Tuesday, December 2, 2008

what a challenge it is! public engagement...

It’s kind of sad to write my last blog post for this project about the challenge to engaging the public. It could be exciting but it’s kind of depressing how much people just don’t care. I hope we’ve made a good case here. I think because it seems fairly self-evident to me that all people should be treated equitably and with respect, I find it hard to make the arguments. However, there is a larger culture of fear that has taken over, not accidentally, that has to be countered, so that people feel safe enough to return to their values. A colleague of mine is talking about civil society organizations, media and direct action as being part of engaging the public. I’m going to look at public education, countering fear and humanizing the detainees.

There is a need for public education and raising awareness of the situation of security certificates. Before the public can act, they must be conscious of what’s happening. This education has to go beyond what’s happening now. Many activist organizations have held speaking events; had information pickets at related places (i.e. the Minister’s office); publicize updates by email listserve; and so on. The problem with these approaches is that you already have to be involved or care to get access to this information. I’m not going to go to a speaking event mid-week after a long day at work, if I’m not already engaged. Some of the more eye-catching events may make the news, which will then reach a larger population. I think ways of getting this information to a broader audience is crucial. Going to events where a larger segment of the population may be would be helpful. Going into the schools to do presentations to classes may be another way of accomplishing this. The more mainstream participants in this process, such as the lawyers involved, will be instrumental in attracting a larger audience. They are less easily dismissed than the youth in a hoodie! Unfortunately, but I think this is part of the reality. Sympathetic members of parliament can also use their role as a platform for pushing the issues and education the public, and many have. The key is to use our knowledge of what’s worked and hasn’t, and approach education and awareness-raising strategically.

A related issue is addressing the fear people are feeling. When I’m in survival mode, I’m not going to pay much attention to anything other than getting through and protecting myself. This is a huge subject to tackle. The obvious points are more awareness raising and education. I’m reminded of the students who tried to sue MacLean’s for being Islamophobic. They collected a series of articles that showed a persistent bias, and went to the Human Rights Commission requesting an action on hate speech. One of their suggested redresses was to allow them to write a counter-piece to a particularly offensive article. A smaller action is writing in to papers to complain when they demonstrate these biases. Many newspapers are already critical of the security certificate process, but do not often address the larger issues of fear, Islamophobia, and bias beyond that. Holding them to account, and writing letters to the editor will raise these issues and hopefully get people to use a more critical lens when reading such coverage. If one had money, there are many other media avenues available such as buying advertisements and getting movies produced. Some mainstream movies have started to look at related issues, such as Rendition (2007) and Taxi to the Dark Side (2007). These blockbusters may be far more successful in opening people’s eyes than any newspaper article.

Such portrayals will humanize the detainees. It’s awful this has to be done. How are they not human?! Because they have been othered. They are the scary other, less than human, not worthy of respect. As sick as it is, I heard many people be much more sympathetic and concerned after seeing Omar Khadr cry on the recently released video. Similar reactions have occurred in response to information being released about the security certificate detainees, but it’s taken a long time for this to happen. Their families and friends have given interviews all along, and the media mentions details about their personal lives. The publicized hunger strike attracted a lot of attention, and produced sympathy for their plight. Perhaps the slowness in response is partially because there isn’t a video as dramatic as there was with Omar. So how can this happen on a larger scale? The public may now see these figures as being human and worthy of dignity, but what about the next round of arrests? What happens when more people are othered as terrorists, reigniting the fear of the public? I think all the strategies mentioned in this post will help, but really, until the culture of fear is definitively addressed, it’s going to come back to ‘humanizing’ on a case by case basis. We all have a responsibility to question our assumptions, and educate ourselves and each other.

These are some of the steps I think need to be taken to engage the public. It hasn’t been and won’t be an easy process. It is imperative to keep trying though, so that we can protect security, human rights, and due process simultaneously. For all people. Good goals, eh? So let’s get working people!


Anonymous said...

i don't think fear is something you can just change. the whole society has to recognize the problem and want to address it. individuals can make suggestions but there really needs to be mass desire.

Anonymous said...

This all reminds me of this poem:

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I was not a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

(above is a 1976 translated poem - another version, also by Pastor Martin Niemöller, is:

"In Germany, they came first for the Communists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist;

And then they came for the trade unionists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist;

And then they came for the Jews, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew;

And then . . . they came for me . . . And by that time there was no one left to speak up."