Tuesday, May 17, 2022

The Harrowing Road for Candidates - and the Rest of Us

I've recently read two articles on the problem and solution to the current nastiness in elections after hearing first hand about serious issues candidates have had at the door. You never know who you're going to get when you knock on someone's door, and most people don't want to buy what you're selling. I've been door-knocking as a volunteer in the past and was fortunate not to run into any conflicts, but people are becoming less civil in their expression of discontent recently. 

In "Why is Politics Getting Nastier," Stephen Maher writes about candidates giving up running because of the reactions at the door, on social media, and extending into their lives.

"[Former MP Scott Simms] remembers a big fellow coming out of one house while he was walking up the driveway. The man began shouting at him about prime minister Justin Trudeau. . . . The man was upset. No problem, Simms said, he would leave, but the man kept coming, furious, getting closer. 'I'm going to grab you,' he said, 'and I'm going to throw you in a ditch.' . . . 'So that's one of those times when you realize, I think my time in this business is done.'" 

Physical assaults and death threats have been reported by candidates from all levels of government and all parties, and in other countries, including police charging a woman "for pinning a Liberal incumbent against a wall with a table,"  an office being lit on fire, candidates receiving packages of chemicals and violent images, and the fatal stabbing of MP David Amess

MP Michelle Rempel Garner was threatened with sexual violence and had men "chase after me down the street demanding I respond to conspiracy theories." Because of this, she "doesn't advertise the location of her campaign office or release schedules of public appearances." How does one run a good campaign under these constraints? Or is that the point? MP Iqra Khalid's condemnation of Islamophobia was warped into wanting a shari-compliant state. She received the message, "Kill her and be done with it" and required police protection. Catherine McKenna had a sexist slur painted on her office. She thinks, "social media companies don't do enough to control hate and threats. . . . She blames Conservatives for attacks that veered into the personal and for their silence on sexist attacks from right-wing media." Charlie Angus was so repeatedly harassed and threatened by a constituent that he took out a peace bond against him. He was later targeted by Pat King on a livestream on Facebook. 

Maher writes,  

"The House of Commons has spent millions stepping up security . . . working with local police, and providing MPs with panic buttons. . . . Yet none of the politicians I spoke to for this story believe the response to date can assure everyone's safety. Some are left wondering if politics has become too dangerous a job."

Also check out the images Krystal Brooks posted yesterday of her defaced signs. Gone are the days of drawing a mustache and glasses on a poster. Now candidates can expect sexual threats and images.

What changed?

What is going on?? What's happened to us? Maher writes that it's in part due to a shift in social media: 

"A 2018 adjustment to the company's algorithm that made it easier--and more profitable--to spread emotionally charged political messages . . . has deepened polarization. . . . In 2018, Facebook changed its algorithm to prioritize content that led to 'meaningful social interactions'--a metric that measured likes, shares, and comments. Content was thus prized for its ability to engage users, not for its accuracy. 'Our algorithms exploit the human brain's attraction to divisiveness,' Facebook's researchers warned the company that year. 'If left unchecked, Facebook would feed users more and more divisive content in an effort to gain attention and increased time on the platform.' . . . extremism turns out to be an excellent way to keep users clicking. . . . Tworek's team analyzed over 1 million tweets directed at candidates and found that 40% of the messages showed evidence of hostility, ranging from incivility--which, for researchers, included dismissive insults and racial slurs--to harassment."

Angus calls for more "scrutiny on algorithms. using Parliament's power to pierce the secrecy of the proprietary formulae that control our news feeds."

Beverley McLachlin, former Supreme Court chief justice, and Taylor Owen, director of Centre for Media, Technology & Democracy at McGill, agree that this secrecy is part of the problem. In their article, "Regulate the System, not the Speech," they explain,

"There is little doubt remaining amongst experts, policy makers and the public, that the ways in which our digital infrastructure are designed and incentivized have had widespread social, economic, and political costs. Despite years of assurances from big tech and wishful thinking from governments, the market has proven unwilling or unable to self-regulate. And so democratic governments around the world are finally stepping up. . . . In the Canadian context, the Charter provides robust protection for free speech, while recognizing that governments can limit speech to prevent harms, provided the limits are reasonable and justified in a free and democratic society."

The see three big problems with regulation: the massive amounts of content, the profitability of engagement over civility, and the right to free expression. One way to handle it that hasn't worked is flagging individuals and having them remove offending content. They prefer following the EU and UK who, instead of focussing on specific misleading or harmful posts, focus "on the system and incentives that lead to it being created and spread. . . . This approach focuses on the level of risk that is currently allowed to exist within the digital ecosystem." They changed the system to prevent issues upstream instead of trying to catch individual cases flowing down. 

This requires that systems be made radically transparent and companies made to share data and disclose information about ads and paid content, and platforms must be held accountable for how they build products with a "statutory duty to act responsibly. This would place the onus on platforms themselves to demonstrate that they have acted in a manner that would minimize the harm of the products they build and offer to Canadians. Liability protections could be made contingent on risk assessments and human rights audits." On top of this, we need much better civil education and digital literacy and data privacy protection. This is something that other countries have done and that is possible in Canada and the U.S. as well.

From the Political Sphere to the Classroom

And it's vital that it changes because it's not just politicians facing the vitriol. A few of the interviewed politicians noticed a change that I've also seen in my classroom:

Simms said: "In 2019, when I spoke of something that was a fact or refuted something that they said, they doubted me. In 2021, if they said something and I refuted it, I was an outright liar. There was no doubt involved. It was a certainty." Agnus's constituents accused him of being against peaceful protests when he denounced the convoy: "I was saying, 'I'm down there, and I'm seeing a lot of threats, man. That's why I'm speaking up.' And they'd say, 'No, you're lying. That's not true. You didn't see that.' And that's when I realized why we're in a whole different realm now because we can't even agree on what facts and reality are." 

It's always only a few kids, but they seem to be the loudest who regurgitate the worst types of claims and pseudo arguments. It doesn't matter that they don't make sense when they win! It was Trump's success with inane claims. It might be just a handful of kids in a class, but it's enough to affect the whole when I explain a concept with verifiable content found from a variety of sources, and I'm met with disbelief, but their rebuttal format is to scoff or laugh and shake their head. I've been called sexist for sharing data that shows the majority of mass shooters in the U.S. are men. I explain that it's not to say that all men are violent, of course, but that part doesn't matter to them. If I ask for stats that show the opposite, it's met with eye rolls and head shakes, something I like to call a gestural ad hominem, suggesting the "you're an idiot" that goes unspoken. This new form of argumentation doesn't require they even try to bring information to the discussion or develop opposing ideas beyond various claims that can be reduced to, "I don't like it." Lessons on media literacy fall on intentionally deaf ears. 

I'm armed with research and data and news articles from a variety of reputable sources but know I'm no match for the worst random claims about to come my way. Conspiracy theories have been raised in classes since I've been a student. That's nothing new. I remember students adamant that headless chickens are being bred for factories when the internet first became accessible. I recall when Sam Harris got popular with some teens and the Islamophobia that brought into my room. What's different is the vehement insistence that they're correct without any remotely reasonable supports for their position. When I discounted the chicken claim, they believed me. I still had some authority as someone well educated. Harris at least provoked a semblance of reasonable debate such that the kids who followed him could discuss and debate well enough to eventually see the problems with some of the arguments they parroted. More recent discussions have lost that concern with getting to the bottom of it all in favour of jeering or yelling.

And it makes me very nervous for our collective future. 

Beyond class, we can see a concern for the development of more violent actors who have made decisions based on a bizarre collection of mistaken claims. After the most recent shooting in the states, @girlzplocked explained on Twitter:

"YouTube is where these idiots get radicalized every single time. They start by asking google 'why don't girls like me' and the radicalizing algorithm sends them on a passive lazy river ride through Jordan Peterson territory until they finally disembark in Naziland."

The algorithms on social media lead some of these kids to simple but frightening answers to their problems.  

Everything Old is New Again!

BUT, it's not really new, though. Sartre wrote about a similar style of reasoning in 1946, long before algorithms were discussed outside of math class, in Anti-Semite and Jew, which contains this famous bit: 

"The anti-Semite has chosen hate because hate is a faith; at the outset he has chosen to devaluate words and reasons. How entirely at ease he feels as a result. . . . Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. . . . They seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert." 

Many people have written about the similarities in tactics, not to mention outright use of the same words and symbols, that were seen prior to the horrors of the holocaust. With the convoy, we're seeing that this faith of hate isn't relegated to race or to political affiliation, but can show up in a distinction as innocuous as vaccine status. This should make it even more urgent to address these behaviours. We need something more than just a warning to new candidates that door-knocking can be dangerous or an offer of panic buttons to MPs!  

I'm also hearing convoy rhetoric repeated in classrooms. Claims exalting freedom as the only value of merit have led to an inability to get some kids to follow basic rules of etiquette and typical classroom deportment, such as don't overtly play games together when I'm talking. Some have learned that nobody has the right to impede on their freedom to do whatever they want, and I think our boundless and boundary-less compassion during Covid has reinforced this mindset. I teach students who are months away from attending university, so I don't usually have to make an effort to keep them on task, but that's not the case lately, and I worry that some of them will learn a hard lesson when they don't make it through their classes if they have profs who haven't bowed to the pressure to accept substandard work when students (or parents) insist, "You can't possibly expect me to do this." The elevation of freedom in their mantra diminishes their education as essay assignments are whittled down to paragraphs which end up being a few point-form notes.  

This type of freedom is what de Beauvoir described as nihilism in Ethics of Ambiguity in 1947, referring to chronological adults who only ever play an adult by acting serious while continuing to refuse to take any responsibility for their actions, a chief characteristic of a real adult. 

"Serious people evade freedom and responsibility through seeking infantilism and paternalism. Serious people turn themselves into children, wanting nothing more than definitions to learn and rules to obey.  . . [However] no external authority can prevent either children or serious people from having to confront the ambiguity, the volatility, and the inexplicability of life." 

Mix this with Hannah Arendt's explanation of the bureaucracy as being rule of nobody, since the system self-regulates to the point that nobody is responsible for anything, and we come to today's insistence on freedom without responsibility. From On Violence, published way later in 1970:

"The most formidable form of such dominion, bureaucracy, or the rule by an intricate system of bureaux in which no men, neither one nor the best, neither the few nor the many, can be held responsible, and which could be properly called the rule by Nobody . . .  since there is no one left who could even be asked to answer for what is being done. It is this state of affairs which is among the most potent causes for the current world-wide rebellious unrest."  

Without taking responsibility for our actions, we can only play at being adults. Unfortunately, it's a very rewarding system that permits drinking beer in an inflatable hot tub in front of our parliament building. And screaming threats to candidates who are merely hoping to affect legislation for the betterment of everyone.

The Unfortunate Result

Maher writes that McKenna "worries that threats and harassment are keeping good people from running for office. 'This isn't abstract. They don't want to go through what they see me going through. So this needs to be seen as a threat to our democracy. Because, if we don't have people willing to run because they're concerned about security, then it is a real problem.'" 

Alternatively, the only people who will end up running are thugs, confident they can take down the harassers with force if necessary, or unconcerned because they're one of them! This is also changing the workforce in teaching and nursing and the service industry. People aren't just quitting because of the hours or wages or the upheaval of Covid, but because of their treatment at the hands of others.  

We need to change the unfettered reach of social media, definitely, but we also need more lesson on what civil discourse looks like. Our core values need to be solidified as a country and in our communities. Freedom is vital, but not just freedom to act as we wish, but a bigger understanding and concern for how our freedoms to act might infringe on other people's freedoms from our actions. We should be free from cars honking outside our homes all night. We should be free from harassment and verbal and physical attacks from enraged citizens, and we should be free to go to the store without concern about gun violence, so that we can exercise our freedom to engage in healthy and useful discourse to find some semblance of a path through this mess. 

No comments: