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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.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

SM Murmurations: There Are No Strings

Remember that time a guy with a gun stormed Parliament Hill and put holes in the walls?  That seems so long ago. 
As the story emerges, we've learned that Michael Zehaf Bibeau had a host of mental health-related problems.  In fact, he recognized himself as a threat and tried to get help.  The system isn't designed for such, and he fell through the cracks - and then he put holes in the walls of Parliament.
Before Canadians had proper time to assess and understand what had happened and what, if anything, has changed, #ghomeshi happened. 
As this story emerges, we're learning of a charming, successful man who has been known to some as a predator for decades.  Each passing year has seen new victims added to Ghomeshi's list as some looked away, others issued discrete warnings to friends and poor victims were shackled with the wounds of their abuse and the recognition, rarely spoken, that the system isn't designed to support victims, but to protect the powerful.
Now, there are stories of harassment on Parliament Hill.  The story has begun with sexual assault and unheard of repercussions being issued by a political party.  It's beginning to creep into HR, training and workplace culture.  It won't end there. 
And people in positions of power - and with it, responsibility - are starting to pay serious attention, and to act.
Why?  What's happened here?
Abuse of the rules by the rulers is a tale as old as time.  They don't call them backrooms for nothing; we're told that politics is like sausage (you don't want to know what goes into it but will eat it anyway) for a reason.
Politics is all about controlling the narrative, which means controlling what people hear, and see, and ideally, think.  You'd be surprised (but not really) how many political operatives think of people as puppets, tangled in strings.  Whosoever has the gold, or scepter, etc.  Winner gets the spoils, losers wear the consequences.
There's also this thing, however, called "getting ahead of the narrative" - another form of control, really, but one that's not about putting out fires so much as stamping out sparks.
Ghomeshi's Facebook post was an attempt to get ahead of the narrative he knew would emerge - one that was poorly planned and executed for the basic reason that Ghomeshi felt he wasn't really touchable.  Ghomeshi (or his advisers, based on only the information he provided them) figured his brand loyalty was strong enough to drown out any accusations.  It also seems Ghomeshi didn't realize how inappropriate his actions were.  He's been proved wrong on that one.
Given how many political people see what they do as "just business" - ie, a field that has no place where nothing is personal and loyalties are calculations - it's likely, if cynical, that Team Trudeau's play is strategic.  They've looked at the trend lines, assessed the risks and decided that the approach outlined by Trudeau above puts them on the right side of history.
So they're planning ahead. 
But this is completely backwards to how politics operates.  To oust two candidates at once says "culture problem" within the party; to throw some of your Members, the people parties rely on to win seats sends all the wrong signals about your priorities.  If the aggressive, tough-talking and election-winning Members of your team think their party doesn't have their back for moral transgressions, then why should they tow the party line?  That's part of the unwritten contract, isn't it?
So again - what's changed?  Why has it become strategically smart to sensitivity and benefit of the doubt for the weak before enabling your alpha team?
In two words: social media.
The reason #ghomeshi blew up as quickly as it did is because it "went viral."  It became the cool thing to talk about and, as is the case with social media, to pontificate about.  First, everyone knew about Ghomeshi - that was the way to stay at the top of the chat curve. 
Then, the story evolved into the extent and extremity of his behaviour, including his defiant and desceptive attempt to spin the facts in his favour.  A couple brave women stepped forward, paving the way for more to do the same.  People started to talk, and "I knew about Ghomeshi" shifted to "I didn't know that about Ghomeshi." 
Next up was #beenrapedneverreported:
Again, a floodgate opened and the thing to do if you wanted to be part of the conversation was talk about the culture and how messed up it is.  This was a helpful narrative for many who had publicly backed Ghomeshi before the worst allegations came to light, as it gave people permission to say "see, it wasn't must me - it's the culture, stupid!"
It was almost inevitable that these realities - the viral, contribution-encouraging nature of social media and the fact that Ghomeshi is far from a one-off - would creep into politics, shaking that world more than a man with a gun ever could.
The man with the gun was an external threat - the threat being faced here is one of the self.
There are far more than two MPs who have acted inappropriately.  It should therefore come as no surprise that many staff have behaved inappropriately - or, to be more accurate, behaved in ways considered inappropriate by broader society.
Again, it won't stop here - the story needs to evolve, and people's need to be meaningful parts of the story will shape that movement.  We've already heard HR discussed - poor HR practices, poor training, young staff with lots of power but no training, etc.  This will pile on to what we already know about boys-in-short-pants culture; we may even start to see correlations.
Members will be put under the gun by staff; Parties will be put under the gun by Members, staff and the media.  Attempts to pass the buck to Parliaments who are responsible for paying staff won't work, because, as we already know, partisan staff don't answer to the people who pay their bills any more than elected officials answer to their constituents.
And as a weary populace increasingly eyes partisan politics and closed-door backroom cultures as the culprits behind our failing democracy (which is easier to hitch on to than "the public has abdicated its civic responsibilities by fundamentally not caring about maneuvers in Parliament"), parties must realize they can't spin their way past this one.
There's an additional thread about virtuous schemers, the clay layer and bureaucracy culture change, but we'll save that post for later.
If you can't bury the problem or punt it until after the next election where, theoretically, a win will absolve you of all crimes, you have no choice but to become part of the solution.  That means taking responsibility, acting decisively, but also being sensitive and empathizing with those who speak of, not for, the masses.
Which brings us back to #ottawashooter.  Much like #ghomeshi, the Ottawa shooting could have been prevented.  It was a laissez-faire culture which assumes there's no such thing as social responsibility and that the public has a short-term memory that created these problems. 
What Team Trudeau has done is take on social responsibility and plant seeds that will pay off later, both defensively and offensively but, as a consequence, for broader audiences as well.
Altruism is selfishness that plans ahead.  Empathy helps map the present and shade in the future.  When you see what consequences lie ahead, you can course-correct now to address them, rather than be stuck in an endless cycle of reactiveness.
When our back is to the future, consequences pull our strings.  It's when we turn and light the way forward that we become free.

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