You're a Jet all the way
From your first cigarette
To your last dyin' day.
When you're a Jet,
If the spit hits the fan,
You got brothers around,
You're a family man!
You're never alone,
You're never disconnected!
You're home with your own:
When company's expected,
You're well protected!
Then you are set
With a capital J,
Which you'll never forget
Till they cart you away.
When you're a Jet,
You stay a Jet!
- Sondheim, West Side Story
Nation, as the 42nd Federal Election winds down, I've found myself thinking a lot about the state of democracy in this country.
To say that this has not been an uplifting campaign full of respectful exchanges of ideas would be akin to saying I found Star Wars Episode One "a tad underwhelming".
We humans are social creatures. We seek each other out. We want to build and belong to social constructs. Even the introverts among us (myself included) feel a need to BELONG to something larger than ourselves...
A religious organization.
A political party.
We feel driven to BELONG to something, and what we want more than anything is to feel safe when we're there. We want to feel accepted, and protected. Sometimes, though, this results in something a bit more dangerous: It leaves us feeling that we are more righteous than those who don't choose to follow our path.
We know "the truth".
We're better and smarter than they are.
We're good. And if we're good, and they choose not to join us, then they, as "the Others", are bad.
This exclusionist way of thinking can take us to some pretty dark places. Some of them have been on full display during this 4,871-day campaign (or maybe it's just felt that long to me). The place I want to cast a little bit of light on, though, is our political parties themselves.
Whether we belong to a particular party ourselves, or just tend to lean more in one direction than the other, it's the easiest form of politics to use labels to describe ourselves, and "the Others". We're conservative, and everyone who isn't one of us is a "tax-and-spend liberal". We're progressive, and anyone who is opposed to us is a "neanderthal social conservative". The reality, though, is that people are NOT labels. Labels are simple, and people are complex. When we try to apply a simple black-and-white worldview to the wide range of opinions a person can have on a particular issue, it just doesn't fit - leading us, naturally, to apply the simple binary standard: Does this person agree with me, or are they one of "the Others"?
Part of the problem - a big part, in my opinion - is that we identify ourselves as holding political BELIEFS, rather than political IDEAS. I'll leave the explaining to the Chris Rock character "Rufus the Apostle", written by Kevin Smith for his film Dogma:
“I think it's better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier. Life should be malleable and progressive, working from idea to idea permits that. Beliefs anchor you to certain points and limit growth. New ideas can't generate. Life becomes stagnant.”
If I have the IDEA that the Earth is stationary and the Sun revolves around it, then it's easier for me to change that idea when presented with contrary evidence. If I BELIEVE that the Sun revolves around the Earth, then Galileo ends up locked in a tower, despite the fact that he's ultimately going to be proven correct. Because he's challenging my BELIEFS, and has to be defeated and destroyed. He's a heretic. An "Other".
Once we've identified - to our own satisfaction - that someone isn't WITH us, our inclination - at least in politics - is to go on the attack. We've seen this recently when a member of a provincial party in Alberta which has tended to lean to the right in past publicly came out in support of a former colleague running for the centre-left Liberal Party in the federal election.
"This is terrible!" went the hue and cry from those on the right, within her own party and others. "How can a person call themselves a conservative if they'll support a liberal!?!"
It goes like this:
"I worked with this person. I like them, and respect them, and they're my friend, and they have some good ideas, and I think they'd make a good Member of Parliament. And also, you don't get to tell me who I'm allowed to be friends with."
That last point is key.
I believe, in my heart of hearts, that people get involved in politics for the right reasons. Almost without exception. They want to raise the level of debate. They want their fellow citizens to be informed about issues that matter to them. They want to make their community a better place. They want life to be better, for themselves and for others.
What we end up with when we adopt this exclusionary, gang-mentality "my way is the only true path!" way of looking at our politics, however, is quite different.
Stephen Harper is NOT happy that First Nations women are missing and being killed. He is also not pleased that people are assaulting women in niqabs.
Justin Trudeau does NOT want to make a brothel mandatory in your neighbourhood. He is likewise not planning to sell crystal meth in your child's school.
Tom Mulcair is NOT planning to send all our jobs to France as result of his dual citizenship. Neither does he want to see Toronto attacked by terrorists.
Are we clear?
The problem is, we're NOT clear. We're not clear at ALL. Because the people who are really, REALLY into politics - people who, as I said above, almost without exception got into it for the right reasons - are stating the above points as truth. They're telling their family and friends this stuff, and the general public starts to buy into it.
Well, at the end of the day politics in Canada is a pursuit where one person wins, and everyone else loses. One party is in government, shaping policies and making laws, and the others are on the outside looking in, opposing the government but unable to affect much change.
It doesn't HAVE to be this way. But this is how it is. "Win at all costs". It leads to gerrymandering. It leads to dirty tricks. It leads to sign vandalism. It leads to trolling. It leads to stunts. It leads to on-line witch hunts.
Everyone wants "their team" to win, and "the Others" to lose. Because if MY team wins, then we're special. We've got The Truth. The policies and ideas that I support will be made law. And I feel warm and fuzzy knowing that my fellow citizens have validated my choice. And if I have to get a little dirty to make that happen, then so be it: the end justifies the means.
But why did I get into politics in the first place?
To raise the level of debate.
To inform my fellow citizens.
To make my community a better place.
To make life better.
Instead, the debate is lowered - to the lowest possible level. The citizenry is confused by 2, 3 or more sets of conflicting "facts". The community is torn asunder because everyone who's not WITH us, is AGAINST us. Neighbours are destroying signs being put up by their neighbours, and shouting at each other at candidate forums that become a contest in "who can get more supporters to fill the seats meant for undecided voters?". And life isn't better - it's a meaner, darker place where the party that wins rubs it in the face of those who lose, and the losers spend the next few years resenting the winners, resenting everything their government does, and trying to think of new ways to stick it to them when next they get a chance.
There are ways out of this mess our parties have created, fed, and allowed to grow.
There are ways to be better. To actually raise the level of debate. To inform our fellow citizens. To make our community a better place, and to make life better for everyone.
We can do all of this, if we truly want to.
But first, we have to lose the gang mentality.
We have to decide that the way it is now isn't good enough, and that we want to be better than we've been.
We have to decide that the object of this pursuit is NOT to "win", if it means that everyone who isn't with us must "lose".
The fine details of how we're governed, and the policies that guide our lawmakers, are not simple black-and-white. There's a lot of grey.
There ARE no "Others".
There are no Jets. No Sharks.
There's just all of us, out here, trying to make the world better according to the best ideas we've heard so far.
We're all in this together.