Accidental Activist

Nice Chatting With You

Arguments inspire, inform, ignite, and unite. Where would we be with out them?

By Ben Bull
Published October 22, 2007

I'm a huge fan of the RTH comments page. When Ryan set it up almost three years ago now I gave myself the handle 'Rusty Nail'. I thought discussion boards were like the CB Radio fad of the 1980s. I felt pretty stupid when I realized almost everyone else was using their real names.

There's been some great discussions over the years. Popular topics have included:

For a writer, it's a wonderful compliment to receive feedback on your work. Good or bad, whenever anybody takes the time to respond to your ideas, that's all the praise you need. You know you've successfully sparked an emotion, and informed the debate.

Debate is a rare commodity here in Canada. I wrote recently, on the thread about how Canada is a disappointingly uninterested nation when it comes to thrashing out ideas.

Coming from the UK as I do, I am used to daily diatribes and heated discussions around the dinner table, the water cooler and in the pages of the paper. But Canada is quiet. Too quiet.

I remember landing my first proper job over here, at a large audit firm in Toronto, 10 years ago now. Sitting around the lunch room one day I tried to engage my new workmates in a discussion on multiculturalism - "Canada is no more enlightened or tolerant that Britain."

I contended, provocatively, but no one took the bait! Faces turned to the window, nervous glances were exchanged. My colleagues were too uncomfortable to talk! What's everyone so worried about? I wondered.

The next day I was advised to "watch myself."

"You might hurt someone's feelings," I was told.

Hurting someone's feelings is one of the risks we take whenever we open our mouths to speak. Of course there are potential consequences for speaking our minds, but there are worse consequences if we don't.

Canadian uninterest permeates the political atmosphere too. It's ironic in a way that one of the issues we've debated most aggressively on RTH over the years is the growing scourge of apathy among Canadian voters.

But really - is anyone surprised at the pathetic 52 percent turnout in the recent Ontario election? Perhaps that's another topic for debate...

For those who think this doesn't matter, just consider that this is almost certainly one of the reasons the Federal Liberals are backing the minority Conservatives right now.

The Libs don't want an election because, in part, we don't want one either. We can't be bothered to have another debate.

Surely it's not all our fault. It can't be - can it? Our silence is certainly more to do with the dearth of visionary politicians and the endless scandals in government - right?

And for sure our disengagement is due at least in part to the lack of transparency and responsiveness in our three levels of government...

Well, if you're looking for someone else to blame for our lack of political interest and chatter, then you could always start with the press. When is the last time our national media 'broke' a meaningful story?

When is the last time any journalist you know stopped staring at the wire and got off their arse to dig up a story of their own? I don't wish to be glib - I know several reporters who work hard to get inside the news - but it's just not enough.

This country needs to start talking.

I love arguments. I remember climbing onto my high horse at a writer's group in Hamilton: "This town needs to stop shitting on its downtown," I declared, in words to that effect, to a bunch of people I hardly knew, "It needs to grow up."

I was blasted with a volley of rebuffs. "Leave our town alone!" moaned someone at the back.

"You don't know what you're talking about," said someone else.

It was great. I stood my ground, of course. Just as I, and several other RTH readers, stood our ground in the most recent contentious message board discussion on RTH last week:

"There happen to be a lot of people who HAVE to drive to ... work," wrote one commenter in response to my point about how I don't like to drive, in an RTH blog titled, All Part of Doing Bidness.

So the debate raged on. "I know we are disagreeing," the other commenter replied several comments later, "but this is a lot fun".

It was probably the most telling comment of the debate.

Arguments are fun. Arguments inspire, arguments inform, arguments excite, arguments unite. Sure, they're not always fun and they do sometimes "end in tears" as my Mum used to say, but really - where would we be without them?

I have no idea when the next RTH discussion thread is going to uncoil. But when it does, I promise you I'll be there, along with the rest of you, to help unravel it.

Until then, it's been nice chatting with you.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.

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By Councilwatch (anonymous) | Posted October 25, 2007 at 04:07:44

People who speak out are usually the one who have convictions and fight to maintain them. There was a time in Hamilton when the Steelworkers newspaper Steel Shots was edited by a man called Harvey Greenwood who took on issues that the Spectator just pussyfooted around. I canstill recall the full editoial he did on the proposed Doctors Fee for service, it caused the wrath of the Hamilton Medical Association and even its National body. I wrote for a CUPE paper at the time and I reprinted it under the heading "The New Tommy Douglas" and soon I was reading Greenwood's story in every union newspaper in Canada and the US. He wrote the good and the bad about unions and soon his union framed him and he wsa dumped. Does anyone know what happened to him, he must now be in his late seventies or eighties.

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By ventrems (registered) | Posted October 30, 2007 at 20:30:09

The 52% turnout comment hit on something I was "arguing" about last night with my girlfriend and I had to comment.

I know we all hate to see those numbers because it essentially suggests that people do not care about political issues, but what if we put it in perspective? We live in a great country, arguably the best in the world. We have a high quality of life, safety, security, jobs, money, relatively honest government, fair and equitable justice, universal health care... and I could go on. The majority of us are not dying of disease, starvation, or war. We are, in fact, generally very happy and well off. What this all amounts to is that most people do not feel impassioned to stand up and speak, argue, or vote. People are content with their lives, and many probably do not have strong opinions on the day-to-day political arguments that emerge in a typical democracy as is ours. I wonder if more young people would vote if conscription was an election issue...

Now, I don't know if this idea fully explains the low voter turnouts, but it certainly explains some. We've lost passion for the process because the process has become business as usual. When things get rocky, that's when people start having opinions and getting angry. Think of union meetings (for those of you familiar with them). How many people show up to the regularly scheduled meetings? How many show up when there's a potential strike? I think that's what has happened to our country.

A obvious consequence is that low turnout is usually explained by voter apathy, but this theory would argue just the opposite.

OK... Let's hear it...

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted October 31, 2007 at 09:40:58

I think low voter turnout is a combination of a number of factors. However, as tempting as it is to assume it's due mainly or even extensively to people being really happy and having no problems, it's instructive that the US has the lowest voter turnout among industrialized liberal democracies, and yet public opinion polls consistently find that Americans feel insecure, aren't happy with their government, and believe that things are only going to get worse.

Ironically, given that Ontario voters just defeated the MMP ballot initiative, countries with proportional representation also have the highest voter turnout. This suggests that the problem might lie not in apathy or comfort, but in a sense that one's vote doesn't really count and that the political parties don't have to listen to the public.

Well, to a large extent this is correct. First-past-the-post simply discards more than half the votes cast, and governments can win a majority with only a plurality of votes. Convince 40% of voters that you're the best party, and you can win 80% of the seats and carte blanche for the next four years.

The MMP campaign was conducted poorly:

  • Not enough lead time - the public should have had closer to a year to learn about it, debate its merits, and so on.

  • Not enough support - after the government announced the planned referendum in early summer, only a few organizations even noticed, and they had very little money for public education and promotion. Elections Ontario was not allowed to promote it, and their literature was anemic and unpersuasive. On the day of the election, most Ontarians still didn't understand what they were being asked to vote on.

  • Institutional opposition - the people and organizations that benefit from the unfair status quo (including the corporate newsmedia) misrepresented MMP, rehashed all the phony claims about it (the 'crony list' and so on), and gave little attention to its proponents.

The Liberals did keep their promise and hold the referendum, but did it in a way that made it very difficult for the measure to pass (giving them the best of both worlds).

  • Tied to provincial election - the referendum should have been a stand-alone vote; the MMP issue was buried under other election issues, and being tied to an election in which half of Ontarians don't bother voting meant those people didn't bother to vote on this either.

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By rusty (registered) - website | Posted October 31, 2007 at 11:20:26

Hi Ventrems,

What was your girlfriend's opinion?! :) To Ryan's point, I think the low turnout was more to do with apathy than an overall satisfaction with life in Canada. Whenever I talk to people about a political issue I guarantee there is at least one thing they are furious and passionate about. Despite our relative comfort, I don't think we humans will ever be 'satisfied'.

The problem is there is a lack of excitement in our political realm. A lack of any sense that we can do anything to affect the kind of change we want to see. We have put our energies into, and cast our votes for, parties with high hopes and big promises in the past, and we have been let down. Our country is essentially being run by one of two parties and neither is selling me a vision I can get excited about and neither is likely to do half of what they say even if they were!

Sure, whenever a party finds a 'wedge issue' or something to get us excited about voter turnout will probably increase. But that's no way to run a government. We should be 'excited' about all the 'little' issues that many of us find way too easy too ignore - poverty, efficient municipal services, how our cities grow, improved quality of life, 3rd world support - even the environment is becoming a forgotten issue right now. And we should be pursuing a vision that gets us excited about the future instead of just anticipating more of the same.

As far as the MMP debacle goes I feel that this opportunity has now been put back years. Our current system does not provide transparancy or a sense of connectedness with our government. Our democracry, as it 'works' today - is broken and this is the fundamental issue behind the low turnout numbers.

I heard a marketing guru explain that the MMP advertising dollars should have been split equally between the pro and con organizations. They could have argued it out over the airwaves and it would have made for a more interesting and effective campaign. All for nought now...

As for the point behind this piece, I believe that all change starts with an argument at the dinner table. If we can't foster a culture of debate and disagreement - at the grassroots level - then we'll never be in charge of our destiny.

Cheers

Ben

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By ventrems (registered) | Posted October 31, 2007 at 19:09:21

Looking into this a bit further, Simon Fraser University had some nice stats on historical voter turnout in Canadian Federal Elections (http://www.sfu.ca/~aheard/elections/historical-turnout.html)

They note the difficulty in reading too much into statistics such as these, since voter turnout and % of registered voters lists have been compiled differently in the past, but overall the conclusion is that voter turnout has generally been comparable across our history.

The % of registered voters has fluctuated from around 60% to 80% since confederation. As recent as 1988, turnout was measured at 75%, but has been on a steady decline ever since. The 2004 federal election was a record low 60.9%, the lowest since 1896 (62.9%).

Seeing these numbers suggests that the recent declines we've seen in voter turnout cannot be fully explained by our voting system, which hasn't changed. That people believe their votes are being wasted is likely not the only (or perhaps not even the most significant) reason for staying away from the polls.

The explanation, I think, may be a hybrid of some of the points we've brought up. The average citizen, unlike people like us, is not really interested in the day to day issues that come with running a democracy. The average citizen is more concerned with family, friends, their career, or the NHL, than with federal or provincial politics.

What then, would fire people up about politics? Like I suggested, I think major issues would. It's not pleasant, but catastrophic events force people to turn to their governments for direction. War, starvation, disease, etc. All of these things get people fired up about public policy.

BUT-- we do not have these things here (nor do we ever want them!!). So how can we engage people in the political process again? Perhaps it starts with education. How often do students in elementary and secondary school have the opportunity to study social and political issues? I was fortunate enough to take an elective during my OAC year, but it was not a mandatory subject. Now I believe students take a course in civics, but is this enough? Perhaps we should have classes in school that expose kids to provincial, federal, and global issues. Children should learn more about how their governments operation, and more importantly, how we the people can change how they operate. Educating people, starting at a young age, about some of the problems in our world will put us in a better position to solve them.

Just some thoughts...

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By ventrems (registered) | Posted November 01, 2007 at 09:59:59

Looking into this a bit further, Simon Fraser University had some nice stats on historical voter turnout in Canadian Federal Elections (http://www.sfu.ca/~aheard/elections/historical-turnout.html)

They note the difficulty in reading too much into statistics such as these, since voter turnout and % of registered voters lists have been compiled differently in the past, but overall the conclusion is that voter turnout has generally been comparable across our history.

The % of registered voters has fluctuated from around 60% to 80% since confederation. As recent as 1988, turnout was measured at 75%, but has been on a steady decline ever since. The 2004 federal election was a record low 60.9%, the lowest since 1896 (62.9%).

Seeing these numbers suggests that the recent declines we've seen in voter turnout cannot be fully explained by our voting system, which hasn't changed. That people believe their votes are being wasted is likely not the only (or perhaps not even the most significant) reason for staying away from the polls.

The explanation, I think, may be a hybrid of some of the points we've brought up. The average citizen, unlike people like us, is not really interested in the day to day issues that come with running a democracy. The average citizen is more concerned with family, friends, their career, or the NHL, than with federal or provincial politics.

What then, would fire people up about politics? Like I suggested, I think major issues would. It's not pleasant, but catastrophic events force people to turn to their governments for direction. War, starvation, disease, etc. All of these things get people fired up about public policy.

BUT-- we do not have these things here (nor do we ever want them!!). So how can we engage people in the political process again? Perhaps it starts with education. How often do students in elementary and secondary school have the opportunity to study social and political issues? I was fortunate enough to take an elective during my OAC year, but it was not a mandatory subject. Now I believe students take a course in civics, but is this enough? Perhaps we should have classes in school that expose kids to provincial, federal, and global issues. Children should learn more about how their governments operation, and more importantly, how we the people can change how they operate. Educating people, starting at a young age, about some of the problems in our world will put us in a better position to solve them.

Just some thoughts...

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