Monday, October 6, 2014

Let's do better this election



Election season is starting here on Bowen Island and final papers will be filed on October 10.  We will then see who is putting themselves forward to represent Islanders on Council and at the Metro Vancouver and Islands Trust councils as well.  Already we are seeing some of the rhetoric beginning and it is starting to take on a familiar role.  In an lovely and personal email exchange I was having with another Islander - a man with whom I have had many many disagreements over the past few years, I started thinking about the cost of the way we have done politics in the past few years.  What follows is a frank reflection of where we are at and where we could go.  We have a choice about what happens over the next six weeks.  

Over the past 13 years of living here I've learned a few things about Bowen's "divisiveness."  The truth is that there is a diversity of political opinion on the island - not at all a radical diversity, mind you.  Everyone is basically "small l" liberal in their economics and views on the role of government.  There are a few outliers with unusual political philosophies but they tend to talk a lot more than they act, and they rarely get anywhere near actual power.  We have had a famously anarchist mayor and once an Ayn Rand libertarian ran unsuccessfully for Council, but in general those who get elected stay pretty close to the middle.

But we do suffer an awful lot from what Sigmund Freud called the "narcissism of small differences."  What usually happens is that we see a simplistic "pro-development vs. pro-environment" split in decision making. Strangely people often refuse to identify with one side, but they are happy to demonize folks they perceive to be on the other side.  And folks being demonized refused to be categorized  in such a one dimensional way.  Zoom out a bit however and everyone looks pretty much the same.  

In general what we see on Bowen is actually NOT a lot of divisiveness.  We see diversity of opinion.  I believe that has been conflated in the kinds of online interactions and in Bowen's robust pamphlet culture into something that looks divisive.  We project our bigger fears of what is happening in the world on local neighbours that hold ideas we find disagreeable. But we aren't really THAT divided.  Especially when we encounter one another in person.  The vitriol we see online, or whispered from ear to ear, or insinuated in self-published formats does not translate into real life in any great extent.  There may well be people that can't stand each other in real life, but in general they don't impact the way things happen or don't happen on Bowen.

So with a recent thread on the forum, and with the low hum of this tone echoing through the past three years of benign pamphlet warfare, I feel like I'm watching the beginning of the same old same old: people fighting each other's projected personas when in reality there is a depth to people and a deeper passion that underlies where folks are coming from.  Two a a half years ago I pulled myself away from the forum because I felt that I was not contributing to a healthy tone of discussion there.  That doesn't mean that I'm not passionate about things or that I don't disagree with people.  But in the last three years I've become more aware of my impact and have worked hard to try to serve the tone I want to see on Bowen Island.  Not perfect in any way.  But I am who I am and I'm also changing because I have a long term view to my life here, and I can't see myself living in a community that is deeply polarized.

Back during the beginning of the artificial turf debate in 2007 I shuddered at the level of vitriol being directed at each other online.  Having worked in deeply divided communities, what I saw was an early warning sign about deep divisiveness here.  Small communities can go sideways very quickly and I had been looking at events on Galiano Island where there is an intractable and spiteful conflict that is decades old and is almost completely unsolvable except by people moving away.  That was my fear for Bowen and that is why i have tried to moderate my own participation in civic discourse and why I have appealed from time to time for a relaxation in the personal tone and tenor of disagreements.

I'm not a pollyanna person.  I'm deeply practical.  I'm not an idealist.  I am an optimistic realist.  And in order for us to proceed from a basis of possibility we need a fertile field of civil engagement and discourse.  I actually feel that the tone of the last election campaign made it very difficult for the current Council to get as much done as they wanted to because, even though they had a majority and a clear view about building a community centre and finally getting the village planning underway. they had so rankled and distressed those with different opinions that no one on the "other side" trusted them.  Therefore they were hamstrung both by the realities of actually governing - which is a slow process - and the need to implement what was essentially a pretty solid community agenda as a strategic communications exercise.  Trust was eroded and we got exactly the context we had all created.

Unless this election campaign radically addresses this need for us to work differently together there is a real chance that we will continue to see-saw between polarities of action and reaction and be quite slow in implementing really interesting ideas that will continue to make our little island a terrific place to live.  I am cautiously optimistic that this will change, but I can almost guarantee that if the campaign dissolves into the kinds of name calling, vitriol and bitterness that we saw last time, whoever gets elected will be quite unable to get anything done for another three years.

One reason why things take so long on Bowen is not Council.  It is us.  All of us.  And all of us have a role to play in changing that.  We will have disagreements and arguments - that's how democracy works.  But we could all use a little skill in how those arguments are conducted.  So when you put yourself about this election season, give some thought to the kind of community you are creating with your speech and actions.  If we have use this campaign to rebuild trust on the island and hammer out good ideas together, then good things will happen quite quickly.  But if we see campaigns and commentary that are full of innuendo, anger, rumour and insult, then we will end up with community in which trust is scarce and therefore action is very, very difficult.  And the fingers will get pointed at those who were unlucky enough to get elected in those circumstances, even though they aren't the ones to blame.

Pogo had it right.  Let's do it right.