Friday, September 28, 2012

Revealing Cowardice

Everyday people in the public eye put their opinions, decisions and actions on view for everybody to see. The things our elected officials and senior bureaucrats say, and do within the scope of their work, are a matter of public record. That's a given; a black and white reality of the life of someone working for the public good, on the public's dollar.

Less black and white, is the conduct of those elected officials and senior bureaucrats when they are not engaged in official duties. What they do and say on their own time is their own business. However, as we've seen  locally in recent weeks and over the past 50 years with the rise of broadcast and new media, the public has a funny way of deciding what is and isn't their business.

Ask someone working on the public dollar and they'll tell you, nearly everything in their private and public lives is open for debate and discussion. The level of bravery required to put oneself in that position is incredible. To know that with every decision you make somebody is going to cry foul, call you names, question your intelligence, and question your morals; and to still put oneself out there, is an act of selflessness.

In order to ensure that there are checks and balances on governing bodies, there needs to be an effective critical social voice. That voice should include media professionals, opposition (or pseudo opposition) political critics, and an emboldened citizenry. Now, when a critic from any of those spheres writes a letter to the editor, pens a column, writes a blog, posts a critique on facebook (or other social media) they often do so under their own names. It's a requirement for columns and letters to include your real name, and really it's just honest and decent to do so on your blog or through your on-line missives. Why? Because it shows that you are willing to engage in open debate in the public forum, and that you are willing to stand behind your statements. You are essentially treating the person you are critiquing with a basic level of respect.

So what then do we make of anonymous bloggers who have nothing positive to add to the public debate? How then do we treat people who won't stand behind their statements, by posting their thoughts under their real name?  Before answering that, I want to examine what would posses someone to make critiques from inside a virtual ghillie suit.

What can be the motivation for putting on a virtual mask, jumping up and down in the on-line world, and making a whole lot of noise?

I figure there are two reasons for making anonymous, on-line attacks on public officials:

  1. Cowardice. You're just a big, scaredy-cat chicken. Sure it's an immature counter-point but I don't know how to put it any more bluntly. Whether you're protecting your job, your reputation or you're just afraid of people finding out who you are, the act of posting critique from behind an anonymous screen isn't an act of public service; it's the act of coward.
  2. Conspiracy. Perhaps you think that somehow, if you post under your real name that "The Man" will be out to get you. Maybe your property taxes will go up - but just yours. Maybe all the traffic lights will mysteriously turn red when you get to them - but just in your lane. Maybe the By-law officer will fine you for parking 11 minutes in a 10-minute zone - but just you. Let's be clear here, City governments don't work like that. The governing body has way too many pressing issues to deal with to be distracted by "getting even" with a critic.

Whatever the motivation, either cowardice or the need to hide under a protective shield of tinfoil, anonymous critics do need to be addressed. This is not to give them their due nor to give any credence to their arguments. Rather, we need to call out anonymous critics and make them accountable for their statements because their statements have a ripple effect. For example, if a person has an opinion about a piece of potentially contentious, public policy they have every right to voice that opinion. By placing their name to that opinion, they are forced to carefully choose their words and to temper their outrage. This creates a more balanced and reasoned discourse. Conversely the anonymous post is less likely to be subject to that tempering. The writer can hide behind the mask of anonymity and feel secure that any backlash will safely pass him/her by. The resulting ripples include an inflated sense of public outrage, and as we saw during the bike lanes "discussions", the devolution of the discourse into name-calling, threats and the potential for violence.

When an anonymous critic calls out a Councillor by name, and not only makes a poor argument against the ideas of that Councillor, but insists on calling into question that Councillor's reputation and intelligence, then the critic must be able to face a rebuttal from his accused. It's how public discourse works.

In the country of Burma the government's most outspoken critic (hell the most well-known political critic in the world) never hid behind a pseudonym or simple anonymity. Aung San Suu Kyi faced the threat of torture, execution and threats to her family members for openly critiquing the military junta in Burma. She was violently attacked in 1996 and spent 15 of the past 21 years under house arrest. And yet she has never wavered and never hidden from those she was criticizing.

Call him a lunatic if you want, but Paul Watson has driven his little Zodiac - and later his large ships - in front of Japanese whaling ships. He has given press conferences to rail against nuclear testing, chained himself to bridges, to nuclear power plants, and to old growth trees; and engaged in myriad other international acts of protest and critique - never once hiding his identity.

Here in Red Deer we see letters to the editor in the Red Deer Advocate, daily, calling for political change, public action or questioning the decisions of council. They all have a real name attributed to them. Even someone I disagree with, Ryan Handley, had the decency and the respect for public discourse to publish his comments and his anti-bike-lane petition under his own name.

Also here in Red Deer, Bill Berry, the gentleman assaulted by the RCMP, has been very outspoken with his criticism and call for action; under his own name. Bill is contributing to the public discourse, be calling for action on a very difficult-to-understand scenario, and he's doing it in his own name. To be the victim of an assault by the authorities and then to stand up publicly and vocally demand action takes courage.

All of these people - including the ones we disagree with - deserve our respect, our time and our reasoned response. They deserve it because they have the courage to stand behind their words and actions, under their own names.

Back to my original questions: "So what then do we make of anonymous bloggers who have nothing positive to add to the public debate? How then do we treat people who won't stand behind their statements by posting their thoughts under their real name?"

Well as I see it we have two options. We can ignore them for the conspiracy theorist and/or coward that they are or we can publicly call them out and demand they reveal their identity. Either way, the level of respect currently being shown to both Council and to you and me - the citizenry - by anonymous bloggers, under the guise of representing the opinion of "the average joe" in this city is repugnant, and needs to come to an end. Either ignoring anonymous critics or insisting they show a basic level of respect for the rest of us by revealing their identities, will take the wind out of their sails.

Now I know that some people will be crying foul over this, saying that there is a great tradition of anonymity in public discourse. They are of course, correct. Without anonymous sources we wouldn't have had the revelations of Nixon's malfeasance, the wikileaks-released video footage of US Army helicopter pilots shooting civilians in Iraq, or the myriad other instances of stories attributed to "an un-named source". The responsibility of protecting a source is a right that journalists have long invoked as a necessary defence of free speech.

Let's be crystal clear here. When a journalist quotes a source they are doing so because the source has information that the journalist could not otherwise access. When the source asks for anonymity, they do so because they fear for their jobs, their personal safety or the safety of family. When dealing with large government cover-up or massive corporate wrongdoings, these may be valid concerns.

However, and this is the critical "however", the journalist writing the story, offering opinion and making conclusions based on the testimony of the source, always publishes under their own name. Julian Assange, Woodward and Bernstein, Jill Abramson, and the rest of the legitimate media - hell even the idiocracy at Fox News - all publish and broadcast under their own names; sometimes at their peril.

Journalists are not protected by whistleblower legislation - because they themselves are not the whistleblowers - nor are they afforded any personal or professional protection outside of the guarantees of free speech - as a result of simply doing their jobs.

So, local anonymous critics, bent on creating public discord, you don't get to cut it both ways. If you are portraying yourselves as pseudo-journalists - and there is ample evidence for this, including court cases in the States where first amendment challenges to bloggers have been supported by traditional media - then you are bound by decency to publish under your own names. You might take heat, or get called names, or perish the thought, someone might think poorly of you. Well guess what? That's too damn bad. Every time you call out a Council member or denigrate an opinion, or sew the seeds of public discord - such as during the bike lane discussions - you aren't acting as a source, you're acting as a journalist and anonymity is not guaranteed.

It's just cowardly.

Todd Nivens

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Might These be My Final Public Thoughts On Bike Lanes?

Well, after reading the latest round of hurtful comments directed at a few of our City Councillors, after having gum thrown at me while riding home yesterday, and after watching one Councillor shamefully try to spin the bike lane issue to his political gain, I'm done.

I'm done arguing.
I'm done being nice.
I'm done.

Which in all honesty, pains me to say.

Here's a little background about me. I'm a husband and father, a citizen of Red Deer, a believer in the overwhelming power of the planet, and a person dedicated to helping bring about effective change for a sustainable future. I'm a professional Environmental Educator with nearly 20 years experience. I teach my kids to think critically, to discuss issues rather than shouting about them, and to live with as little impact on the earth as possible. We as family bike, walk and bus to work and school - year round, try to do most of our errands without resorting to using the truck and spend as much time playing outside as we possibly can.

One of the things for which I am incredibly proud of myself, is the completion of my Masters of Arts degree (in Environmental Education and Communications) last year. In the course of my thesis research I found that there is a huge loss of hope, or more correctly, a major sense of hopelessness amongst Environmental Educators. It seems counter-intuitive that the people most directly involved in creating change among the citizenry, would feel that their efforts were failing. I had personally never felt that hopelessness and helplessness. Every time I deliver a program or take someone for hike, snowshoe, interpretive bike ride or give a talk to large or small groups, I come away feeling energized. I feel that I'm truly making a difference in my community and in by extension, in the world.

And then came along the bike lane issue. Or rather, along came a group of people who want to argue, name call, abuse and generally fight against bike lanes in the most base, banal manner possible. And the sad thing is, it's not a huge group of people. Many of the concerns about bike lanes have been well-thought-out and well-reasoned. I myself had initial misgivings about one of the routes (you can read about them further down). Council doesn't need people fawning over them and stroking their egos. What they need is intelligent feedback. Just as there are some cyclists who give the bulk of us a bad reputation, this group of zealots is overshadowing the reasoned arguments and giving the balanced people a bad name.

This small, outrageous, rude and tactless group of people has created a culture of antagonism, fear-mongering, and divisiveness around the bike lanes, that is usually reserved for American attack-style politics. They have turned what should be slightly uncomfortable growing pains that can be worked through by reasonable people, into calls for firings of City bureaucrats and demands for the heads of elected officials.

What's really sad though, is the the lack of imagination that this group has; the inability to see a future where we don't have as many cars on the road. This group of people is so married to the status quo and to an ideal that says you have to drive everywhere and that car culture has supremacy, that the mere thought of having to wait for an extra traffic light sends them over the bend. And, best of luck to the cyclist who ends up in front of them on a city street because they're on a route with no bike lane. I would bet heavily, that the most hateful comments are written and uttered by the same people who attack bicycle commuters for merely trying to get to work and school.

So, I'm finished with the issue. I'm not writing about it, talking about it or generally opening myself up to the kinds of attacks being suffered by Paul Harris, Cindy Jefferies, Craig Curtis and others. I'm climbing on my bike, putting my head down and riding.

Please don't throw anything heavier than chewed gum at me.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Keeping Safe, One Lane at a Time

There have been lots of comments about "why cyclists can't commute on the City Trail system?". Well, here's why:

I posted about the potential for this situation on one of my recent blog posts, just prior to this unfortunate accident. I'll say it again for those people who think we're just out for a daily jaunt, with nothing better to do: Bike commuting is NOT a recreational activity. It's transportation. We move along at 25 - 30km/h, which are speeds that are far too quick for meandering trails and for sidewalks. While this story focuses on the cyclist, it should be noted that the jogger was also sent to the hospital for stitches.

Putting bicycle commuters in bike lanes is the safest option for everyone involved.

While a car driver may be slightly inconvenienced by an extra wait for one turn at the stop light, the benefit to all of us in the potential to reduce human casualties is huge. Bike lanes can lead to reduced health-care costs as A)more people choose to leave their cars at home and go to work in a manner that promotes healthy living and B) reducing the number of ambulance trips and hospital visits by injured cyclists and pedestrians.

Will you as a driver take a little longer to get around on a road that has a bike lane? Possibly, in the short term, yes you will. However the wait won't be onerous - it won't make you late for supper and family time at the end of the day - and, you'll have participated in a movement that is pushing us toward a more sustainable, more healthy society.

We cyclist-commuters will do our part to educate those riders who don't know or don't understand the rules of the road and the protocols for bike-lane routes. I think that by and large, we'd welcome any driver out to experience the commute from the perspective of a cyclist and to see first hand, how the bike lanes are making things better.

All, the anti-bike-lane crowd has to do, is be a little patient and be willing to engage and to try something new.