Opinion: Attack the issues, not the individuals

The Internet can be a dark place for respectful conversation

Politicians and public figures are accustomed to criticism. They may not like it, but complaints come with the job.

Over the past few years, however, we’ve seen a disturbing trend. The anger has intensified, and the vitriol grown toxic.

It’s prompted at least one Lower Mainland mayor to declare that enough is enough.

John Becker, mayor of Pitt Meadows, says he’ll no longer allow his character to be sullied by unfair allegations. He’s vowing to fight back, even if it means legal action.

His anger follows news that Nicole Read, mayor of neighbouring Maple Ridge, actually missed council meetings after being alerted by RCMP that a threat had been made against her.

The source of much of this hate is social media – which can be anything but “social.”

Facebook and Twitter have become powerful tools in communication. Most of us use them, both personally and professionally. They’re great ways to stay informed and share thoughts and opinions.

But we’ve seen far too many examples where they’re used to spread hate and harm.

And the attacks aren’t limited to politicians, says Becker.

“To see this expanding into attacks on … my business. My children are attacked, my wife is attacked.”

Chilliwack is no stranger to this viciousness. In fact, Chilliwack Mayor Sharon Gaetz shut down her personal Facebook page several years ago, partly because of the anger that it drew.

Today there are several “private” Chilliwack Facebook groups where the tone is vicious and the accusations unsubstantiated.

Sociologists have written extensively about social media and the anonymity it provides. Things people won’t say to someone’s face are freely shared and cheered online. It’s a bully mentality, and standing up to that bully only draws more hate.

On the weekend I posted John Becker’s story from the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows Times on the Chilliwack Progress Facebook page. One person called him an “idiot.” A couple more told him to just do his job.

Criticism in public life is nothing new. But there is no place in our public discourse for personal attacks, where the intention is not to educate or inform, but to demean and denigrate.

We won’t tolerate bullies in the schoolyard; we shouldn’t tolerate them online. We don’t accept misogynous and racists rants in person; we shouldn’t accept them online.

The common wisdom is to ignore them. “Don’t feed the trolls,” is the usual advice.

But increasingly, people are starting to say that’s not enough. Celebrities are vowing to “out” their online attackers; politicians like Mayor Becker are threatening legal action. “…[T]hey’re doing it with impunity because no one else has had the guts to call them out and make them accountable,” he says.

We should be equally resolute. Having strong opinions is what makes a democracy strong. But let’s attack the issues, not the individuals.

Greg Knill is editor of the Chilliwack Progress