The picture above depicts a scene ten minutes or less from my home. It is a very different one that many citizens of Toronto can look at with ease. I think especially of the people who live in the census tract that I was responsible for in 1981. Then as now they were a poor immigrant population living on Dixon Road between Islington and Kipling – more recently the scene of Project Traveller, the police investigation in Toronto in recent months. The revelations of that event, coupled with other news in the past year ultimately forced the Toronto City Council to take unprecedented action against its Mayor, Rob Ford.
The media frenzy that surrounds this bizarre course of events lays bare some of the divisions in our civil society, as Jeffry Simpson puts it so well in his column in today’s Globe and Mail. Core beliefs cause up to a third of the population to ignore the reality of what is before their eyes because the beliefs clearly matter to them more than the evidence.
I didn’t plan to attend the meeting of Toronto City Council where the elected representatives took the unprecedented step of removing most essential powers from the mayor. When I discovered that CTV had a live feed to the Council meeting – free from the endless commentary of the self-styled pundits and advertisements – I started to watch and sat transfixed for four and a half hours. The meeting showed governance proceedings in all their strengths and dangers. I was very favourably impressed with the serious and dignified comments of my local council member, Kristen Tam Wong, But what the meeting also showed was the frightening power of bullying and thuggery. I’m not sure that the Ford brother have any idea of how that behavior actually looks. The speaker had a very tenuous hold on the meeting.
These activities were going on as I was also reading Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life in preparation for a discussion group this morning. Compassion, she is clear to say, has to be linked to action. I’m not prepared to let anything go in terms of behaviour in a public meeting however compassionate I am called on to be. There are rules of order that were clearly not being ruled on. Mocking other speakers, walking around the room in a menacing way, calling other people names – these are actions not allowed in a senior kindergarten. They were there for all to see and it was appalling. One can only admire the best of those who are willing to stand for public office.
But we also seem to be living in a time when belief in a political party or the self described “nation” overrules the evidence before one’s eyes. I never watch so-called Reality TV. Its obvious popularity suggests that many people do. I try to exercise compassion – but I also try not to say that something is “deeply troubling” and then take a swipe at another political party in the process. Bullying behaviour isn’t foreign to me. I sat on a board in the past few years and watched a brave woman step between two participants in a meeting to avoid a raised fist hitting a target. I wish the media took more responsibility for endlessly feeding us sound bytes of reprehensible behaviour. At the same time I at recognize their responsibility to seek the truth in a world where all too many are happy to avoid it.
Bullies are frightened people. They are expert at intimidation. Compassion is necessary but it doesn’t mean that I can let some people control the agenda of public discourse. I pay attention to this while people in other parts of the world are starving and need bread – and in their case, more likely rice. In the end I have to take responsibility for how I focus my attention and why.