“You feel what you feel, and your feelings are real.” – Sven the Reindeer (Frozen 2)
Politics is an emotional affair. We’ve all become accustomed to outrage as a driving political force; it isn’t news when politicians address a chanting mob to feed their angst and fuel their resentments. While this kind of nasty populism has been on the rise in recent years, it isn’t new: a hundred years ago, if a politician couldn’t stir up an angry mob against his opponent, he could pay a few of the boys from the pub to chase them out of town. (Tommy Douglas was chased off of more than one stump in his early days of giving stump speeches.) But in the internet age, it is different: rumours travel faster, systems and issues are more complex, and there are so many different voices that it’s hard to find a dominant narrative that’s anything more than a caricature.
And what happens online doesn’t always stay online. The anger of an all-caps tweet can be dismissed, but in the past few weeks of canvassing I’ve seen it firsthand on doorsteps. One person, who didn’t know there was a municipal election on, told me: “I’m more concerned that we LIVE IN A COMMUNIST COUNTRY! CONSERVATIVE ALL THE WAY!” Others shared with me their deep frustration with a municipality that they feel doesn’t listen to them or care about them, a very common concern with responses ranging from quiet disappointment to outrage and theories about local politicians selling the town to developers for personal gain. Another, talking about larger systemic issues and the lack of movement on them, speculated about whether change could be achieved through the use of violence.
Canvassing these days can be pretty damn depressing.
But when I’m faced with such strong emotions, I try to work it through, following the thread of the emotions and experiences toward the root. I think I’ve found a few of the causes of our big feelings about politics.
Misinformation and Disinformation
First, the simplest cause of outrage: misinformation and disinformation. One thing about humans is that we have a tendency to believe the worst news, and question the best. The opposite is often true. If you hear something that immediately triggers outrage in you, the chances are good that it isn’t true – or isn’t fully true.
Misinformation is when we have the wrong information, for any reason: maybe it’s a speculative rumour, maybe a distorted truth, something taken out of context and then repeated a thousand times online. Disinformation, on the other hand, is when people lie to us: things deliberately taken out of context, altered, or made up entirely, to make us feel angry enough to share it.
A person who believes that we live in a communist country likely also believes at least some of the QAnon conspiracy theories, which range from accusations of communism all the way up to secret satanic cabals of leftist politicians who traffic and ritualistically sacrifice children in the basement of a pizza parlour (yes, that’s a real theory that a great many people believe). And these wild conspiracies aren’t just related to Trump and American politicians; the “Queen of Canada” has many followers, including people who have stopped paying their utility bills at her urging, and a few men who recently tried to perform a citizens’ arrest on police officers in Peterborough. If you draw a Venn diagram between her, QAnon, White supremacist groups, vaccine misinformation, and religious nationalism, you’ll also capture the organizers of the Freedom Convoy. Whatever the intentions of any particular supporter of the Freedom Convoy, the organizers were largely the same people who organized the “United We Roll” convoy a few years ago. Then, as with the Freedom Convoy, many prominent conservative politicians offered significant vocal support for the movement, despite both convoys being significantly associated with separatist movements and racist militias. Which is why I’m not surprised that someone who would say that we live in a communist country would follow it up with “CONSERVATIVE ALL THE WAY!” Populists on the right end of the spectrum have embraced and repeated misinformation and disinformation for political gain.
There are real things to be upset about, but the things that make us the most upset – upset enough to do something radical – tend to be fake. That’s why I think it’s critically important for politicians to not only commit to always telling the truth, but to also take responsibility for the disinformation and misinformation that can get spread under their banners. It isn’t enough for someone like Pierre Poilievre or Tamara Lich to condemn violence at an event if they’re condoning and supporting the same conspiracy theories that prompt that violence in the first place. And if a politician’s supporters are spreading misinformation on the politician’s social media or at their events or on doorsteps in their name, it’s as if the politician themselves did it.
I want to be clear that I don’t see politicians in Brighton spreading disinformation. Every single person on the ballot this year, so far as I’ve seen, has been very forthright and honest. But I want to call residents to account, too: some of the things I hear on doorsteps include speculation about politicians, including aspersions on their character and integrity, that’s no more than nasty gossip. If you have a politician’s sign on your lawn, and you’re gossiping about their opponent, you’re not only part of the problem but you’re making your preferred candidate part of the problem. If you have a problem with someone’s behaviour, talk about that behaviour, rather than speculating about their character or motivations. Speculation is misinformation; weaponized speculation is disinformation.
Complexity and Confusion
Thankfully, wild conspiracy theories don’t have much of a place in municipal politics, even if we still see them expressed locally. Much more common is a sense of deep frustration with a system that isn’t responsive to individuals. People who feel like they aren’t included in decisions that affect their lives begin to resent the municipality, utilities, developers, out-of-towners, or anyone else who seems to be getting the better end of decisions they feel excluded from.
A big part of this is related to the complexity of our systems, and the confusion that can cause. One of the most common phrases I hear at doorsteps from frustrated people is that “Council is ramming through development.” I recently wrote a post about how Council can’t actually “ram” anything through; they come in near the end of a long process that’s driven and regulated by many factors and authorities. But why would an average resident know that, if nobody tells them? When I explain the process to people on their doorstep (it can be explained in just a few minutes!) they’re usually shocked, and I often see expressions of anger and bitterness melt away. Before they understood the process, the decisions of Council seemed arbitrary, and they suspected ulterior motives as a way of trying to make sense of it all; but once they understand the process, they often accept the decisions that they had opposed before, and sometimes question the process that led to those decisions. That’s a much more helpful conversation! Let’s question the processes together, so we get better decisions!
I think that we can do a better job at communication. The Municipality, and particularly the Planning department, has committed to going above and beyond the basic requirements for public consultations. That’s a huge step, but there’s more to do – because I’ve seen people at those consultations say “it doesn’t matter what we say here, they’re going to do it anyway.” And to a certain extent, that’s true: the purpose of a consultation isn’t to give neighbours a veto on new development. Again, if people don’t understand the rest of the process, there’s limited value in consultation. Just having more of them won’t address the underlying lack of information and awareness of how our systems work. Councillors are in a prime position to help educate residents on these things: if I can explain it in two minutes on a doorstep, surely we can all work together to help residents understand our role, and theirs, as we build a community together.
We also need to make our systems simpler (to make them more responsive and efficient) and easier to access. I’m not completely anti-bureaucracy, because every rule and regulation has a purpose; but I’m keenly aware that if a system is too complicated to be accessible to the people it’s supposed to serve, then it is failing. People should be able to make connections with municipal staff easily to get answers to their questions and concerns in a timely manner. Our current failure in that regard isn’t the fault of current staff; they’re dealing with a system that is frustratingly complex and inefficient too.
I think that, at its root, most political frustration comes down to our very human need to feel significant. Many of the concerns that people share with me do not, at face value, seem to warrant the level of frustration and outrage that these people express, which makes me wonder if there’s more to it. And there is.
Folks from north of the 401 often talk about the state of the roads up there. That’s a totally valid concern, and I think that we need to have a conversation with the community south of the 401 about the importance of maintenance relative to its cost – i.e., it’s worth us spending money on roads that you or I might not use every day. But baked into this concern about road maintenance is a question of significance and value: are rural residents less valuable than urban residents? Why are their roads fixed, while ours aren’t? Responses about the economic metrics and formulas that determine which roads are prioritized for maintenance don’t touch on the question of significance, and that’s why they aren’t satisfying. Rural folks know that their roads get less traffic and are therefore lower priority; that doesn’t mean that they don’t matter. We need to show that they do.
Likewise, new developments often get pushback in ways that don’t make a lot of sense. I’ve had people tell me that “these developers say that they did all sorts of studies, but they didn’t. They’re just lying to push it through.” Often when this kind of thing comes up, I’ve seen the study. I’ve seen people decry the study, question the methodology or expertise of the people who performed it even as those same experts are presenting the study results at a public consultation. Often these studies take months, and tens of thousands of dollars, to perform; is it possible that they came to the wrong conclusion? Sure. Is it likely? Not at all. But I can understand that a longtime resident who takes great pride in their neighbourhood might resent when someone they don’t know presents data they feel is incorrect in support of a project that they feel will change that neighbourhood in ways that they have no control over. The resident may have a hundred different reasons for being uncomfortable with the change, but probably only a few of those reasons carry any weight in the development process; I think that’s why people who ordinarily don’t say much about things like traffic flow or habitat protection suddenly become outspoken advocates for turtles, which is a concern that might actually carry weight in the planning process even though the rest of their feelings are…insignificant.
We can make changes to our processes to make residents more significant.
–Participatory Budgeting sets aside a portion of the annual budget to be decided by residents directly; I suspect that if we had Participatory Budgeting, even folks from urban Brighton would support fixing rural roads.
–Citizens’ Assemblies include residents in deciding complex issues by giving a large group of residents the training and information needed to make the decision, maybe a good choice for controversial issues like the future of our wastewater treatment facility.
-The Sustainability Advisory Working Committee (SAWC) recently held a Community Visioning exercise that included residents (and a handful of council members) in the process of envisioning the future of Brighton in order to help set priorities for our efforts toward environmental, social, and economic sustainability moving forward. The SAWC aims to not only advise Council on these issues, but also to help coordinate and facilitate residents and their associations in their own efforts toward sustainability.
We can all contribute, even if we can’t all be on Council.
Once we feel heard, valued, and significant, we’re less likely to believe the worst about others. We’re less likely to support conspiracy theories or hateful rhetoric. Once we understand the processes and systems that shape our lives, we no longer feel like the world is arbitrary and hostile. That’s true of all of us, and true community makes us all feel more significant. I want to ensure that our processes here support that kind of community, so that we can build our common future together.