As a city, Hamilton is starved for public discussion. Decades of insider old-boy politics have left us with a culture of cynicism and hopelessness. The policies produced have left us with a mismatched mix of lacklustre megaprojects – known often known now as “legacy malaise”. For most Hamiltonians, whom aren’t terribly wealthy, connected or “important”, this yields a style of governance which can only be described as neglect.

Our city lacks engagement because the avenues simply aren’t here. Even with all the combined seating at public consultations, information sessions and council meetings, could we even hope to house 1% of the city’s population? Do we listen to those who show up now? Do the people who show up leave with a sense that they’ve been heard out and taken seriously? If the people of Hamilton (and I mean, more than a hundred) had something to say – where could they say it? Would anyone be able to bring up topics? Would any of it be remembered?

There’s a popular political myth that people who have no real voice politically are somehow unaware of that fact. According to these same myths, of course, cynicism and apathy have nothing to do with history or personal experience. Even many progressive candidates in this city avoid putting much effort into the North End because “they don’t vote anyway” – I’ve seen it first hand. If this is the response they’re getting from politicians, why should they vote? Why would they? The cynicism we see is the result of a long cycle of failure and resentment, and it cannot be overcome by gimmicks or slogans.

The Two Faces of Apathy
In situations like this hostility and mistrust inevitably grow between “insiders” and “outsiders”. And while we’re all familiar with the idea of people giving up hope of change out of resentment, there’s a flip-side which needs considering. In an atmosphere where the public appears as nothing but a colossal disorganized mass, it becomes very threatening. The more pent-up public opinion becomes, the more it will come out with explosive force when given a chance. This makes getting a “little bit” of public input on a single issue very difficult – nobody wants to stop talking once given the pulpit. Anyone who’s witnessed a “question period” at the end of a speech this. This, in turn, breeds a fortress mentality for “movers and shakers”, attempting to get things done in spite of the public rather than with them. And as this becomes more obvious to the public, they again become more apathetic.

The most unfortunate aspect of this cycle is when it plays out with groups of “outsiders” who manage to establish themselves with some degree of input. Since this influence is so scarce, it becomes valuable and worth protecting. Some groups will seal themselves off in the hopes of preserving the purity of their message, others to distance themselves from “the masses”, but the end result is the same. Having decided that they have enough vision, leaders and decision-makers, they begin seeking only followers and supporters.

Many people experiment with a wide range of ‘options’ in an attempt to find a way to “engage” with their communities. From joining the army to religions, community service organizations to gangs to the Communist party. And just as frequently, people drop out. Being a token isn’t much fun, and these kinds of experiences can be just as alienating as not belonging to anything at all.

This is an issue of social environment and climate – it can’t be overcome by a single group or event series. Like an economy or ecological system, open public discussion cannot survive in a vacuum. The benefits are cumulative, and no one discussion will do.

Not a Charity
The point of democracy is not simply to create a warm and fuzzy society where everybody gets to say their piece. Organizations need information to function. Drawing direction from only a few members leaves very little input for anyone else, and this inevitably leads to important information being left out. In the long run, this can cripple the organization.

In some groups, communication is limited in an attempt to keep members from questioning those in charge. In others, it’s simply to surround the leaders with friendly “yes men” who’ll tell them what they want to hear. Often there’s language or cultural barriers (or more blatant racism and classism etc). Some are afraid to “rock the boat” or fear retaliation for speaking out. And many will just never develop means for accepting input in the first place.

When an organization “loses touch” in this way, it risks cutting off crucial information flows. Those in charge must work harder to get orders out, and have less data to judge effectiveness with. This is visible when increasingly distant corporate management makes decisions which become less relevant to the ‘shop floor’. And it’s visible when civic bureaucracies pass policies with little relevance to real-world communities. In this atmosphere, relations between “leaders” and everyone else quickly deteriorate, as workers and others “under” these systems begin to lose faith. Often, they must break the new rules just to do their jobs. In response, leaders usually tend to focus on enforcement or rules rather than evaluation of them, generating further conflicts.

Autocratic decision making schemes always risk this sort of self-paralysis. Punishing people for bringing up bad news or rejecting the input of those actually involved and affected is bound to create a cult-like fantasy world around those in power, and that kind of twisted logic will never produce “good leadership”.

Beyond Objectification
Another enduring myth in politics is that all of the world’s problems could be fixed if everyone would simply do “what’s good for them”. Whether seasoned and powerful politicians, or aspiring vanguards, there’s a common theme in the way “the masses” are viewed, and it can only be described as objectification. Rather than thinking, feeling and knowledgeable human beings, we become means to an end. Our job is to spread the word, do our jobs, to follow rules and not to make waves. Our input isn’t sought or considered relevant, and often is seen as downright dangerous.

The politics of objectification are a dead end for a few reasons. They virtually ensure conflicts, as people never behave quite as we’re supposed to, and the focus inevitably shifts to coercing or cajoling us into obedience. This is about as inspiring and engaging as a limp carrot, so the potential for “sweeping social change” tends to evaporate as people get bored and move on. Fundamentally, though, there’s one main reason that such ideas and movements fail: how do you craft a perfect “vision” for the people of Hamilton without asking them what they want, have or need?

As long as we view popular participation and public engagement as secondary concerns, our ideas will always be limited to the utopian dreams of the few. If we really believe in the ideals of direct democracy, popular engagement, then we have to be willing to embrace it. We must be willing to admit that we don’t know what’s best for everyone, nor does anybody really have a good grasp on what the “public” thinks. The only way to find out is to be willing to concede the pulpit, and give others a chance to speak.

Moving Forward
Public dialogue is both means and an end in itself. If we truly accept that the only “agenda” we’re trying to push is to ensure everyone has a chance to speak, then we should not be frightened of differences or disagreements. This kind of communication is not easy and it’s amazingly time consuming. Added to that, before it can truly work, we’re going to have to address a lot of simmering conflicts (race, class etc) which will no doubt be downright painful. We should abandon any notions right now that this will be simple, because it won’t be.

The great democratic societies which “our forefathers” sought to emulate, such as the ancient Athenians or Five-Nations (now Six) Confederacy, were not built overnight. A free and democratic society can’t be put up like a skyscraper, but instead be allowed to grow like a garden. It takes time for people to learn to trust each other, and find models that work for them. We can’t be afraid to experiment, and need not be fearful of competition – the most important job is simply to start.

How do we begin? Like most matters, by starting small and going with what works. In some places, that may mean “Town Hall Meetings” and neighbourhood assemblies – in others, simple soap boxes or discussion nights at pubs and coffee shops. Many small meetings are a much better route than a few large ones, as these kinds of discussion don’t “scale up” well, especially beyond the neighbourhood level. Today’s technologies offer us abilities we’ve never had before, like live video-casting and networking groups with each other, though most of the “successful” systems we know of hardly require them (the Mayan communities in the Zapatista rebellion, for example). There’s no blueprint here, but perhaps that’s the most inspiring part.

Over the last year unrest has swept a large part of the globe, and many of these issues have been at the forefront. Though some nations which have risen up were brutal dictatorships, many others were “Western Democracies”. In both cases, the new movements have been far more popular and in many cases leaderless, as they’ve attempted to create the input and discussion which has been denied them. In nations such as Greece and Spain, demonstrators have turned to neighbourhood assemblies as economic crises threaten to rock the continent. What could we learn from these examples, before “austerity” hits us?

Hamilton may be starved for this kind of discussion and input, but it doesn’t have to be.