When you run for office, you meet a lot of people. Campaigns can get busy and complex, but most of it is just walking around town, going door to door, introducing yourself to people you don’t know and checking in with the ones you do. If I make it to your doorstep (and there’s a good chance that if I haven’t already, I won’t before election day, sorry!), I’ll ask you about what you love about Brighton, and what you hope for our future. These conversations can be hopeful and positive, and sometimes I leave a doorstep invigorated!
Other times I leave a doorstep and go right home. I believe that politics is about what we can do together that none of us can do on our own, the power of real community; but there are some conversations that make me question whether we can come together well enough to do much of anything. The amount of division that I see in our community is shocking and disturbing. And most of the time it isn’t based on fact. Just rumours.
“Now, I’m not saying the Mayor is dirty, but…” is something someone recently said to me. They had concerns related to development, and I was able to describe the development process and show that just because Council approves a development doesn’t mean that they’re “ramming it through” (I swear I hear those three words more than any others!). When we have a small portion of the facts, and the facts that we do have are concerning to us, it’s very easy for our minds to fill in the blanks, and we have a tendency to believe the worst. If a particular development doesn’t seem to make sense to us, we look for a motive: why would they approve this? They must have a personal interest in it. They must be making public decisions for personal gain. After all, we’ve heard about it happening elsewhere. And when we have these types of conversations, it isn’t the intricacies of the development process that spreads around, it’s the implication that “…the Mayor is dirty…” (I can’t stress enough, I have zero reason to believe that the Mayor has done anything untoward. Brian is a stickler for procedure, and seems to highly value both his personal reputation and the reputation of Brighton. My point here is that rumours pass between people who don’t know these things about him; anyone who knows him would find any such claim highly questionable. Even so, some who read my blog seem to read this as me lending credence to those rumours, so please take note – the Mayor isn’t dirty!)
This point is key: it’s the worst things that spread. There’s a reason for that, and it isn’t just that we’re all terrible people. On the contrary! People who are talking about candidates at a time like this are genuinely trying to figure out how they should vote, and are looking for candidates they can trust. Our tendency to believe the worst (in others, and in general) is called Negativity Bias: negative experiences have a bigger impact on us than positive experiences. This has a lot of effects on us, including on how we form impressions of others. “Voting behaviors have been shown to be more affected or motivated by negative information than positive: people tend to be more motivated to vote against a candidate because of negative information than they are to vote for a candidate because of positive information.”
So when we’re looking for the most salient information about who to vote for, we are often unconsciously looking for dirt on candidates. That’s why rumours are so potent during a political campaign – and why they spread so quickly, even among decent, well-meaning residents.
No matter our intentions, rumours spread, and they have an impact. They target existing members of Council more than new candidates: I’ve had many people over the years say things like “we need to get rid of all of them, they’re all corrupt.” If people have a negative disposition toward Council as a whole, they’ll sometimes vote for the people they know the least about, because they have negative associations about all of the incumbents. That’s not a particularly good way of choosing our Council!
Rumours affect the incumbent Mayor more than anyone, as the Mayor is often the only member of Council that virtually everyone can name. I’m hearing some of the same rumours about Brian Ostrander this year that I heard about Mark Walas in 2018. To some extent this is just part of the job: I believe that part of Council’s job is to hear and bear the concerns and frustrations of residents, and the Mayor is the chief representative of Council. But it’s important that Council bears responsibility for the actual state of the community and their actual actions, not for imagined and inflated issues.
And rumours undermine our ability to have productive political conversations in general. When we believe the worst, it’s harder to imagine the best, much less to work together to achieve it. Our very human bias toward negativity hurts us all.
So what can we do?
Finger wagging about gossip is as old as gossip itself, and I’m not going to moralize about a cognitive bias that affects us all. Just knowing that it’s a cognitive bias and not a moral failing should help us to be able to address it: when we moralize an issue, we make sure that nobody will admit to it, much less own it and improve upon it. And there ARE things that we can do.
First, by recognizing that we have a bias toward believing the worst about others, we can be deliberate about assuming the best about them too. Or at least assuming a neutral posture. In particular, I find it helpful to assume that someone else is just like me – especially because, for the most part, that’s true. We all want the same basic things: to be safe and secure, to be loved and valued, to be free and prosperous. We all also have interests and desires that are unique to us: even where I’m different from other people, I’m probably neither better nor worse. And we all have failings, flaws, and systemic pressures and influences that lead to behaviour we aren’t necessarily proud of – including the fact that we all occasionally gossip. When I take a moment to picture someone in that light, I find I’m less quick to jump to negative conclusions about them, or to take someone else’s word about them in the worst possible way.
Second, we can think through our impression of someone – especially out loud, or written down. Often, impressions that make perfect sense in our head, or in conversation with someone else, don’t stand up to scrutiny when we say them out loud in a different context or put them down on paper. Think through the scenario that gave you the negative impression, and try to imagine yourself in their shoes: would you do something so obviously unethical, foolish, or selfish? Chances are they wouldn’t either – you might be missing part of the story.
Third, we can do some research. Most rumours are rooted in negative impressions about someone’s character, and those impressions are based on events or processes for which we don’t have all of the facts. In the example I gave above, someone’s impression of unethical behaviour was based on a process that they didn’t know much about. In light of that knowledge, it was clear that nothing unethical had taken place.
Fourth, we can correct a misunderstanding. If someone has misrepresented something or someone, we don’t have to assume that they’ve done so maliciously – see above! But if we have the information needed to correct a misunderstanding, we can stop a lot of harm (especially if we do it with kindness). On this point I think it’s important to say that candidates have a special obligation to do this: our words often carry more authority, and people sometimes speak in support of us or on our behalf. If someone comments under my post in a way that misrepresents me, it’s up to me to correct that; if someone comments under my post with misinformation about people, facts, or events, I’m responsible for that rumour. When I come across rumours on doorsteps, I try to address them then and there.
And finally, the obvious thing to do that’s still somehow the hardest: we can always just ask people directly. “Hey, I heard a rumour about you and I thought I’d like to hear your side of it.” It’s hard to bring it up, but the person will respect you more for you asking them about it. I’ve done it myself with some candidates, when I heard rumours about them and didn’t know enough offhand to be able to quash them. Now I can better respond to those rumours when I hear them.
If we all have the same facts to work with, we can work together toward our common future. If we have misaligned half-truths to work with, we can’t agree or collaborate on much of anything. None of us are perfect in this regard, so let’s set aside the morality of gossip and look at the facts: we can overcome our Negativity Bias with a little effort and perspective, and doing so can help our community thrive.