culture, economics, justice, law, media, politics, Things We Should Know

G20, Canadians 0

I have been following, probably to a lesser degree than I might have, the protests surrounding the G20 summit in Toronto. What I find interesting is that the summit itself has been eclipsed by the violent clashes occurring outside the security perimeter – perfectly natural, after all, violence has always provided better ‘copy’ than negotiation and discussion. In that sense, the protesters have accomplished one mission: their messages are being covered, if only in a primarily negative fashion and only as a peripeheral story to their methods of propagating the message.

For what it’s worth, I wish to offer a few observations:

It is important for the general public to remember that all of the protesters are not violent, and all of those acting violently are not legitimate members of social activist groups – it is said by some that there is a cadre of ‘professional protesters’ who travel from event to event to cause disruption. I would certainly not want to see everyone painted with the same broad brush as ‘violent’ or ‘irresponsible’. Nor, as it happens, do I particularly like having all police portrayed as ‘jack-booted thugs’ or provocateurs. There is reportedly evidence that some covert provocation by undercover police has occurred in the past, however, in the age of YouTube and the ‘citizen journalist’, such actions are a clear liability. The police are paid to maintain order, and I have no doubt that they arrived on the front lines with the ideal of doing this job – that being said, police, first and foremost, are human beings, and human beings make mistakes; they lash out when attacked, due to fear (they are greatly outnumbered by shouting, angry protestors), or out of an over-developed sense of duty. The violent members of the police services, as with the protestors, are vastly outnumbered by those who do their jobs well, and with integrity. Remember that just because the violent individuals on both sides get the most attention, that does not make them representative of the whole.

Speaking of representation, I was interested and curious after reading some stories on the CBC as to whether or not many of the individuals, violent and otherwise, among the protesters are politically active in other ways, such as voting. A quick search revealed this study, which indicates that surveyed individuals in the 15 to 21 and 22 to 24 year-old age groups are the most active in “non-voting political behavior”, and the least active in actually voting (even allowing, of course, for the fact that the voting age is 18). While understanding that younger adults are cynical and disillusioned with the political process, I think we have done a poor job in educating younger people about the importance of voting – it is the acceptable democratic method of social change, as opposed to the proposed ‘violent revolution’. We already have the means to enact social change and ensure that the individuals who represent us truly have our best interests at heart – the organized, purposeful, collective casting of ballots. Demanding social change while declining to participate in any meaningful way in the process available seems dishonest, in my opinion. Call me naive if you must, but I’m an optimist – I believe if we truly want social change, if we want to replace the current regime, it is within out power collectively as Canadians to create the change – ‘be’ the change, in other words. Revolution worked in Russia in 1917, but is unlikely to have any meaningful effect beyond the disruption of the lives and livelihoods of individuals not even concerned with the protests – the small businessmen and so on. If you want justice, you have to be a full participant in the creation of the just society, become one of its builders, and not focus on the violent destruction of the old regime. Each of us, every day, in any given moment, create and maintain justice within society according to our moral codes – let that creation dominate through the political process rather than abetting wanton destruction.

Beyond (and inextricably bound within) the political is the personal – how we act, what we do, whom we choose to help or hurt. Concern for our fellow citizens – the expression of justice, of tolerance and of lending assistance where possible – is the basis of democracy, particularly a democracy such as ours which is based on a pretty good (but not perfect) social safety net. Behind this altruism, however, is the single most important unit of society, the individual, who maintains (or breaks) the social covenant as she sees fit on a constant basis through interactions with others – society is not imposed from the top down, but is built and maintained, moment by moment, by the individuals, the ‘bricks’ that are its component parts. Humanity, however, is descended from animals (no matter what creationists may tell you), and the proof of this ascent lies in our behavior, in the actions between thoughts, in our instincts. One of the more fascinating parts of Social Psychology lies in the realm of Collective Behavior, as discussed with great clarity over the years by writers such as Eric Hoffer in The True Believer, and by Erich Goode in the excellent textbook Collective Behavior (who knew?). Human social interaction is by nature complex, but the behavior of crowds as they become mobs has been examined in great detail, and is, to some degree, predictable. The social dynamics of the crowd-to-mob transition rely on  particular elements to unfold: first, the ‘power’ granted to the individual by the collective – to put it another way, as individuals, we can be known quantities; as part of a collective, we are anonymous, and therefore more free to express ourselves physically and emotionally – witness on a small scale the strident nature of the anonymous message boards on the Internet, and keep in mind that each of these is a building block of a collective expression of order or disorder. Second, observation of crowds has proven the importance of leadership – one or more individuals, usually a small number, who define the ‘agenda’ for the collective. How they act sets the tone for the dynamics that follow. If, for example, the natural leaders from whom the collective takes their cues are peaceful by nature, the dynamic will remain a peaceful one – which is why all crowds, at concerts and sporting events, do not become mobs. On the other hand, if the leaders, being more expressive or lacking impulse control, are more violent or begin to destroy property, then the crowd’s transformation to a mob is virtually assured – in many cases, all it takes is one act of violence to transform the collective, empowered by the anonymity of numbers, into the anarchist army. Third, there must be that act – the violent action, the thrown brick or punch, that acts as the ‘tipping point’ in the collective mood, and unless the emotional impact of this act is diffused immediately, the transition is inevitable. It is for these reasons, despite complaints of excess on the part of police and security services, that motivates the array of precautions in Toronto. The police understand the potentially negative consequences of collective behavior, even if we or the protestors do not.

Finally, as time goes on, the patient observer will take note of the escalating rhetoric on the Internet, again motivated by anonymity and the protection it provides. The attacks will become more personal and the rhetoric more heated, until the faceless and inherently evil ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ Other becomes unworthy of respect or calm dialogue – in fact, as individuals, they are to be torn down and destroyed as effectively as are physical structures. Although not a physically ‘present’ collective, the concept of the tipping point still applies – the first one to ‘flame’ the opposition sets the tone for what follows, despite the efforts of some individuals to foster a more civil dialogue. The Other, meanwhile, becomes dehumanized, and the attacks become personal, until the level of vehemence approaches a point which would never be reached in a face-to-face confrontation on the same subject.

I make these observations with a goal in mind – not to bore you, as may well be the case, but hopefully to point out the imperfections of both sides in this ‘struggle’. I don’t pretend to be an expert in capitalism or colonialism, so I have deliberately left these issues out of the equation; ultimately, these are but ideologies which require human agency to exist.

And that’s the point, really – despite the perception of the monolith labeled ‘SOCIETY’ that we percieve, we, individuals, citizens, police and protesters, are society writ small. And, frankly, it is a little humbling, despite the accelerated growth of technology,  just how fragile our collective is, under the right conditions. In the building of a society, we are all keystones.

Note: Edited to reflect a quite accurate comment that I had stated an opinion as fact.

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13 thoughts on “G20, Canadians 0

  1. The People’s Summit was FABULOUS!
    No mainsteam media covered this.
    We had to go to abble.ca to get a livestream of some of it.
    The media also focused totally on the incident with the Black Bloc.
    We wee NOT shown the creative, peaceful wonderful peacemakers.
    This is at, inspiration. Uplifting.
    The media played up drama and fear.
    The People’s message was suppressed again.And again

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    1. I’m glad to hear it was a success, but I share your justifiable frustration that this success was lost in the narrative jumble of violence from both sides that is dominating the media. The bleeding and leading continues, since nobody will watch people acting peacefully, or intelligently for that matter – not ‘sexy’ enough.
      Feel free to tell us more about it, or if you have some links, I’m sure some readers will be interested. Hook us up! 🙂

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  2. The writer makes statements of fact, that are unfounded and I think egotistical

    “It is important for the general public to remember that all of the protesters are not violent, and all of those acting violently are not legitimate members of social activist groups – it is generally understood that there is a cadre of ‘professional protesters’ who travel from event to event to cause disruption.”

    As a participant, I can say there are untruths there within. Being reactive I’d say propaganda, but my reason says just ignorant and/or egotistical.

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    1. If I’ve missed/overlooked something – my apologies. My intention is not to be egotistical, my intent is to look at the phenomenon from a distance, with a bit of detachment – I’m sorry if it rubs you the wrong way. The statement is based on multiple claims made in the media (not a reliable source, as I freely admit), and my recollection that onse such individual was prosecuted in halifax a few years ago. I am always willing to be corrected if I am misremembering.
      If you have some insights, I’d appreciate hearing them – let’s make this the one venue that can still lay claim to civil debate.

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    1. Agreed, I could have phrased that better. 🙂 Probably not a good idea to back up other stuff with facts, but mash it up with my opinion without indicating as such. You know how it is when you’re on a roll…

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  3. specifically I have a problem with the idea that those who have acted out their anger physically, are not legitimate members of “social activist groups”

    In fact, many are members of a wide variety of social justice groups, and anti capitalist. Anyone who wants to know more about motivations can do there own research. I would not recommend blogs though, there are plenty of peer reviewed sources on the anarchist movement, class struggle, the black blocs (plural) intentions and motivations (through communiques).

    this blog serves to minimize and polarize the subjects. Meanwhile there is a worldwide struggle for survival going on.

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    1. I completely agree that blogs are not what I’d consider authoritative in any way – they are opinion, and should be perceived and understood as such. This one certainly is.
      My comment was that “all of those acting violently are not legitimate members of social activist groups”, which implies that some are indeed members of these groups. Perhaps bad sentence construction rather than a difference of opinion.
      Do you have links to some studies? I am seriously asking – I am not being sarcastic (just in case) – I really do want to provide a venue for debate if possible, so more info is always preferable.
      As for minimizing and polarizing – on that I disagree. There are flaws on both sides, just as there are legitimate issues on both sides.

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  4. Lets look at the larger picture of why people were on the street at all. It seems that more more people feel disenfranchised with their governments, whether they vote or not.
    Why do people feel that their elected governments no longer represent their interest?
    For example, the vast majority of people were against the United States creating 700 billion TARP funds, but their elected officials did it anyways. In Canada, when the government purchased 75 billion of mortgages from the Banks, it was barely noted by the media and definitely not voted for by our elected officials. When Greece was given oddles of cash, Canada’s share through the IMF will be 20 billion….again not voted on by our government.
    The majority of Canadians are arguably pro-abortion (I say this based on recent polls, no reference, where even people whom oppose abortion do not wish to infringe on other people’s right to choose). But the government of Canada as decided to spend a billion dollars on maternal health and explicitly no money for abortion, even though that would probably save lives ( recent study says 75,000 per year).
    The G20 cost 1 billion dollars because the PM decided, Ad Hoc, to hold it in the downtown of Toronto. This week, the provincial government, that I voted for in the last election, decided to arbitrarily to remove my constitutional rights… without any debate and not notify anyone! (even the mayor of Toronto wasn’t told)
    I went for a late night walk earlier this week without ID. IF I had happened to go into the security zone area (if I still lived in my old Apt I would have) and a police officer came up to me and demanded ID, I would have refused, KNOWING my rights and I would have been arrested. I’ve served in the military, I vote in every election and bi-election. But it is coming increasingly clear that the democracy that our grandparents generation fought for on the beaches of Normandy is being corrupted and all citizens need to be vigilant for once a line is moved, regardless of the reason, that is the new line. If we ignore issues and rely on voting once every few years then these sorts of outbursts will only get larger and worse. Currently, people have been willing to simply cause vandalism against symbols and not bring real weapons to fight as has happened in so many revolutions in the past and some countries recently. Once the youth believe that the current system benefits disproportionately the older and the richer of their society there is no going back. When people start opposing their government for no pay against people who are paid, we are all in trouble. Thank goodness we are not anywhere near that point.

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  5. I hear you, my friend. I sort of glossed over the reason behind the disillusionment in favor of discussing its effects, so your point is welcome and well-taken. I just wish that people would grab hold of the institutions we do have and wrest control away from those who misuse it, rather than dismissing it outright. Perhaps, as I say, I am a naive optimist.

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