Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Unpleasantness as a Political Tactic

Many years ago I was on the board of a neighborhood association in downtown Toronto. All the members of the board were residents of the area except the president, who owned a gas station there but lived in the suburbs. At one point the interests of residents diverged from the interests of the gas station, and at the show-down meeting our president pulled an effective trick. He changed the meeting room to a small airless room, and he wore coveralls that reeked of gasoline. (Normally he wore a suit.) Then he insisted on giving a long-winded oration of his arguments, during which the rest of the board visibly wilted. Some even left. At the start of the meeting he was outvoted 7-1, but by the end of the meeting he won his vote.

A few years ago I worked with a guy who was uber passive aggressive. If he was mad at me or disagreed with me or – I can’t say I ever fully understood his motives – he’d stare at me fixedly during a meeting while ostentatiously picking his nose. Or stretch his legs wide apart and thrust up his pelvis while glaring at me.

These sorts of tactics are a bit hard to pin down: you feel quite certain they’re deliberate, but there’s always the possibility that the person is doing it without realizing it.

(People writing comments on blogs and newspaper articles are frequently unpleasant, of course, but I think of comment-writing as a combination of writing a letter to the editor and yelling at the TV: I think you have to expect a higher level of emotion than is usual when we communicate, and adjust your reactions accordingly.)

Nowadays I’m in a group that questions the transit plans of the Region of Waterloo, and we have been targeted by a group, mostly students it seems, who oppose our opposition. This antiopposition group has employed some pretty aggressive tactics, engaging in personal attacks such as calling members of my group liars, saying we are fear-mongerers, and publicly questioning our motives. They have done this on a call-in show on the local Rogers channel, at a public meeting, in an op-ed in the Record, in comments on this blog, and elsewhere.

So I’m wondering... is this just a tactic to dispirit us and keep us down? It doesn’t seem possible that the antioppositioners could really believe that we’re liars and so on: could they really be so partisan and hate us so thoroughly that they really believe any nasty thing about us that pops into their heads? They could just be bullies, but that begs the question of where they got the notion that public discourse is about attempted character assassination.

In any case their nastiness isn't helping their cause, and if anything is galvanizing people against them. I'm more interested in the general question... This issue is a little easier for me to discuss because I'm not the one being attacked this time, but I still don't understand it.



Bert said...

It's the same tactic that a character in a childrens book I read as a child used. He was a crotchety old bugger, and there was a brass marching band playing near his house. He went over and sat in the front row, and when they started to play, he took out a lemon and started sucking it. Before long, the entire band had to stop playing, because they were all puckered up.
It's the same way with these kinds of people. You can't pin anything really specific on them, and they have succeeded in rattling you.

smably said...

(My comments here are my own and don't represent the positions of any groups I am a member of.)

First, I agree that in some cases we have been overly strident. Many of our members are frustrated that the rapid transit project has been misrepresented in the media and elsewhere, and we have probably taken that frustration out on the opposing group in some instances. I apologize to you and your group if I have been overly aggressive.

Second, I'd like to say a few words about our group. We are not "mostly students", though we do have a couple of student members. Most of us are professionals. We live and work in Waterloo Region, we shop at local businesses, and we pay taxes too. We want to make the region a better place by improving public transit and promoting investment in walking and cycling infrastructure. We want to do good, and we are willing to work with other groups that genuinely have similar aims.

Personally, I'd like to see our group focus more on the issues and less on opponents of light rail, and in the future I think we will be going in that direction. However, we will not tolerate misinformation, and we will continue to debunk any falsehoods spread by opponents of light rail. I hope we can debate these issues respectfully and truthfully.

Yappa said...

Hi smably -

Thanks for that. I agree that the main thing is getting at the truth. One of the things that worried me about the attacks on my side is that they might start reacting in kind... which would be a shame. If we can keep the discussion civil we might all learn something.

...in any event, we all seem to care passionately about the future of Waterloo and the health of public transit, so you might say that there's more than unites us than divides us. ;-)


James Bow said...

I'm sorry if you feel intimidated by the amount of criticism levelled at the group T4SC. Free speech is an absolute right in this country, and you should feel free to speak your peace on any issue, including criticizing the proposal to build an LRT in Waterloo Region. Of course, that right to speak freely extends both ways, and those who disagree with your standpoint also have an absolute right to criticize your criticism. I'm sorry if it stings, but this is part and parcel with the democratic process, and there's little that one can do about it.

Of course, harassment is different, and if anybody is receiving harassing phone calls at home or whathaveyou, then the matter should be turned over to the police forthwith. Sadly, there are whacks in every political stripe, though fortunately they don't represent the overwhelming majority who keep things in perspective. I don't think you mean to suggest that the organizers at Tritag.ca are engaging in such activity.

If you feel that the criticism against T4SC has been a little harsh, perhaps you should consider for what may have caused the frustration in those who have chosen to speak up against the group. You've said that you wanted an honest and open discussion, but T4SC has not done much, in my opinion, to enter into this discussion with an open mind. T4SC has stated outright that no LRT is acceptable, a polarizing point of view which, in the absence of a willingness to compromise, seems unlikely to foster an open discussion with LRT supporters. After all, nobody likes talking to a brick wall.

Further, T4SCs co-chair, Peter Gay, has been caught making a number of statements about the proposed LRT which simply have no basis in fact. For instance, he said on an interview with 570 News "There is not one stop in downtown Kitchener. The first stop is Eby and Charles, the next stop is King and Victoria. So it totally bypasses downtown Kitchener." This despite the fact that the plans as presented called for stops at Duke/Ontario and Charles/Ontario (eastbound). And this statement even contradicts an earlier statement he made, to whit: "There is no convenient stop at Kitchener farmers market", when he later mentions the stop at Eby and Charles, just a half a minute walk away. And let's not forget: [The iXpress], between Victoria and Uptown Waterloo, has ten stops. The LRT has one stop." The iXpress, of course, has only one stop between Victoria and Uptown Waterloo.

As far as I know, Mr. Gay has not corrected the record, and he doesn't seem willing to change his statements, or alter his position to take into account these corrections. So those of us in the community who support the LRT proposal, though we might be willing to accept criticism and entertain suggestions for improvement, can't help but come away with the sense that T4SC isn’t interested in arguing in good faith. And that's why some LRT supporters (myself included) have gotten a little hot under the collar.

The LRT proposal is not set in stone, and there is work to be done to ensure that the design is the best that it can be. For instance, the current proposal calls for a stop at Pine Street, in front of the Grand River Hospital. Although this is only two blocks away from Kitchener Collegiate (negating the complaint that the LRT doesn't serve high schools), the connection could be better. I suggest that the stop should be moved one block east to Green Street, where a closer connection could be made with KCI while maintaining a convenient connection to GRH. Further, a new stop should be added at Union (or perhaps John) to provide a better connection for the workers at Manulife, not to mention the new high rises going up at Allen Street.

That sort of suggestion is what we should be talking about. T4SC's approach from the start polarized the process, in my opinion. I find that to be very unpleasant. So it's a little surprising to hear that you're surprised that some of us in the community who support the LRT have responded with unpleasantness of their own.

Yappa said...

James Bow -

My point has nothing to do with free speech (or rather it presupposes it): I'm talking about how we conduct ourselves in public discourse.

Where you got the idea that someone is getting harassing phone calls is just beyond me.

Starting off your comment with the bizarre assertion that I'm intimidated is out of line. And no, the critism doesn't "sting" me and I'm not concerned that there has been "harsh" criticism. I welcome criticism; you and I have had several lively arguments on this blog.

As to your other points, you haven't even got the name of my group correct. Your credibility is not good.

I would like to keep this discussion civil. I've met you, and we might meet again. It's not unlikely that we'll be on the same side of an issue some day. So please, tone it down a little, ok?


James Bow said...

T4SC should, of course, read T4ST. My bad. Although, as mistakes go, it's somewhat less significant than the mistaken statements made by T4ST in criticizing the LRT proposal. I may have gotten the group's acronym wrong thanks to composing this comment off the top of my head. What I haven't gotten wrong are the statements that have been made on behalf of this group. I've acknowledged my mistake here; will Mr. Gay or T4ST do the same?

And I admit jumped ahead of things by assuming that you were intimidated. Again, my bad. But when you go on at length about two examples of quasi-political groups "wilting" under pressure, when you complain about "nastiness", it can be hard not to make that connection. You are, after all, basically accusing these people of intimidation.

My point is that T4ST hasn't corrected its misstatements, that it has taken an uncompromising, polarizing position, which is at least part of the reason why it has generated frustration among LRT supporters. I also don't appreciate attempts to dismiss LRT supporters as somehow having less value within the community. Even here, you've dismissed your critics as "mostly students it seems", and you've gone after my credibility on the basis of a set of typos, without addressing the other points I've raised. It can be a little hard not to take that personally.

Finally, I did not mean to suggest that anybody had received threatening phone calls or other forms of harassment. I only meant to point out where public criticism crosses the line. I believe I said that we haven't passed that point, that we're a long way from passing that point and, hopefully, we never will.

I admit that my rhetoric might be strong, but then, so is T4ST's. I'll be happy to tone things down when they do.

James Bow said...

To reiterate, I just want to say that I'm primarily answering your question as to why some people might be reacting strongly to T4ST's staunch opposition to the LRT proposal. You ask "is this just a tactic to dispirit us and keep us down?" Well, no. Although I can only speak for myself, I have to say that I am frustrated and a little bit angry for the reasons I've described above. I am expressing my anger and frustration accordingly. Make of that what you will.

I'll go, now, and leave you in peace.

Yappa said...

James -

As to your allegations about things said by members of my group, all I can say is that I talk to these people all the time and I have never heard them speak a mistruth. I have heard them say similar things to what you say, but not in the incorrect formulation you provide. As you are so obviously furious about us questioning a plan you approve, I really don't think you're a credible source of information about what has been said. As a case in point, there's your blatant emotionally-charged misinterpretation of my post.