Calgary's neo-puritanism and the madness of crowds
'Is this any way to have a dialogue, to enhance civility?'
This story was originally posted on Jan. 16.
For all the talk of Calgary's historic libertarianism, a contradictory neo-puritanism is rising in our city, distorting our scope of experience and our freedom to explore.
A private "naked water slide" family naturism event at a city-operated pool was carefully planned, permitted and approved. Although inclusive, it stipulated that "anyone who makes others feel unwelcome or unsafe will be asked to leave and not allowed back."
But no. Event cancelled.
Calgary Nude Recreation did not anticipate the petition, the reaction, and the counter-reaction. They expressed incredulity that the event could be stopped by an "incredibly vocal minority."
Petitions for and against. The event cancelled not because of nudity, but because of threats. Because of city hall's concern about participant safety in the wake of hostile and "volatile public commentary."
Why now? And what does this signal?
Like all thoughtful citizens of Calgary, I am increasingly aware of the extent to which we have embraced a culture of click-bait opinion determined to impose either moral umbrage or slavish endorsement of situations and events, without stopping to consider or to analyze the long-term effect of such imitative behaviour.
In this era of instant communication and hyper-awareness, we, in our city, appear to be veering toward hyper-intolerance.
The petition machine claims that people sign petitions on "issues" that they feel very strongly about. But it is only too easy to take umbrage at potential transgression before it occurs. Anticipation of the worst possible consequence means that vociferous if minor factions become the arbiters of moral norms.
If the electronic signature or the thumbs up sign now legislate every project, scheme or occasion, we face a disquieting future of regulation and control that is not always logical, tolerant or unbigoted.
All persons have the right to express their opinions. But we must be willing to ask complex questions. We must be wary of the force field of reactive opinion, the bandwagon campaigns aroused by anarchic besiegement.
Is this any way to have a dialogue, to enhance civility? Of course, only too often those who claim that they desire civility are the least civil to others.
Two aspects of this trend are disturbing.
Binding rules and the death of originality
The first is that we have become rule-bound more than principle-bound.
Because we seem incapable of self-governance, or have no internal moral compass, we rely on rules and regulations, thinking that they will impose an order that will keep us safe. Instead of understanding and respecting the rules of civility, we are regulated into fearful passivity. Has Calgary reached a point where "public opinion" serves as a bludgeon, intimidation curtailing established rights and freedoms?
The second, but even more disturbing element is that these mass reactions signal the death of poesis. What is poesis?
For the Greeks, it was the act of bringing something into being that did not exist before. In short — the power of originality, creativity, experiment. But merely having an opinion does not stand in for poesis. The tsunami of wrathful dogma or vacuous celebration does little to empower our creativity or empathy.
Calgary's character is historically read as a place venturesome and audacious, intrepid and risk-taking. That is this city's foundational myth. Our poesis is now in danger of being stifled by a puritanical prudence.
Complex opinions and thoughtful arguments have been transformed into ciphers of the sophisticated and lethally vendable algorithmic machine employed by Google and Facebook and Twitter.
The thumbs-up flourish measures our every reaction and harvests our information. Each keystroke echoes gullible disclosure, fuels comparison and competitiveness, the insincere sincerity that stands in for genuine connection.
Instead of taking time to think about an issue, we succumb to the petition- petition, listicle inventories. To the bullet points that make us feel we are part of a platform movement, that we are forwarding a tenet important to our nanoscopic sphere.
The effect is that narrow causes can leverage public opinion and drive a neo- puritan agenda without enhancing or enabling considered plurality. The Facebook moral code: what Charles Mackay called Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.
We must not be cowed
We must do battle with bigoted, racist, sexist and homophobic attitudes wherever we find them. But we, our courage and originality, should not be cowed by fear of causing offence or fear of constructive disagreement.
Social media can be a tool for good; witness the power of #MeToo in demonstrating the prevalence of harassment. But it is also a tool for mockery, coercion, exhibitionism, and voyeurism. More addictive than crack, it promises affirmation and vindication.
Gluttons for attention, we sell our own narcissism, and yet bow to puritanical prescriptions. While there is no medical recognition of social networking addiction (yet), our culture demonstrates an increasingly infantile desire for validation that connects directly to the same inability to calibrate worth or value.
I fear the growth in Calgary of what the British call Neo-Cromwellians — those who demonstrate a mounting tendency to accept and expect regulation, and who embrace crowd-driven discipline and punishment. With determined grimness, they insist that any hedonistic pleasures like nude swimming should be monitored, disallowed and pilloried.
Do we want to embrace a future governed by parochial tyranny?
Calgary has always taken pride in its difference, its refusal to be legislated or limited.
Our strength and distinctiveness as a city is because we could not be herded or branded. Do we want to embrace a future governed by parochial tyranny? Not the Calgary I know and love.
Was the reaction to the naked swim "moral panic" or sheer irrationality? I do not want to believe that my city is so intolerant, so suspicious and low-minded. But the evidence suggests that. So before you click on that petition in your conviction of the rightness of righteousness, think twice. Is your signature censorious, or tolerant and inclusive.
And while Calgary's nude swim was cancelled, Edmonton laughs in its sleeve, and invites Calgary naturists to drive up the QE Highway to join their event.
Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as it passes through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face, and the possible solutions as we explore what kind of Calgary we want to create.
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