Sunday, March 13, 2016

On Social Media and Bozo Eruptions

So, the blog has been dark for awhile.

There's a variety of excuses, but ultimately, none of those really matter. Instead of lamenting over lost post potentials, let's just move on to the subject of the day. I'm not sure if this will result in more regular postings or not, but I found myself wanting to say something about the topic at hand.

It has been a rough first election week as a Saskatchewan New Democrat. Despite rolling out some platform planks (scrap lean, decrease total MLAs, sell off government jets, and closing the First Nations education gap) the current conversation seems stuck on the removal of four candidates in four days; and the loss of the provincial campaign manager.

This is not a new phenomenon. During the federal election, we saw a handful of candidates fall into the same social media pratfalls. From jokes that crossed a line to actively attacking another person, social media has opened up new avenues for accountability for candidates.

Or has it?

Let's clear the big one out of the way: Tom Lukiswki and Brad Wall. In the now infamous video released a few years ago, Lukiswki mocks homosexuals while Brad Wall invokes a Ukrainian accent to slam Roy Romanow. The context of the video, that it was a Christmas party where libations were flowing, doesn't excuse the content of the video.

Both men apologized for the content of the video; and that was that. Lukiswki continues to be an MP, and does seem to continue to put his foot in his mouth from time to time; while Wall remains as leader of his party. Yet, and I think this is important, both men made these comments while already being involved in politics.

Lukiswki was General Manager of the Sask PCs, while Wall was a ministerial assistant. These are positions, one would imagine, where the value of watching what one says would be assets. Yet, despite the level of political savvy you'd think one would require in these positions, both men made disparaging comments anyway.

Perhaps it's because the video wasn't expected to be shared. But, in reality, doesn't that make the situation worse? If it takes the cloak of non-exposure to get a person to say, or do, something that they wouldn't normally, doesn't that speak volumes more to their true character?

Which brings me to the recent NDP candidates.

The comments made, not that it excuses them, were made when all four men were private citizens. This is worth noting, especially when compared to Wall and Lukiswki, since it seems to establish an odd-double standard: in that, those already involved in politics can issue a mea culpa for offensive comments and remain on board, while those who are not are given a death sentence for potential careers.

That's not to say, I want to be clear, that the four candidates did not deserve dismissal. From what we've seen of the comments made public, it stands to reason that the right call was made.

At the same time, however, we must be careful in establishing precedent. Social media isn't going anywhere; if anything, it will only become more and more tied into every day life. And creating a standard by which a person's social media history can preclude them from seeking office is a dangerous slope.

There will be instances, as these four cases seem to prove, where a person should be denied candidacy due to comments made online. (Especially if those comments are racist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist, or derogatory.) But we need to establish a clear bar.

If someone re-shares a blue joke on Facebook, and isn't the original author, does that warrant exclusion from running for office? If a person uses sarcasm, which could be misquoted or taken out of context, does that warrant exclusion? If a person is clearly joking, or making an absurd remark for humourous effect, does that warrant exclusion?

These are questions that deserve answers, and a clear guideline should be set. Yes, it can be embarrassing for a party if a candidate is fond of telling jokes that revolve around Ukrainians; but we must also stop to remember that a joke is a joke, it is not always an indicator of the teller's personal beliefs or opinions.

As such, as we move forward, we must honestly reflect on what should and should not result in exclusion from the political process. And we must ensure that if such guidelines existed, they are something that are enforced across party lines; as it's not acceptable, in my opinion, to punish Party A while Party B's candidates have said the same or worse and not been removed.

In fact, I'm going to give Brad Wall the last word on the subject:

"Wall said he doesn't want Saskatchewan to turn into a humourless, colourless place where an "Orwellian political correctness" prevails. There's still a place for good-natured humour and the ability to laugh at ourselves, he said, adding that he sometimes jokes about his own Mennonite heritage. "Sometimes, it's hard to know where to draw the line," he said."


Anonymous said...

If a candidate is capable of carrying out their duties regardless of personal feelings on any given issue, then does it matter where their dark thoughts take them when they wander?

That is, IF they are capable. I make no assumptions about Wall. I am not familiar with his record. I am an outsider who stumbled across your blog on Twitter. I enjoyed the analysis.

Scott said...

To a degree, a candidate's dark thoughts do matter.

I grew up watching Mel Brooks movies, and I still enjoy watching them today, but a quote from one of them posted to social media could be a kiss of death for any potential run for office. While I do concede quite readily that we do have a problem with being too reactionary on enforcing political correctness, we need to ensure that we're getting the right balance. It's dangerous to go too far either way on the spectrum; too lax and people start spouting hate crimes, too strict and repeating a decades old joke becomes verboten.

It's all about balance.

As stated, from what we've seen of the comments released, it appears that removing the candidacy of the four was the right decision. But that isn't to say that it will always be the right decision in the future. Parties need to start working on clear guidelines, and firmly establishing what is and is not acceptable behaviour both pre and post-candidacy.

But, and this is the sticky widget, any kind of guidelines have to stretch across all parties. If party A can let candidates stand for comments that would boot someone from Party B, then it's not much of a guideline and doesn't fix the problem.

It'd be nice to imagine that we could just trust politicians to hold themselves to a higher standard; but I think that's fairly unreasonable. Politicians, despite some acting the opposite, are people; and people make mistakes. They say ridiculous things, or things that get them in trouble, but that's not unique to politicians. If we're willing to forgive a private citizen for making a joke or saying something derogatory, then why do we exclude politicians?

We can hope for a higher standard, but until that time comes along, we should at least strive for an equal playing field with guidelines that make clear what's expected.