I'm going to try my damnedest to think and speak in a set of frames that describe not what irks or angers me, but rather describes the city, province, and country I want to be a part of.
By Michael Borrelli
Published January 24, 2017
It's a little late, but I finally settled on a New Year's resolution: In 2017, I'm going to do whatever I can to not think about Hamilton's civic trolls. This goes beyond just not feeding them, or mocking their arguments - I'm going to stop thinking of them. Period.
It'll be tough because - bah, now I've gone and done it. I'm thinking about them again! It's like when I'm told not to think of an elephant, that's exactly the first thing that comes to mind.
I recently re-read some of the work of cognitive linguist George Lakoff, a UC Berkeley academic known for his studies of political psychology and the cognitive frames used by liberals and conservatives to make sense of a complex world.
His considerable contributions to his field include his 1996 book Moral Politics, and 2004's Don't Think of an Elephant, a book that I've shamelessly appropriated for this piece.
I highly recommend you read some of his work, but the TL;DR version is reasonably simple and pulled from his excellent blog post from November 2016:
Conscious thought is a small part of thought (perhaps up to 98% is unconscious);
As a result, we can only understand what our brains allow us to understand;
This means that the neural circuitry that characterizes our worldview (the conceptual framework you use to understand the world) is very important to understanding and unpacking complex ideas, including politics;
Politicians use language to frame issues in ways that appeal to the worldviews of their desired constituency - words are not neutral.
Therefore, in Lakoff's words: "The first thing that is, or should be, taught about political language is not to repeat the language of the other side or negate their framing of the issue."
For most of 2016, Lakoff's work was a tiny, nagging voice at the back of my mind. But in the lead up to the American elections in November, the voice got louder and came back with a vengeance, asking: Why does anyone even talk about these jokers? Why are they repeating their ridiculous claims? Why is anyone bothering to fact-check statements that are saturated in rhetoric and marketing, not verifiable reality?
And on November 9, I couldn't help but wonder: Did all that repetition of frames, even to negate them, made the frames stronger? Did it gave those (often deplorable) views free airtime?
Was Western Civilization was being gaslighted? By shaking our collective fists in media-incited bursts, were reasonable, critical thinkers actually enabling the very thing we most opposed?
If that was truly the case (and plenty of analysis has noted the billions of dollars in free airtime, the constant repetition of retrograde opinions, and so on), then is there anything to be learned from the American experience that can be applied to Hamilton and Canada?
Take this week's anti-intellectual hubbub. If I had a dollar for every retweet, share, like and re-publication of a ridiculous statement made by a City Councillor over the past while, I wouldn't have to hold my head in my hands on my daily commute - I might be retired.
But is the amplification and/or attempt to publicly shame self-defeating?
Not only are thoughtful, conscientious, reasonable people feeding the persecution fantasies of gleeful trolls, we're sharing their retrograde views with our neighbours, and giving their wack-a-doodle arguments the oxygen they need to really catch fire with voters.
So, sure, maybe straight-out ignoring won't happen, but at the very least I'm going to stop giving the time, mouse-clicks or attention to anti-intellectuals, crypto-racists, proto-fascists, war-on-the-car-warriors, and others who delightfully troll for attention, validation and political gain.
I'm also going to stop looking to under-resourced and rapidly decaying corporate newsmedia outlets to hold these figures to account, because the consequence is that they just end up profiting from publicizing and regurgitating (some say "reporting") the same frames I objected to in the first place.
Instead, my resolution is to look to my friends and neighbours for the inspiration to pursue a better neighbourhood, city, and country. And I'm going to talk about those ideas a whole lot.
I'm going to re-dedicate myself and my precious free time to my family and the communities I'm a part of, and ditch the countless hours spent haranguing, dogging or shaming those who insist on trying to spread and inflame debate on narrow, anachronistic worldviews.
In short, I'm going try to promote a better worldview, even if it means letting a lie stand unchallenged, but especially if it means ignoring propaganda spread by those looking to sow division, hate, and fear.
Sure, I've felt the rush when trying to correct or needle a public figure for views that don't live up to public standards of decorum, decency or debate - but what do I have to show for it?
What we all have now is a cadre of thin-skinned politicians of every stripe who are vaunted to positions of increasing influence and power precisely because they demonstrate they know less than so-called "elites".
That common touch is comforting to an electorate that likes "authentic", relatable figures that look and speak like they do.
But if an "authentic" political character can't balance a budget, show up to meetings, or properly read and understand a paid consultant's report, then we all lose - even his or her ardent supporters.
With municipal and provincial seats up for grabs next year, I'm done wasting time tearing down the flimsy ideological frames of trolls. I only have so much time and energy.
So in 2017, I'm going to try my damnedest to think and speak in a set of frames that describe not what irks or angers me, but rather describes the city, province, and country I want to be a part of in 2018.
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