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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