Hamilton's Fractured Political Discourse

There is something to be said about the frivolity of our current mode of conflict resolution, just as there is something to be said about developing new strategies to approach divisive issues.

By Ryan Janssen
Published May 06, 2014

Any relationship has its ups and downs. Couples fight and families bicker - it's a fact of life. In most arguments, there are different versions of the story.

Says one, "I hate it when you're gone for so long and I don't know where you are!" Says the other, "I'm gone for so long because you just keep nagging me when I'm at home!"

Or in the family: "Our child is increasingly defiant and won't listen to our authority!" The child replies, "The rules you set are too restrictive! I've showed you I'm responsible, and I think I deserve some independence!"

As is often the case, we approach arguments with a cause-and-effect mentality. A causes B. I did this because you did that. It is quite difficult, especially when we are involved in the argument, to step out and appreciate the circularity of the conflict. A causes B causes C causes A again. One side is not entirely at fault, and the other side is not entirely blameless.

If we understand that conflicts in a relationship are not linear, but instead are circular, then we understand that people on both sides of the conflict maintain the very conflict they are engaged in.

Hamilton the Feisty

This principle is applicable at levels beyond the family system.

There are many arguments going on in the city of Hamilton. Indeed, perhaps my writing this piece was motivated by the anxiety I feel every time I read stories in The Hamilton Spectator, CBC Hamilton, and Raise the Hammer - anxiety procured by the disparaging rhetoric of both sides of many of these arguments.

Consider the comments on a harmless piece by CBC Hamilton about the bike share program rolling out in July.

Says one reader, "Wow, more crazed totally ignorant of the rules of the road bikers on our streets and sidewalks this summer. I'm not impressed by this waste of taxpayers money."

And another user replies, "SoBi Hamilton is planning Orientations [sic] that will teach bikers safe cycling practices. I'm amazed you have the audacity to call cyclists crazed while you seem all too eager to attack something you obviously have no knowledge of."

Be it cycling, light rail transit, development of historic buildings, one-way vs. two-way streets, social services in the core, car culture, or one of a million other current issues, we have plenty to disagree about.

I am equally complicit in the bickering. As a regular cyclist and public transit user who does not own a car, my blood pressure rises when I meet people who align themselves against alternative forms of transit. I think to myself, "How can you be so blind! Why can't you see that I'm right?!" and I am sure that they share the same sentiment against me.

Just like the fighting couple and the arguing family, one side is not entirely at fault and the other side is not entirely blameless. Mediating family conflict is not done by asserting ones right-ness over the other's wrong-ness. The couple that solves arguments by proving the blame of their partner is the couple, frankly, with the nearest expiry date. It takes both sides recognizing their complicity in the conflict to take a step towards reconciliation.

So What?

Am I naively suggesting that the solution to all of our local political disagreements is to transcend the argument, recognize our own shortcomings, and just stop fighting? If only it were that easy.

However, there is something to be said about the frivolity of our current mode of conflict resolution, just as there is something to be said about developing new strategies to approach divisive issues.

Consider the recent realization by some in the environmental movement that highlighting the severity of the issue or the negative outcomes of a specific behaviour (i.e. "Dire UN report warns climate change a threat to human security") is not more productive than emphasizing the gains of positive action and the benefits accrued by environmentally-friendly behaviours (Jenson, 2006; Morton et al., 2011).

This suggests there is a more effective means toward positive social change than finger-pointing, accusing, and fear-mongering.

Furthermore, consider social psychological research that shows the incredible power of collaboration in producing meaningful change. To the extent that we feel that we are working with (rather than against) each other, we almost invariably see higher motivational investment, resilience to impediment, and better performance outcomes (Bandura, 2000).

This is undoubtedly applicable to political discourse as well: "Policy outcomes do not depend merely on the relative success of opposing forces. They often turn on whether those forces can agree to support policies designed to produce mutual gains: for example, whether liberals and conservatives agree on what means to reduce budget deficits... and whether proindustry and environmentalist factions combine to promote efficient regulation" (Quirk, 1989).

Our Family

We are now facing municipal and provincial elections that have direct implications for a number of the issues that currently divide Ontarians and Hamiltonians. The fate of funding for transit or a mid-peninsula highway in the Hamilton area is perhaps most prominent, but various other urban-suburban issues and common Hamilton fault lines will resurface: amalgamation, ward boundaries, infrastructure, levels of public services, and so on.

Officials have already begun putting themselves on various sides of these debates, reinforcing the enmity of our disagreements and perpetuating the cycle of linear causality.

'If only I can convince car users of their egregious sins,' says one camp.

'If only they could see that the billion dollars are a waste on LRT,' says another.

'They gamble with our tax dollars,' say some.

'They don't try anything new,' say others.

Insofar as we stuck convincing each other of the wrong-ness of alternative perspectives, we will remain a fractured community. We will become stagnant and entropic; and even if we still progress, we will do so to the chorus of resentment from those who were 'defeated.'

Here's where I stand: I want a politician, not who stands on my side of whatever line we have drawn in the sand, but who is able to resolve some of the current arguments in our local and provincial "family" by ending the cycle of finger-pointing, polarizing, and infantile bickering.

I want a populace that finds points of connection over common values and mutual commitment to positive change. I want both sides of whatever argument you can think of to recognize their own complicity in the conflict and start to lay the groundwork for an amicable resolution.


Bandura, A. (2000). Exercise of human agency through collective efficacy. Current directions in psychological science, 9(3), 75-78.

Jenson, J. D. (2006). "The advantages of compliance or the disadvantages of noncompliance? A meta-analytic review of the relative persuasive effectiveness of gain-framed and loss-framed messages." The Communication Yearbook, 30, 1-43.

Morton, T. A., Rabinovich, A., Marshall, D., & Bretschneider, P. (2011). The future that may (or may not) come: How framing changes responses to uncertainty in climate change communications. Global Environmental Change, 21(1), 103-109.

Quirk, P. J. (1989). The cooperative resolution of policy conflict. The American political science review, 905-921.

Ryan Janssen was born and raised here in Hamilton - living first in Dundas, then in Westdale, and now in the downtown core. He is currently finishing a Masters degree in Toronto, working in Mississauga, and living in Hamilton.


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By Anon (anonymous) | Posted May 06, 2014 at 08:57:08

It doesn't help when the city has deeply entrenched radio pundits that spew fear and misinformation about the issues that divide us. They have such a loud voice and free reign to say whatever they want. How do we combat that? How do we stop the trolls?

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted May 06, 2014 at 09:50:43

How do we stop the trolls? I've been wondering the same thing lately as I've watched Ryan M. and others expend considerable time and effort engaging with trolls online (via this blog, Twitter, etc.). First off--big props to those intrepid souls, because I definitely don't have the patience necessary to repeat myself over and over to also-ran candidates, run-of-the-mill cranks, and dog-whistle pundits (as a rule, I avoid arguments with people who are paid by the word), but I am always impressed by how respectful these community members are in even the most frustrating situations.

But to Ryan Janssen's points, I think he identified a very key psychological trait:

Furthermore, consider social psychological research that shows the incredible power of collaboration in producing meaningful change. To the extent that we feel that we are working with (rather than against) each other, we almost invariably see higher motivational investment, resilience to impediment, and better performance outcomes (Bandura, 2000).

Working together is so important, and in my experience working with diverse groups of residents and stakeholders downtown, physical proximity and a well-developed, goal-based exercise is often enough to break down many of the ideological walls between citizens.

New media has succeeded in bringing these important conversations out from closed doors, to be sure, but I'm not sure if the virtual anonymity and physical distance of the web helps us resolve conflicts any better--it's much to easy to just stick to your ideological guns and view compromise as a betrayal. As a result, well-meaning citizens all-too-frequently get gummed up in non-productive discourses with trolls who are probably laughing at the consternation they drum up.

But one thing is really interesting is witnessing troll-like behaviour in person: it's really, really hard to keep up. The jack-assery and intractability of these individuals often melts away when dozens of pairs of eyes are trained on them, evaluating what is being said and feeding back body-language and verbal input.

Trolling in real-life is also made more difficult because of the nature of the medium: in-person meetings require effort on the part of participants to show up and constructively contribute, so attendees tend to view real-life trolling very dimly because it wastes everyone's time, kills the buzz that Bandura's research describes, and begins to tickle our fight/flight as well as mob-behaviour impulses that only really occur in scenarios where a group of people are in a room together.

So what's the point of this long comment? Basically that committed citizens should move these productive conversations back to the real-world where anti-social behaviour elicits the hard-wired social-psychological responses that can't be laughed or sloughed off by a virulent troll.

We all know online discourse is the breeding ground of the troll, and we also know these buzz-killers tend to stay anonymous because they have an inkling of the social consequences if they actually expressed these opinions in "real life". By recognizing the limitations of atomized, computer-mediated discourse, perhaps we can more highly value those opinions expressed by citizens willing to stand up, state their name, and genuinely interact with their peers and neighbours.

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By scrap (anonymous) | Posted May 06, 2014 at 22:32:11

Ryan, you bring forward good points, however a lot of people based on their believes will destroy any and all messaging of those who dare to challenge the old thinkers to change.

I worked very hard to change a local group so that the low income people could be their own voice. The process was open, fair and democratic.

As those low income voices became the majority, those that represent the old structure, those who wield power, who are not low income engaged in star chambers tactics, the end result was a form of mobbing, which is indirect bullying to discredit and instill fear into the hearts and minds of those low income people.

We are facing an uphill battle!

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By jason (registered) | Posted May 06, 2014 at 23:06:38

One of the biggest problems here is career politicians with zero vision. They know how to play the game.

Exhibit A:
councillors complain that new transit/cycling initiatives are only happening downtown and not the overlooked suburbs. transit improvements are pitched for these same suburbs, and prepared to be approved by council until the actual councillor representing that suburb has the service scaled back. So, use downtown transit proposals to rile up your residents into believing they are being ignored. Then when service enhancements are proposed in your ward, vote them down because you really don't give a rip about transit. It's political games for career politicians . Hamilton would flourish if we could get rid of such folks.

Comment edited by jason on 2014-05-06 23:07:10

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