So I was at City Hall last week, talking to Mike Layton and his assistant Marco Bianchi about the possibility of having part of a local park set up as an off-leash area. (Disclosure: Mike Layton is my city councillor. I’ve been privileged to work with him on a couple of local matters. He’s awesome.)
I’ve written previously about the emotional import of local planning matters, but I wasn’t prepared for this. As with many things, it was another demonstration of my own naivete. I won’t go into the minutiae. It’s enough to note that the local politics can be, er, difficult. The conflict among dog people, non-dog people, parents, dog haters, cat people, etc. can be, in Mike’s words, almost feral. He talked about what he described as the colossal failure of an attempt to make one local park something that could be shared among the various stakeholders, and said the police had been involved because things had even come to blows.
But once again, it was an education. In my Pollyanna/Rodney King way, I want to believe that when mature and reasonable people act responsibly and deal with each other in a spirit of generosity and accommodation, most conflicts can be resolved. Competing interests can be balanced, things can be managed, who gets to do what can be worked out. (If you’re a dog owner, you pick up his/her shit, you keep him/her under control, and you don’t let him/her run around where the kids are playing. No-brainers, really.) It’s the “Don’t Be An Asshole” principle; in response to the observation that it only takes one idiot to fuck things up for everyone, I chose to think that peer pressure and public shaming would be effective antidotes.
Silly me. Thanks to Mike and Marco, I got an express ride on the Clue Train. Imagine my shock upon learning that people don’t pay attention to signs, don’t respect schedules, and don’t follow rules. Combine that with the inevitable confrontations among dog owners and parents (disclosure: I’m both, but I try not to be smug about it), the occasional but undeniable reality of people who don’t pick up after their dogs, and you have a formula for public meetings that make the 109 Ossington dispute look like a Board of Trade luncheon.
It was Mike and Marco’s description of just how heated those meetings can get that triggered the lesson, though. You should see just how crazy people can get, they told me. It’s the kind of thing that makes ordinary reasonable people step back shaking their heads and think “whoa. I don’t want to get involved in that.”
I thought about that for about half a second, and then it occurred to me. “But ordinary reasonable people have to get involved,” I said. “Otherwise, the assholes win.”
Perhaps there’s nothing especially new about it, but it’s worth repeating just the same. Whether it’s crazy anti-dog people, dumbass mayors and their brain-dead supporters, or authoritarian prime ministers who want to muzzle all opposition or contrary evidence, the public conversation and discursive boundaries can’t be left to the loudest or meanest or stupidest people. If we want better, we have to stay in the game.