Dave Meslin is a Toronto-based artist, activist, community organizer, writer and the Creative Director of PigeonHat Industries.
Often it is said people are too stupid, selfish, or lazy to care about local politics. Dave proposes the opposite view: that people do care but there are barriers put in their way to prevent action. These barriers are:
- City Hall: ‘community engagement’ for a project may be by placing an ad in the local paper, but the ad is in tiny font with the details (what is proposed, how to object) hidden within a page full of pointless text. If people were supposed to be involved, the ad would have just a picture, large font next to it with the proposal, and contact details – similar to when a business advertises. When people don’t respond, it isn’t because they are apathetic: they have been intentionally excluded.
- Public Spaces: Public advertising goes only to the highest bidder. But some important messages are unprofitable to say.
- Media: Media subtly discourages engagement. When they review theatre or a restaurant they often include a short paragraph describing price, address, opening hours in case people want to go. For political campaigns or messages there is no similar way for people to get involved or read more (eg a website address). This sets the tone that politics isn’t something that people can be involved in.
- Heroism: movies teach us that heroes are ‘chosen’ by prophecy. In truth leaders voluntarily step forward, form a collective team and work to achieve their goal.
- Political parties: They should be an entry point to getting involved in politics, but are so poll-driven they just tell us what we want to hear. This feeds cynicism and shows they cannot be trusted to be bold leaders.
- Charitable status: (In Canada) Charities are not allowed to politically advocate. This prevents some of the most passionate people from getting involved.
- Elections: (Canada’s) system creates random results, with the winner someone who most people didn’t vote for. It’s no wonder people struggle to vote.
If we believe people are NOT too stupid, selfish or lazy to care, then we can fix each of these issues. We have to redefine apathy as a series of barriers, then identify and dismantle them.
This is a good list of barriers, but I’m disappointed so few solutions. His solution is to identify then dismantle each one, but that process is blocked by the same barriers he identifies, and the political process itself. Major Political Parties benefit from the election system: and people will (probably rightly) greet attempts to change it with cynicism. Other vested interests will also fight against any change, especially if noone can propose something fairer. Given Canada has a first-past-the-post system with 3 significant parties, so a preferential system would probably work better, but plenty of people will fight to prevent that.
‘Community engagement’ has been reduced to fine print ads to make things easier for people implementing projects. While the ads are one barrier in the process, would they really take on board community suggestions anyway? Would you expect them to?