context that encompasses class struggle, distribution of wealth, the role of the public sphere, and citizenship? Easier to set activists up as a bunch of dirty privileged hippies who just want to sit around, smoke drugs and whine about oppression. Count the stereotypes.

Not entirely their fault, of course. Traditional media outlets have investors to keep happy. Their owners, most of the time, are more likely to identify with the 1% rather than the 99%. Self-censorship, therefore, becomes a matter of self-preservation. And career advancement often depends on misdirection, fluff, and the Shiny Object strategy.

The results, however, are there for anyone who cares to look, and the most telling detail, I think, is in the array of forces being marshalled against the Occupy Wall Street activists and the narrative embodied by their presence: egregious police brutality, misrepresentation, hoarding of resources, greed, harassment, demonization.

You can tell a lot about the power of an idea by measuring the resources devoted to smearing, opposing and/or suppressing it. And it’s pretty clear that the 99% meme has a lot of powerful interests very worried.

Related posts:

Beyond Kevin O’Leary: the Occupy movement and journalism’s latest FAIL

Nothing’s highlighted the weaknesses of the corporate media better than their obvious befuddlement with this particular story.

The spanking laid on Kevin O’Leary by Chris Hedges last week is a particularly egregious example. In between the condescension, name-calling and insults, O’Leary also manages to make the story about him and getting called out for his boorish behaviour, thus taking the focus off the Occupy Wall Street activists and their motivations.

But this goes far beyond just one embarrassing moment on the CBC. Kevin O’Leary isn’t the only one seemingly at a loss because the movement doesn’t have designated spokespeople or official demands. Even a well-intentioned piece on a local news site seems to fall into the same trap:

Until official demands are released, it remains unclear—as with protests in other cities—how long they are prepared to stay, and what would constitute a victory for them.

No, it’s not hierarchical. It’s not broken down into easily digested soundbites. And it might not lend itself to simplistic he said / she said construction.

Reporters like an easy-to-grasp storyline. They like it even more when it’s spoon-fed. Genuine research, complexity, and nuance are time-consuming, and even intimidating. Who’s got time to struggle for genuine insights when you’re on deadline? Who’s got time to provide a genuine and detailed portrayal of how the Wall Street activists are conducting themselves, resisting the power of the state, organizing their makeshift community? Who’s got time to put the events of the past 24 hours in a larger historical context that encompasses class struggle, distribution of wealth, the role of the public sphere, and citizenship? Easier to set activists up as a bunch of dirty privileged hippies who just want to sit around, smoke drugs and whine about oppression. Count the stereotypes.

Not entirely their fault, of course. Traditional media outlets have investors to keep happy. Their owners, most of the time, are more likely to identify with the 1% rather than the 99%. Self-censorship, therefore, becomes a matter of self-preservation. And career advancement often depends on misdirection, fluff, and the Shiny Object strategy.

The results, however, are there for anyone who cares to look, and the most telling detail, I think, is in the array of forces being marshalled against the Occupy Wall Street activists and the narrative embodied by their presence: egregious police brutality, misrepresentation, hoarding of resources, greed, harassment, demonization.

You can tell a lot about the power of an idea by measuring the resources devoted to smearing, opposing and/or suppressing it. And it’s pretty clear that the 99% meme has a lot of powerful interests very worried.

Related posts: