Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Recruiting courageous activist citizens...urgently

The citizen’s job is to be rude- to pierce the comfort of professional intercourse by boorish expressions of doubt. (John Ralston Saul)

If this space has a purpose, Saul has expressed it. Boorish expressions of doubt to piece the comfort of professional discourse is about as high a purpose as one can imagine for fully engaged citizenship.

After all, professional discourse is, by definition, polite, slanted in favour of the speaker and the organization/government/corporation/public service agency represented by the speaker, incomplete by design, and allegedly “expert” so that even in its writing, the assumption is that only the “inside” circle of those in the know “will get it”. Professional speak, known in classical times as rhetoric, has been the primary skill of the legal profession, the political operatives, the public relations gurus, and even sadly, too often, the televangelist, or the one behind a real podium/pulpit.

Reporters in daily newspapers are exposed to some classroom time to help them unravel the circumlocutions of professional speak, as a filter for their readers. Insurance brokers are expected to untangle the legalese of policies, including all of the myriad of exceptions when coverage does not apply, and most often this requisite exchange never takes place. Why would the agent want to expose the loopholes in the policy in front of the client who has about to sign the cheque for the annual premiums, for the next three or four decades. Similarly,  financial “planners” (another fancy word for stock, bond and mutual fund salesmen and women) eagerly and sometimes patiently await their client’s agreement to a “specially designed program of investments, depending on the relative degree of risk with which the client is comfortable. Neither the insurance nor the investment sales person, however, would even consider a “boorish” expression of doubt about the value of their products or service.

Doctors engage in professional speak every day with every patient and colleague, in the former instances, attempting to diagnose a specific complaint, in the latter making arrangements for collaborative work in clinical teams. Will they, or do they, dare to express their own personal “boorish” doubts about the professional speak of their hospital administration? Hardly! Did they dare to complain about their university deans whose compliance with hours on duty would exhaust an Olympian, and would be deemed “unprofessional” by the long-haul truckers, even though lives are at risk in both “professional” expectations.

Politicians, and their civil-(serf)-servants however, run the risk of so “enhancing” their professional “speak” as to  render much of it either  incomprehensible or unbelievable. Balancing the protection of the environment with the growth of the economy, for example, is a phrase that collected hours of air time and gallons of black ink in the last federal election, as the kind of “soothing” professional speak that demonstrated the “balanced” approach of the speaker(s). Details, however, were either omitted deliberately or unavailable from a lack of planning. The public, in our innocence/ignorance/slumber/insouciance/disinterest however, would never demand such details (so goes the thinking of the backroom election planners).

Throwing money at a political “headache” is a favourite “cure” of most politicians, almost as effective as throwing a bottle of Aleve pills at an incurable rheumatoid arthritic joint. It brings a moment of “relief” in the latter instance, and in the former buys the politician a little time (relief) from the protesters who demand much more and never really achieve their goals. A recent decision by the Army Corp of Engineers at Standing Rock in North Dakota to refuse permits for the construction of the final stage of the pipeline under a valuable source of water is, while extremely welcome, really only a momentary pause in the battle to block the final construction. Trump’s eyes are already focused threateningly on the decision to refuse permits; undoubtedly, he will find a way to make the project happen.

“Boorish expressions of doubt” comprise the lot of the citizen who, by nature and definition, does not have a research staff, a secretarial/data entry/writing staff, a public relations consultant, and a bull-pen full of lawyers, when compared with the “professional speak and speakers”. While this appears to be a distinct disadvantage, there is a silver lining in the David/Goliath story as explained by Malcolm Gladwell. Whereas Goliath had prepared for a hand-to-hand combat, and wore heavy impenetrable armour, David, on the other hand, with his sling, focused on a more distant conflict, out of reach of the giant of power. We all know the outcome of that archetypal conflict. Well, citizens will forever be the David when uttering “boorish expressions of doubt” in the face of  professional speak, an appropriate metaphor for Goliath.

The real question is how to recruit an army of citizens so committed and so energetic to engage in throwing “boorish expressions of doubt” when they hear, read, see or encounter professional speak. We teach our children that joining the “professionals” is a career goal to be emulated. We do not teach our children that being a concerned and active “citizen” is just as worthy a personal and professional goal, although there is no “income” or social status in being an engaged citizen. In fact, there is a reasonable likelihood that taking a public position on issues facing the neighbourhood, town city, province or nation will bring a predictable and likely internecine push-back that could get ugly.

Nevertheless, leaving the gathering and assimilation and promulgation of public information and debate about policy to the “professionals” will serve the perceived needs and desires of those very professionals and the public debate will be so empty of the kind of “boorish expression of doubt” that can and often does provide needed leaven to the professional, sterile, sanitized and “establishment” generated and driven arguments.

There is also the factor that the “professional media” ignores “boorish expressions of doubt” as being “less professional” and therefore less credible and less worthy of being included in sound bytes or video clips. If you think “status” (read professional) does not really matter in our culture, you are smoking something that is rendering you deaf and blind to reality. Nowhere is ‘status’ more important, more valued and more sought after (including paid handsome sums) than on the public and private media. Imagine a headline in a major daily, with a circulation in the millions, that reads, “Local contractor says costs estimates for new fire hall twice as high as necessary”. First, there is a flurry of instant and sceptical questions that jump to the forefront of the reader’s mind:

·      Is he vying for the contract?
·      Has he even looked at, let alone examined, the details of the tender?
·      Does he have a history in this community that proves his reliability, credibility and ethical trustworthiness?
·      Who does he know who might be feeding him confidential information?
·      Who does he think he is to challenge the tendering process that has been followed by our councillors?
·      Who are his friends and political allies that we could ask to find out what makes this guy worth listening to?
·      Why did he not put a bid in when the tenders were issued, and prove the worth of his contention?
·      What is this headline doing to the reputation of our town? (This is especially true in smaller centres where local dailies consider their role the “business and cultural promotion of their town or city.)

Being willing to risk one’s personal reputation, especially if one has a professional practice in the community, is not a risk worth taking for many of the same people who could offer the best and most effective “doubt” about the decisions made by elected or appointed officials, some of whom clearly have a private agenda in the conduct of public business.

In Canada, especially, the word “rude” carries a heap of negative connotative freight. “Rude” evokes those without an education, without a degree or two on their resume, without a house in the right part of town, without a family whose reputational “skirts” are so clean that their words could never be considered “boorish” or whose attitudes could never be considered sceptical.

Decades ago, English poet, W. H. Auden wrote a piece about what we today would consider the antithesis of the engaged and active citizen willing and able to venture into offering “boorish expressions of doubt” about the public issues of the day.
The poem, while dated, nevertheless, expresses attitudes and perceptions that many consider “worthy” of the most honourable citizen. It offers what amounts to an obituary to the nameless, and reduced to a number, unknown citizen. Fitting into the predictable trends, for war when there was war, for peace when there was peace, these are a couple of the hallmarks of the archetype.

Unknown citizens will not be among those offering boorish expressions of doubt about public decisions made by professional politicians.

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