LOCAL GOVERNMENT MATTERS: Building kindness as part of our infrastructure

Columnist Donna Macdonald on the rise in threats and intimidation against municipal politicians

Maybe Elmo is the leader we’ve been waiting for, and Sesame Street is where we all want to live.

This season, the popular children’s TV show is focusing on kindness. Elmo and his pals demonstrate kind acts and ways to manage conflict, and delve into using mindful breathing to calm anxieties.

Even Oscar the Grouch tries to be more open to the desires of his pet worm, even though it may mean leaving his trash can.

Sesame Street worked with the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin to develop this focus on learning about emotions and caring for others. And why would they do this, at this time?

It’s pretty obvious unless you’ve been living in a trash can. We’re in a time of increasing anger, fear, bullying, divisions and violence. How we’ve ended up here can be debated at length. I’m more interested in how we get out of here.

In my last column I wrote about bad behaviour occurring within some local governments and about the Working Group on Responsible Conduct that will recommend tools to help moderate that trend.

But you know the old saying: when you point a finger in one direction (e.g. at your city council), three fingers are pointing back at you. So are we as community members behaving any better? How do we treat each other and our elected officials?

Some days I feel like there’s a toxic swamp oozing around in the online world, and its venomous gases are poisoning individuals and our communities. It seems those media have changed the rules of debate and discussion, making civility and respect irrelevant.

I feel lucky that I exited politics before social media became such a force, the place where people feel free to say whatever they want. Often it’s something they would never say eyeball-to-eyeball with the recipient.

Sure, during my time on Nelson City Council, I received unpleasant phone calls, letters and emails that shook me up. Yes, there were times when I felt hated, when I avoided leaving home.

Often I was frustrated by rumours and misunderstanding. And I was appalled when a woman at a public meeting said: “We don’t want information. We just want to vote.”

But nowadays elected officials are being subjected to routine abuse. Minor issues spur threatening phone calls serious enough to be referred to the police for criminal investigation.

Emails berate councillors for their stupidity, for ruining the community. Women especially are targets.

Just one example: the mayor of Maple Ridge has endured “merciless abuse,” says one of her councillors, because of her efforts to address homelessness.

Threats, harassment and intimidation have forced her to cancel public appearances, or to have a police escort. Similar nasty situations are happening all over, at all levels of politics.

Politics is complex, and from the outside it’s easy to think “those idiots don’t know what they’re doing. They’re just stupid and wrong.” But perhaps they have more or different information than you do, have other considerations than you.

Perhaps their perspective is simply different. None of that makes them deserving targets for hateful words and threats. They are fellow human beings.

I’m reading a book called Collaborating with the Enemy: How to work with People You Don’t Agree with or Like or Trust. Like the author, Adam Kahane, I’ve always believed that if people could just sit down and talk and listen, common ground could be found and collaboration succeed.

In many cases, that’s true. But Kahane’s point is that even when that doesn’t happen, when you’re engaged with someone you really dislike or whose values offend you deeply, there are still ways to collaborate and move forward on issues important for your organization or community.

We can each start by committing to be respectful, to wonder and enquire instead of assuming and judging. To remember we are all frail and wonderful humans. How we treat our politicians is part of how we respond to our world, and each other.

Can we choose kindness as our theme, just like Sesame Street? We adults can certainly work on our grouchiness along with Oscar, and learn from Elmo about the need to care for each other.

Donna Macdonald served 19 years on Nelson City Council until 2014. She is the author of Surviving City Hall, published in 2016.