On CBC this morning: @meslin and @metromorning on #citizenship

Are we citizens? Taxpayers? Stakeholders? Customers? Residents?

Worthwhile and thought-provoking discussion on CBC this morning about how we define ourselves in terms of our relationship to public institutions and to one another. Dave Meslin and Matt Galloway spent several minutes talking about how the answer to that question influences what kind of city and community we have.

Last fall in Local Motion, Mez and several other Toronto observers/activists/writers were wrestling with this. The book was and still remains an important contribution to the debate, and a starting point for a number of important conversations, but what stood out about this morning’s conversation was Mez’s embrace of the word “taxpayer.”

The discourse around the word “taxpayer” has always been problematic, mostly because of the way it frames our relationship to government. When you think of yourself solely as a taxpayer, then the only way you’re going to see government is as an intrusive force that takes away your hard-earned money. There’s no thought to civil society, no consideration of the obligations we have to our fellow citizens, no acknowledgement that we can and must act collectively in pursuit of objectives we can’t accomplish as atomized individuals, no sense of community. The notion of the public good never enters the conversation.

In short, it’s the basis for the Pissed-off Taxpayer rhetoric — a toxic stew of anger, resentment and diminished expectations. It’s a sad and limited view that appeals to selfishness and the basest of instincts. And we can see the results of that all around us, most particularly in an approach to governance that seems based on setting us against each other, on selling everything off and not aspiring to anything better.

There’s nothing new about that, of course, but when Mez asserted himself as a “taxpayer” in this morning’s discussion, it was in the context of examining the way words and ideas are framed. And that’s worth a more detailed examination. In passing, Mez noted that one of the assumptions associated with the term is that only property owners pay taxes, when in fact people living in rented accommodation pay much more, dollar for dollar. As a tenant, he argued, he’s just as entitled to think of himself as a taxpayer. 

I’m not entirely comfortable with the use of the term, because framing it properly requires a consideration of subtleties and nuances that can’t be reduced to sound bites, but it’s a useful entry point to a much larger issue: the way we use words. 

One of the most disquieting things I’ve witnessed over the last few years has been the readiness to strip words of their meanings so that they can be redefined for political purposes. Witness, for example, the way words like “liberal” or “socialist” have been turned into epithets — rhetorical incendiary devices used to shut down debate by moving it from the realm of reason into volatile terrain wherein people are much more susceptible to emotional manipulation. Watch Rob Ford go on about “socialists” sometime.

It’s been both instructive and disheartening to watch how certain strategies operate. They come up with a suitable storyline or narrative and then they make up facts and choose new meanings for words in order to fit that storyline. It’s a subtle and very clever manipulation not just of formal definitions, but of overtones, connotations and inchoate associations to send coded messages to certain targets. It’s the whole basis for dog-whistle politics.

That’s why it’s so important to be vigilant about maintaining accuracy in language and not cede control over the definitions of words. Anyone who gets to define the terms for a debate is already more than halfway to winning it.

For now, I’ll stick with the notion of “citizenship,” and just live with whatever minor quibbles the legal definition might prompt. Politically and strategically, it’s more effective because it allows us to think in terms of both rights and responsibilities. It carries connotations of obligation and of civic engagement (part of the subtitle for Mez’s book, in fact), and allows us to direct the conversation toward notions of the public good, of contributing to something larger than our own interests, and of making things better. In the current climate, a recommitment to that is more important than ever.

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