It was the late ‘90’s and the worldwide web was still mostly shiny and new, at least in a form that allowed the public to interact on it. Many of us used dial-up modems with connection speeds of 33.6K or (gasp!) 56K that tied up the phone line while we surfed the marvels of the internet. (By comparison, today’s household internet links are at least 100 times as fast.)
Being an avid CBC listener, one of my favorite Saturday shows was the Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour. Created by aboriginal writer Tom King, the action took place in a café in fictional Blossom, Alberta with such characters such as Jasper Friendly Bear, Grace Heavy Hand and Tom King as himself.
Their witty banter often had me in stitches so when I came across a CBC internet chat room where someone belittled my beloved show, calling it dull and boring, my hackles went up. The term ‘keyboard warrior’ hadn’t yet been invented, but I furiously typed my response in a fit of righteous indignation.
The exact words escape me but they no doubt included less than kind references to the writer’s intelligence and inability to appreciate good humour. With satisfaction I sent the bits and bytes of that smug note hurtling across the telephone lines to be read by the offending creature at the other end.
The reply wasn’t long in coming. And it stung. I learned a hard lesson that day and my interactions, both online and off have been affected by that brief note. Here’s the gist of it.
“I don’t know you and you don’t know me. We obviously have different tastes, in humour and likely in many other areas. The diversity of people is something to be celebrated. You evidently disagree with my criticism of the show and that’s your choice, just as it’s my choice to voice my views. However, you went a step further and made it about me personally. Again, you don’t know me so let’s stick with disagreeing on what constitutes funny and witty.”
We hear much about how polarized our world has become. Twitter and Facebook and online comment sections have been weaponized, and we carelessly mix personal insults into the debate. Often, the ‘debate’ simply becomes a series of personal insults.
I was reminded this weekend of the power of direct contact with strangers as I canvassed door to door in Brandon with Robert Brown who is running for the provincial Greens in Brandon in the upcoming Sept 10 election.
As we knocked on doors, I was struck by the almost universally polite tone of the conversations. Here we were, strangers on their doorstep, asking for a few minutes of time to talk about politics. Even those who weren’t interested in a conversation were respectful. Imagine that scenario in the online world – both of us would have required weeks of intensive psychological therapy.
Robert and I will be spending more time together on the campaign trail. A recent Free Press article described the history and benefits of knocking on doors during elections. The effectiveness of face time with potential voters shouldn’t be underestimated. In close races, it can make all the difference.
Beyond the election though, the successful candidate will have heard from a variety of people he or she has committed to represent in government. That’s worth all the time and effort spent walking up and down streets, visiting in coffee shops, conducting townhalls and, yes, interacting on social media.
We can easily be convinced that politics is a dirty game and that the thirst for power inevitably overrides the basic promise of our democracy: one person, one vote. Corporate lobbyists have direct access to decision makers. The corruption and ethical failures of current and past governments of all stripes threaten to paralyze us into hopelessly thinking that this state of affairs simply won’t change.
And yet, those direct interactions with 40 or 50 people on Saturday were an encouragement. As I listened to their ideas and concerns, I became excited. We could have healthy discussions despite our differences. No one resorted to name calling.
I’m convinced that we can mobilize our collective desire for positive change by refusing to take part in personal attacks and not to reward those who do with our votes. Those politicians who resort to mud slinging must be called out – an email or phone call to their office can be a powerful tool.
Connections matter. At our core, we are social beings. The more we interact face to face, the better we’ll understand not just our differences but also our shared goals.