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One of the highlights of my career is the opportunity it affords me to periodically present to teachers and school administrators. I learned this summer from Allen Davidson, Assistant Superintendent with Foothills School Division in Alberta and Social Studies teacher for seventeen years, of the importance of engaging students in critical thinking around current events. Part of that engagement, Allen says, (https://bit.ly/2oWhX8L), “involves ensuring we (myself and students) all understand diverse perspectives, are cognizant of our own and others’ bias, and that we can safely engage in a civil discourse around current events and issues. [When I was teaching], time was set aside every week for students to explore issues of interest to them and develop their own opinion on the issue. I loved the diverse [views] students brought to the discussion and the confidence with which they voiced differing perspectives.”
With a fall election here in Canada fully upon us and federal parties unveiling their election platforms, Canadians are given an opportunity for a similar rich civil discourse around the current events and most pressing issues facing us as Canadians. However, recent political rhetoric in Ottawa has been dominated not by vision, clarity, and dialogue, but by party partisans blaming and demonizing each other. And the discourse has been anything but civil.
But before we rush too quickly to engage in the blame game by pointing fingers at the all-to-easy target of politicians, it’s important to look at ourselves in the mirror. As I teach my corporate audiences that all change begins with you, the one critical piece missing in almost all political discourse at election time is the matter of citizenship. While it’s obviously important to expect our politicians to give us their vision of a better Canada and their path to get there, let’s not abdicate personal responsibility. Without personal ownership and accountability of every citizen to actively engage and contribute to our democracy, what hope do politicians have to make an impact?
Said another way, we institutionally deny the fact that each of us, through our perceptions and actions, is actually creating the society and the politicians that we so enjoy complaining about. Deciding that I have created the world around me – and therefore I am the one to start healing it – is the ultimate act of accountability. Let’s not allow personal responsibility to slip all-too-easily away from the discourse. It’s personal responsibility, after all, that will keep the dialogue both civil and constructive.
Here’s three actions that will lend themselves to citizenship – the foundation of every great democracy:
- Care enough to stop blaming and criticizing. Life is more than simply growing old. It means growing up. Growing old, any animal is capable of. Growing up is the prerogative of human beings. Once you decide that all criticism and blame are a waste of time your life will change forever. It’s far easier to be a critic than to be a player. That’s why there’s always more critics than players. In an NHL game, for example, you’ll find eighteen people on the ice at any one time if you include the referees and the linesmen. What do you have in the audience? Eighteen thousand critics. 1000:1. That’s about the proportion of critics to players in our society.
- Take ownership. One thing I’ve learned is that no one will ever think less of you for raising your hand and saying, “I’m responsible for that.” Explaining his error in judgement over a photo taken eighteen years ago, our prime-minister initially blamed his privileged upbringing for blinding him to the offensive reality of such images and how they are viewed as racist. My response is, “What’s wrong with simply fessing up to a mistake and misjudgment?” Take ownership. A leader’s responsibility is to model maturity and display what ownership looks like. And as citizens, it is our responsibility to take ownership by expecting from ourselves what we expect from our elected officials. It’s a whole lot easier to see the shortcomings in others – particularly if they are as visible as politicians – than it is to see our own blind spots and deficiencies.
- Don’t wait for your leaders. Another way of expressing ownership is to give what you expect from others. Waiting, as most of us know, is not a good strategy if you are after results. Indeed, we often wait for, or expect, our elected officials to legislate policies and practices that suit our own interests and in the process abdicate personal responsibility. What we expect from others, especially those placed in a position of leadership – contains a seed of opportunity to bring that to the world. If you want a visionary, benevolent leader with strong character, start by developing these qualities within yourself. If you want politicians to have more integrity, bring greater integrity to the world. Wanting your political leaders to be accountable starts with you being accountable.
My parents would call all this maturity. They, as so many others of their generation who survived a world war and economic challenges that most of us have never known, understood the undervalued virtues of human goodness that make up a civil society. A society worth living in is not achieved by waiting for or expecting our political leaders to be pleasing parents that meet all our wants. A strong society comes rom mature citizens, committed to choosing service over self-interest, duty over demands, contribution over consumerism, and civility over discourtesy. Our politicians are a reflection of our society. While we are undoubtedly in need of a true statesman to lead this country, the best place to find that kind of person starts with looking in the mirror.