We have all been there. You enthusiastically sign a petition or express an interest in an issue which is dear to your heart only to be inundated a few weeks later with requests to sign up to campaigns that either do not interest you at all or with which you do not agree. If it is not some dodgy algorithm, it is some well-meaning person you met at a meeting. I don’t mind being told there is a campaign. What I resent is the assumption from someone who has never discussed the issue with me that I am bound to agree with them. As Professor Mary Beard wrote in a recent blog, what you are doing when you join a campaign (or in her case put your name to an open letter) is signing up “to the words and argument, not to a club of the like minded”. But somehow this is a hard message to get across.
Beard – Bearded and at Bay
Professor Beard recently spent what must have been a miserable weekend trying to explain to a vast, and in some cases very aggressive, twitter mob that although she had signed an open letter on a very specific issue, this did not by any means indicate that she agreed with or in any way supported all the views, on every issue in the world, held by each of her 130 co-signatories. Ironically the open letter was about the importance of universities allowing open debate to take place on campus. In her blog she put up a splendid defence of her central case that there was a need for robust and measured debate in public life and a recognition that it is a good thing that people disagree in public as long as they do so in an informed, thoughtful and civilised way.
All Together Now? More Likely Never
The notion that there is always a right or a wrong answer to the questions we all face and that we must get what we want by shouting down and discrediting anyone who disagrees with us is one which I find both fatuous and depressing. It is one that I come across quite often as the elected Chair of the user group in my local park. We may only be concerned with local issues but this in no way diminishes the emotions that are provoked. The group exists to keep people informed about what is happening in the park, and why, and to represent the views of park users to the Council and others.
Everyone who uses the park is, in effect, a member. We hold regular public meetings and host Twitter and Facebook profiles. The park attracts a hugely diverse range of people with correspondingly diverse experiences and interests and unsurprisingly they hold a wide range of conflicting views on almost everything. About the only things people seem to agree on is that they would like the bins to be emptied more often and they would like more staff around. They disagree about opening hours, whether the cafe is “too posh” , whether or not dogs should be kept on leads, whether caged birds should be kept in the park, whether the tennis courts should be lit, whether the new telllytubby hilly landscape that was created to act as a sound buffer between the new skatepark and local residents is a wonderful place for kids to play and hide or the enemy of responsible parenting. It would be nice to think that you could predict the views of individuals in particular subgroups – but you can’t. Dog walkers don’t even agree on dog issues, let alone on what sort of sandwiches the cafe should serve. Parents argue forcefully with each other about whether the park should be keeping their children safe or encouraging risk-taking. Sporty types argue about whether or not the cafe should serve chips. And don’t even begin to mention what should happen to the topmouth gudgeon or the terrapins.
On the whole, our face to face meetings are constructive and positive but the debate on Facebook, though usually well-mannered, has phases when it becomes anything but. It puzzles me that even when we are right in the midst of a lively debate with strong views being expressed on both sides, people still seem to expect the user group to adopt a particular “position” and come out publicly “for” or “against” one particular point of view. The shout of “Something Must Be Done” goes up as if it is the easiest thing in the world to stop all the people who do the things that annoy us by simply insisting that Someone should stop them being so annoying.
Often people are unsure or uncomfortable with a proposal and want to know more. I see it as probably the most important aspect of my role as Chair to provide them with information about why things need to be done and why there are proposals to do them in certain ways. But whilst most people are pleased to be given the information they need to decide for themselves, it is almost inevitable that someone will accuse me of “defending the Council” or whichever public authority we are supposed to be at war with. There seems to be an assumption that our default position must be to be oppositional, as if everything the Council or a government agency does is part of some conspiracy to do the worst of all possible things to create the worst of all possible worlds. But how can this be a sensible basis for the partnership working we need if we are to make any difference to anything? Is it not possible that the interests of the people who work in the park and the people who work for, say, the Environment Agency might actually have a lot in common with those of the people who use the park?
The fact that there is a range of views on every issue means that our group, which exists to represent everyone, needs to reflect that range rather than arbitrarily siding with one point of view whilst dismissing the others. If we were the ones who had to make the final decisions about what happened in the park then we would have to find a way to do that. But that is not our job. That is the job of the Council who run the park and ultimately the responsibility of councillors who are elected through the democratic process. Our job is to make sure that, wherever possible, the Council listens to users before it makes those decisions and is open and responsive to feedback once they have made them.
Waiting for Views
I am all for campaigning if you feel strongly about a single issue. Where I live there are plenty of people very successfully campaigning on all sorts of issues and I salute their energy and their public spirit. In fact I wish more people would get off their behouchies and do some active campaigning – or failing that, just write or talk to someone who is in a position to do something about it. I am forever telling people to get in touch with the park management with their complaints and concerns but depressingly almost nobody does. Both the local police and the park management have told me on several occasions that they want to make changes or seek investment but that they need ammunition to persuade the people who hold the purse strings. That means local people need to write, ring, complain, nag and report. All rather tedious but how else can they prove to their bosses that there is a real demand for change? A grumpy rant on the park user group Facebook page does not really cut the mustard – simple, fun and satisfying though it may be.
If civil society is to work as we would like it to work then perhaps we need to be clearer in distinguishing between groups that campaign – where everyone in the group has signed up to a particular point of view and where the purpose is to bring about (or prevent) a specific change – and groups like the park user group whose role, as I see it, is to bring people together to share ideas and work out, with the powers that be, how we can all rub along together.
Open Space, Open Mind – Sharing, Listening, Compromising
My friend and mentor Professor Ken Worpole who is a guru of parks and public places has said that parks are amongst the few remaining places in modern society which are free and equally accessible to absolutely everyone. Such shared spaces require us to think about the needs of other people as well as ourselves and to recognise that our needs, interests and opinions are quite likely to conflict with theirs. In the end it cannot be left to the “authorities” or the “signs” to tell us what to do in these spaces or make us get on with each other. We have to do it ourselves and that means we have to listen to each other, perhaps adjust our thinking, accept compromises we may find uncomfortable and put up with things we don’t much like from time to time. Perhaps a bit less campaigning and a bit more sharing, listening and civilised debate would help us all.