On the last Saturday in May, I had the pleasure of attending Tom Symons’ 90th birthday. Professor Symons is one of my long standing civic heroes. In 1961, he was appointed the founding president of Trent University, where I attended for my undergraduate degree 45 years later. Symons’ legacy is rich. Not only did he help create this special place of post secondary education — known endearingly as “Oxford on the Otonabee” — he was also a senior policy advisor for the government of Ontario, the chairman of the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, and much more. He is a Companion of the Order of Canada, an internationally distinguished institutional leader, and by all accounts a decent, caring, and thoughtful man.
After feteing his grace, shaking his hand, and expressing my admiration for him and my alma mater, another latin phrase lingered with me: nunc cognosco ex parte. I wish I would have said it to him. It captures so much of what the school taught me and what I hold true. This phrase, Trent’s official moto, borrowed from the magnificent poem on love in 1 Corinthians, means “now I know in part.” It is a humble but profound statement that calls us to think critically about the world around us and recognize that we do not possess truth in its entirety. It is a notion that seems to capture Symons’ spirit: a hallmark of the university and of all strong public institutions, including our democratic structures.
Indeed, democracy welcomes diversity — a natural back and forth that is supposed to occur in our state of “not knowing it all.” No one person or party, in parliament, at City Hall, or the various sectors of society, holds all the answers to the vexatious, layered, interconnected questions of humanity. Rather, we are stronger together because together we offer different perspectives needed to round out our knowledge, incomplete as it may be, on issues and needed actions.
I think about this a lot as a city councillor, a former provincial politician, and a concerned citizen in an age of polarized political debate. It appears we have lost the humility and thoughtfulness of Tom Symons. Our public discourse is now a zero sum game. One side knows all, or so they claim. The other is in the dark; ignorant at best, malicious at worst, or so we’re told. And vice versa.
Of course, this is not really right. It never has been, nor will it be until that day when we “see face to face” (to complete the biblical argument foreshadowed in the moto above). But let’s not get lost in the philosophy/theology of this line of thinking for now. Let’s look at a real life example that shows, I hope, the significance of honestly and openly listening to the other side of a debate, a contentious debate at that.
Those 10 letters touch a verve, invoking a visceral response in many. Love it or loathe it, gun control divides good and well meaning people. And it was an issue that Kingston City Council recently dealt with. A motion asked whether or not our municipal government should formally support Bill C-71, a piece of federal legislation that could curtail the proliferation of, and harm caused by, semi-automatic weapons, hand guns, and assault rifles.
As is the case with contentious agenda items, my inbox, like that of my council colleagues, was filled with people’s opinions soon after the document was released for consideration.
On one side: the pro-gun advocates, especially from sport shooting clubs and agricultural communities. They were passionate and persuasive. They said strongly that any move to further restrict the use of weapons was an infringement on their “rights” — borrowing the vernacular of our southern neighbour. Articles were sent, statistics shared. Gun owners were not the problem, everyday hunters and farmers were not to blame, they protested. It was illegal gun trade, criminals, drug addictions, gang violence, and other things that caused the number of gun deaths each year in our country. Residents should be free to own and safely transport and store guns, even if they were wrongly used for nefarious ends, this group argued. We heard that guns can purportedly prevent more people from dying as they can be used for self defense, especially in moments of domestic abuse.
The other side acknowledged the horror of gun crime more explicitly.They didn’t think more guns were the answer, obviously. Rather, they pointed to the increase in stolen weapons, suicide and homicide by guns, leading them to their anti-gun activism. These views came mainly from from doctors, teachers, and public health officials. Admittedly, there were fewer of these types of emails and admittedly this was the side I was inclined to support. My first blush of the motion led me to ask the mover if we could take it further, actually enacting, not just supporting, a local ban. Nevertheless, I kept an open mind as I assessed these perspectives. A compelling picture was painted of the problems gun pose for our society, including the fact that they are the second most common way men kill women in the aforement moments of domestic abuse.
So what was most significant about all the points in my email? Simply, that both pro- and anti-gun arguments used facts and figures. In other words, the exchange was not purely emotional, though it’s a debate we feel in our gut. The opponents were not overtly bad, the proponents not overtly good. Right and wrong was not clear cut as both factions were indeed honest and open.
My job then, literally the thing taxpayers pay me for, is to sort through the various points made and decide what’s best for our community. As the introductory comments suggested, ideally this entails careful and considered listening to both sides. I tried to do this to the best of my ability. I see it as the duty of all liberal democrats, of which I consider myself and our system (lower case l and d, to be sure).
I took notes of the reasons for and against guns. I looked for additional information not presented, aware as I am that despite the evidence before me I only “know in part.” I checked my initial inclinations against various websites that gave more details, for instance. I emailed city staff — the hardworking bureaucrats who do so much to make our government function — with a list of questions and reviewed the data they gave. All in an attempt to discern, as much as I could from reliable and relevant research, the best course of action.
But I was only getting started.
Next I had to go over the significance of each source. How much weight should be given to a particular idea and what statistics were most salient?
In the end, after seeing that even legal guns were used to slaughter hundreds of humans in our country and after reading that more than ten thousand Canadians committed suicide with guns since 2000, I knew I had to vote in favour of the motion. Why? Because I believe in peace and prosperity. I want our community to grow and flourish. And death and dying, particularly murder and killing oneself, are counter to this worldview. We’ll come back to this in a moment.
With a decision at hand, I did something I have not done since I was a rookie candidate in provincial politics in 2011 (delivering a locally developed five-point job creation strategy to the Chamber of Commerce), I wrote the remarks that I planned to deliver verbatim in council chambers.
I did so earnestly trying to build bridges between the two interests. I was elected to represent people from my district, some of whom wrote me on this issue, some of whom brought it up to me on their doorstep during last fall’s campaign, some of whom were pro-gun, regardless of my personal convictions.
That doesn’t mean I always have to vote for the loudest voice. It does mean, that I looked to find as much agreement as possible from those opposed to my position, though I would be voting against them. My comment referenced my family’s rural experience where guns were prevalent. I cited arguments for guns that made sense to me, and I sympathized with those who use guns legally. You can read my full remarks here.
Notes in hand, as I walked into council chambers that night, I was still prepared to change my mind should a compelling reason present itself. I listened intently and intentionally as residents presented to council as delegations. Some of these fine individuals were my constituents. They spoke with conviction, armed with data. They had done their homework, too.
Yes, they rightly pointed out some of the incorrect logic in certain anti-gun rhetoric. For example, it was not fair to present a rise in recent gun violence with 2013 as a baseline because that year had unusually low gun crime. In essence, they said convincingly, you should not cherry pick statistics that are outliers as that skews perception.
Yet, despite their best foot forward, I could not shake the deep conviction that the harm caused by guns is something we should move away from. Again, the numbers from suicide and homicide committed with registered guns could not outweigh everything else presented. Simply stated, our already strict gun control regulations were not preventing horror.
I thought too of other industrialized and otherwise developed nations, thriving economies, like the United Kingdom or South Korea, who do not have the presence of weapons in question even for their police force.
At a deeper level, as I sat around the horseshoe I considered the teleos of the world. Where are things ultimately going, I wondered? What will our community look like one day? I believe, as alluded to above, that the planet should be and will be one day be a place of peace and prosperity, despite the insanity that can prevail at times now. You know the old adage, “spears into ploughshares”. I have faith in this. Therefore, I could not fit the carnage of guns, backed by the research conducted and described previously, into the picture. So my position was cemented: a combination of evidence and ideology, as any choice always is.
My resolve was not to discredit the ideas of the others, however. It was not an absolute answer. There could very well be other means by which gun violence could subside. As my speech suggested, there are many ways in which I agree with my counterparts: we do need harm reduction policies, preventative health care, and the like, as they said. Though despite those measures, we should still ban guns.
My resolve also speaks to a tension in our democracy that is challenging and convicting at once. What is the representative to do when, after balancing all the competing priorities and points of view, they come out with a position on the other side of some of their constituents? Are they to listen? Or lead?
You could try to answer this empirically, delineating the number of people for and against and choosing to change your mind and your vote based purely on the results, a form of direct democracy, perhaps. This is problematic because there are 101 ways to gauge such a metric. Should you look at the number of emails? Number of personal conversations? Number of social media interactions? Number of professional associations? The number of their members? Etc. Here, for instance, we see that the most emails and personal conversations would go to the pro-gun lobby. Yet, the prevailing professional associations would go to the anti-gun activists. More than that, what about the thousands of silent participants or non-participants. Does their silence count either way?
I don’t think this tit-for-tat is helpful. It does not encourage the type of balanced approach that Tom Symons would be proud of. The answer, in my opinion, lies in the wisdom of another fellow, older than my esteemed professor; namely, Edmund Burke, the famed Anglo-Irish statesman of of the 18th century. Burke gives us a third way. He shows that you can lead and listen at the same time. He said – and I paraphrase – that voters elect a candidate not simply so they will then blindly follow “the will of the people”, however you define that slippery phrase. Instead, when someone is given a mandate, that includes their judgement/ability to process and influence and respond to situations.
But don’t confuse such a judicial vantage point for agreeing with everything they/we politicians do and decide. Think through the pros and cons of the issue yourself. Consider the politician’s candour, conduct, and clarity of thought. Acknowledge that none of us know fully. We do only “know in part,” as passionate as we may feel.
When we take this approach we do something significant. We defeat the toxic and divisive discourses of most modern political positions, one conversation at a time. That allows us, I believe, to come to more holistic, helpful, and inclusive ends, even through beleaguered debates like gun control. And by doing so, we ensure our democracy is alive and well while recognizing the value and worth of all people — the ultimate strength of all institutions.
Robert Kiley is a Kingston city councillor representing Trillium District. Follow him on Twitter @robert_kiley.
Postscript: another main argument made against the ban was about jurisdiction. Some council colleagues in particular said we should not be discussing the issue because it is the responsibility of the federal government. A few quick thoughts from me on that line of thought:
Municipalities technically have no power other than what the province gives us. We’re “creatures” of Queen’s Park thanks to our constitution. But that doesn’t stop us from commenting on telecommunication towers in our neighbourhoods, for instance, although that is an area controlled by Ottawa. Or health care and education, portfolios under the purview of Toronto, etc.
Suffice it to say, when something impacts our community — our people and planet — I believe council has legitimate right, and in certain cases responsibility, to weigh in. Especially if an official position, like the letter in support of C-71, would garner momentum for a worthy cause.
That does not mean council should have an opinion about everything, to be clear. But politics is about making the most of our time together as a society. When a group outside of City Hall or the levels government beyond our hallowed corridors in Kingston are doing a good thing related and relevant to Kingstonians then, no matter our technical power over that thing, I think it is legitimate for council to offer our support.