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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Thursday 22 March 2012

Trayvon Martin, Throwing Starfish and the Public Good

-          Rich Tafel

An indictment of single-focus idealism that, despite best intentions, is exacerbating the problems the idealists seek to solve.

The continued myelination of Canada’s democracy, where Political Parties target just their identified voters with messages aimed at established interests (or target their opponent’s supporters with misinformation) rather than promote a genuine marketplace of ideas and subject matter.

What’s the connection?

Each of these threads are examples of narrowing one’s focus and missing the bigger picture.

Trayvon Martin

In the case of Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, the debate around whether or not he was a racist and this was a hate crime has become the lightning rod for attention.  While there’s been some discussion around how Florida’s gun laws and police culture facilitated this crime happening, I have so far seen no discussion about the impact of multiple other factors:

-          Previous warning signs of instability in Zimmerman’s behaviour that didn’t receive due attention;

-          The psychological impact of gated communities on those living within and without;

-          Poverty and the underlying causes of the rash of crimes in Twin Lake Townhomes in the first place;

-          What we’re doing in our education systems to provide Social Emotional Learning that can mitigate natural inclinations towards stigmatizing others;

-          Proactive mental health services.  

It’s good that people are protesting this travesty and demanding justice, but our current justice system isn’t working.  Crime reduction doesn’t stem from greater punishment but rather from increased social access to education and opportunity.  History bears this out; we’re on the right trajectory, but a tendency to narrow our focus to the latest outrage means we’re missing out on the larger picture.

Social Entrepreneurship

Rich Tafel’s explanation of the failings of many social entrepreneurs is brilliant.  He uses the story of the kid throwing dehydrated starfish back into the ocean; the boy can’t save them all, but he can save one and take moral satisfaction in that victory.  If you’re looking for moral satisfaction that’s fine, but if you’re looking to solve the problem, one-off solutions won’t get you very far.  You need a deeper understanding of context, content and consequence so you can address the key structural issues at play.

I’m reminded a bit of Canada’s NDP Party; they seem driven by lofty notions of happiness, hope and harmony.  This is all fine, but idealism alone does not viable policy make.  It’s like saying “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade” without having the lemon or seeking out water, sugar and a glass.  

Our big social challenges are candle problems – genuine solutions require out-of-the-box thinking, which means broadening one’s vision to see the whole picture, not narrowing it to focus on one’s own interests.

The Public Good

Canadian politics is still aflutter with the mounting robocon/voter suppression scandal.  Lots of the discussion centres around how high up the scandal will reach, what punishments are appropriate, whether by-elections should be called, that kind of thing.  The sad fact is, the voters who have been the most disenfranchised by this are the same ones who are likely to dismiss politics in frustration and not vote at all in 2015.  That might suit the Harper Conservatives in the medium-term, but what does it mean for Canadian democracy and our capacity to develop the best sustainable solutions through debate and collaboration in the long-term?

Voter turnout is declining and voters themselves are disengaging themselves from the process.  By focusing on how to maximize their partisan interests in this real-world context, our Political Parties are steadily narrowing their own options and ignoring the elephant in the room.  It’s a rare thing that a Party in power will make significant changes to the system to engage a broader swath of voters; that would, after all, benefit their opponents as well.  Call it The Tragedy of the House of Commons.

This same insular logic pervades Canada’s public, private and not-for-profit sectors.  So long as individual organizations and individual, vertically-integrated hierarchies keep a narrow focus on profits for shareholders, profits for owners, maintaining individual funding envelopes, etc, the really big solutions are going to be overlooked.  You can’t solve collective problems within the confines of a silo-based mentality.

As Gerard Kennedy eloquently put it at a Democracy Reform event last night, Canada’s Political Parties aren’t just accountable to their Executives or their members, but to the Canadian people as a whole.  We aren’t here to facilitate their power grabs – they’re part of our democratic system.  Hospitals worried about their funding levels are part of a broader health system, a broader social service system; the same holds true for every government service provided.  The same applies to companies and their employees, clients and partners. 

The line “move forward together” makes for a great speech-punctuator.  Beyond its rhetorical value, though, it’s actually true.  The only way forward is together.    No matter how hard we try, we can’t box out the rest of the world – does it not make sense to acknowledge that fact and consciously build a society we can all enjoy living in?

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