So it was that MP Charlie Angus, the NDP’s self-appointed guardian of civility, has declared that Twitter has “turned us all into 14-year-olds in a cafeteria” where “[e]verybody gets to be a Grade 9 girl.”
Yesterday’s context, of course, was Patrick Brazeau’s calling reporter Jen Ditchburn a “bitch” because she wrote an article that mentioned Brazeau’s poor attendance record, and for sure, the senator’s remarks were immature, though I’d argue more in keeping with the mindset of a hormonal male bully than a grade-nine girl.
But here’s more context: as Dale Smith rightly points out, Angus “makes name-calling a staple in QP” – hardly one to lecture, and as Smith tweeted to me, “I honestly can’t think of a bigger hypocrite for the NDP commitment to ‘decorum.’” (I replied that Pat Martin comes a close second.)
I didn’t think it possible that any MP could be as bone-headed as Bruce Hyer, with his random seating plan as a panacea for House decorum, as opposed to, say, MPs not acting like asses, but Angus takes the cake. The problem with political discourse in this country is Twitter. Yes, of course! Just ban #cdnpoli as a hashtag, delete your political accounts, and all will be well.
Recently I went for afternoon tea at the Chateau Laurier with a group of tweeps. We made “pinkies up and out” jokes and nibbled on cucumber and watercress sandwiches. It was refined, but it was play-acting. It wasn’t the real world.
The essential truth here is not that a social medium turns us into babies, or even that politics can be immature, but that life isn’t a tea party, Charlie.
Might I suggest that, in fact, most people have their moments? Angus acknowledges this and all but says that he has quit Twitter so he isn’t tempted to pull a Patrick Brazeau. Given his propensity for name-calling and negativity in the House, perhaps this is for the best, but Twitter didn’t turn Brazeau nasty, force Angus to heckle in the House, or cause Pat Martin to drop the f-bomb repeatedly, and it’s not why the trolls kept sending poor Charlie nasty messages.
Politics has been ugly forever. People have opinions, and political opinions are often deeply felt and communicated from the gut, without much reflection, in terms easiest for everyone to understand: love, hate, good, bad, and so forth. Anyone who’s ever held a sign or chanted a rhyming slogan at a protest march – and I’m hazarding a guess that this includes a leftist like Angus – has given in to the political propensity to oversimplify, vilify, reduce complex issues to a few, loud words.
In a perfect world, we’d have that idealized, completely untrue vision of Athenian democracy, in which calm, cool, collected individuals sit around philosophically debating political notions and reaching agreement through logic and compromise. This is not our world, and it never was.
So what is a politician to do, when the trolls say nasty things like “I hate you, Charlie Angus, and you sing terribly”? The answer will blow you away:
If Charlie Angus doesn’t get hateful letters in the post, doesn’t have to hear constituents yelling down the phone line, that’s because he has staff to shield him from it. No assistant in his or her right mind would collect all the nasty letters delivered to the office and present them to the boss. “Here you go, Charlie, this week’s correspondence from right-wing nutters!”
The problem – though I don’t think it is a problem – is that Twitter has few filters. Note that I didn’t write “any filters,” because there’s a way around the conundrum for the sensitive and faint of heart:
One is under no obligation to reply to everything on Twitter, and equally there’s no responsibility to follow everyone who wants to be followed (or else my own party would follow me) or duty to suffer verbal abuse. A few years ago, I made the conscious decision to ignore trolls. I realized I spent too much time arguing with them, time I could be spending discussing news stories, issues, and whatnot with people I do like.
So while Charlie Angus hears the chatter of pubescent girls in his erstwhile Twitter feed, I hear the voices of people who agree, bolster each other in their beliefs, give and get support for their positions, and interact in a novel way with journalists and politicians. Sometimes people even disagree with me and we remain friends; sometimes I find my opinions changing because I’m convinced by what they tweet at me. Those who make my Twitter experience negative are not followed, unfollowed, blocked, dismissed or – most likely – simply ignored.
Thus, I don’t believe that MPs are obliged to be egalitarian in their social media, but by irrationally lashing out at Twitter, Angus cuts himself off from any chance of substantive debate on the medium, and indeed from the camaraderie he could be building with, well, not me, but with constituents and fellow New Democrats. Political social media should be viewed as a way to democratize politics, and Angus’ putting himself on this “I’m too good for Twitter” pedestal has the opposite effect: he is now more distant from the Canadian people.
How civil, how decorous, how social democratic! Actually, how unfortunate that Angus didn’t opt to:
Rise above it, and show Canadian politics a better example to follow than Brazeau’s.
I’ve been on Twitter now for four years, and have actively engaged in political social media since the 2009 Liberal convention. I would say that makes me a veteran, and perhaps even an astute observer of how people behave on Twitter, whether they be teenage girls or Members of Parliament…and it’s all the same, really, a point that Angus concedes (“I have the same instinct to say nasty, inane things and hope they get picked up but that’s not what we’re here to do”).
Every day, MPs of all stripes get attacked online as in the House. Justin Trudeau has 138,000 followers and I doubt they all say nice things. Somehow Marc Garneau manages to be a gentleman without quitting the tweet box.
So, here’s what I believe actually happened, in real life terms unworthy of a HuffPo interview. Charlie Angus let people get to him, and he reacted in anger by rage-quitting Twitter. That’s all: Charlie Angus had a fit of pique and instead of rising above it, he reacted as badly as a 14-year-old, you might say. In effect, he told the Twitterverse, “Fine! You don’t love me. You’re mean. I’m going to quit. See if you like that!”
Well, you showed us, Charlie. You’ve let us know that we are all a bunch of bitchy teenagers. If only we were more like you, what with the name-calling in the House and petulance online.
And about that 14-year-old teenage girls in a cafeteria thing: Charlie Angus might not like that it’s so, but young people who would never attend a political event are on social media, and if there’s any hope for their engaging in civics, it’s the ease with which they can follow and interact with public figures. Granted, they might prefer Justin to Charlie Angus, but I can’t help that.
So, in other words, Twitter didn’t make Brazeau call Jen Ditchburn a bitch; his anger management issue and obvious disrespect for women did. Twitter didn’t force Angus off; he quit spitefully because a few people – certainly not the hundreds or thousands that follow every Canadian politician of note – called him names.
And in both examples, even a 14-year-old should realize how disingenuous and unbecoming it is to shoot the messenger.