Insults & Sarcasm in Politics

As I persist in my efforts to observe and provide commentary on the actions and decisions of Mayor Helps and her Council here in Victoria BC, I find myself being accused of making inappropriate use of sarcasm and insults. It is an odd experience for me I must admit to hear from folks that they apparently want to support me and think I’m doing good work but at the same time, that they seem to want me to do the work differently.

For clarity sake, I want to begin this post by trying to get us all on the same page and I will do this by looking at the definition of two words:  “Sarcasm” and “Insult”.

Sarcasm – What does it mean?

According to Vocabulary.com, sarcasm is:

Irony employed in the service of mocking or attacking someone is sarcasm. Saying “Oh, you’re soooo clever!” with sarcasm means the target is really just a dunderhead.

According to Merrian Webster, sarcasm is:

  • a sharp and often satirical or ironic utterance designed to cut or give pain 
  • a mode of satirical wit depending for its effect on bitter, caustic, and often ironic language that is usually directed against an individual

I was doing some image searches for sarcasm and I found this:

demotivation.us_Sarcasm-keeps-you-from-telling-people-what-you-really-think-of-them_133693393028

For those of you who think I’m being sarcastic, I would like you to recognize one thing about me. I have no problem being direct. What you may consider sarcasm is just my honest opinion of things. Where I agree that it may be easy to consider some of my tweets (such as this one) to be sarcastic, I say this. Yes, some of my tweets may be sharp but that does not mean they should be dismissed, especially since they need to be read in the context of the 100s of tweets I produce at a single meeting.

Watching our Mayor and Council as they struggle their way through even the most routine of local government actions, is a really frustrating experience that I believe needs to be communicated. That said, I totally agree that I still need to work on how best to communicate this frustration, and I promise that I will.

Insult – What does it mean?

According to Free Dictionary.com the word “Insult” when used as a verb means:

a. To treat with gross insensitivity, insolence, or contemptuous rudeness. See Synonyms at offend.
b. To affront or demean: an absurd speech that insulted the intelligence of the audience.
This is similar to the definition from Merriam Webster:
to treat with insolence, indignity, or contempt :  affront; also  :  to affect offensively or damagingly
I get told I’m being “insulting” when I comment on Council proceedings. A particular example of an apparent “insult” of mine was when I suggested that “logic had no place at meeting led by Mayor Helps”. Given that I approach my observation of Council meetings with a clear eye to process, to be said that I am being “grossly insensitive, insolent, contemptuous or rude” when I report that no actual logic is being followed in a meeting, is quite frankly ridiculous.
That said, I do of course recognize that I was wrong in attributing this lack of logic entirely to the Mayor as she is but one voice of nine in the Council chambers. Mind you, as set out in Legislation she is also the one responsible for “presid[ing] at Council  meetings” and so when things go sideways, a large part of this is because of her.
At the same time however, some blame in these situations should also be attributed to the City Manager Jason Johnson who, according to Legislation, is responsible for:  (c) advising and informing the council on the operation and affairs of the municipality. Which is to say, that if and when meetings go sideways as they so frequently do, he should really be the one stepping in and providing guidance.
But he only does so rarely. And this is odd for me because in the way that local government is set up, the City Manager is the one employee of Council. Supporting Council is his one job, and when he doesn’t do this, is it insulting to point it out?  No. It’s not. And not to be cheeky or sarcastic or anything, but I wonder if I were to start drawing more attention to his behaviour in the Council chambers going forward, would people worry less than I’m being unfair to Council and staff?
I say this because both of my CAOs in the two very different municipalities that I used to work for were always very engaged during Council meetings, providing guidance and corrections where needed. And as a result, I would like to note, the Council meetings we used to have were also very clear, practical and efficient.

My Motivations

Council and committee meetings are supposed to be logical places. There is no real reasons for them to be continuously messy as Mayor Helps seems to suggests in the same tweet that she adamantly defends what was easily one of the worst meetings I’ve ever observed.
Lisa Tweet
Generosity should not reward poor process, and I say this because we in Canada have what we call a representative democracy as a way of efficiency – we think its tidier than a general free for all. We elect those (providing we turn up at elections) who we think are most capable of the work our city requires. And to ensure that this system works in a logical fashion, there are many safeguards in the system.
If our councillors are not capable of being councillors they should be at the Council table deciding on the future of our city.  In addition to the role of the CAO, there is a Council Procedures bylaw at the City of Victoria that is based on Roberts Rules of Order – a commonly accepted mode of parliamentary practice that is meant to provide structure to Council and Committee meetings.
Some highlights include the following requirements:
  • Meetings have to be advertised
  • Meeting agendas have to be made publicly available
  • Meeting discussion should be focused on agenda items
These three main points are essential components of a healthy system of governance because they lay the foundation for clear and transparent operations.  And based on an analysis of these three points, the City of Victoria is not very transparent or accessible because in just the last three months, it is common for there to be   major last minute changes to agendas, and meeting discussion is only rarely actually connected to agenda documents. This means that it is very hard to follow what goes on at Victoria City Hall, for these and other reasons.
And because meetings are hard to understand, people get frustrated  and/or they just think that local government is dull. I think local government is fascinating because it is so very complex and it deals with so many things. Because it is so complex mind you, it is also very hard to organize and it also requires a very wide breadth of knowledge and awareness of many many things in order to function efficiently and responsibility for the benefit of the community.
Where Lisa Helps is a well paid full time employee, our Councillors aren’t paid that much and yet they are expected to know as much about the city as our Mayor. In addition to making their way through hundreds of pages of information each week so that they can commit to all sorts of important decisions about the future of our city, they are also expected to do all sorts of outreach and attend various community events.
All nine of them do a lot of work and they all work very hard.
I am not disputing this.
All I am doing when I make the comments that are perceived as “insults” or “sarcasm” is making public (free of interpretation other than my own) what goes on in Council chambers. And in doing so, I endeavour to be as neutral and fact based as possible. I tweet what I hear and I strive to fill in the dots based on the city knowledge that I’ve accumulated in observing Council for the past few months. I tweet facts when facts are available, and when facts are not apparent I make a best practice guess to what happened and/or I just generally leave the issue alone.
Sometimes I get frustrated. And when I get frustrated I’m now starting to hear back from folks that I shouldn’t be insulting  or sarcastic, which will always be kind of strange. But it is also really great because it means that what I am saying is resonating with all sorts of folks. And because what I say resonates, you are now providing me with feedback on how my own actions need to change.
I understand this.
I also recognize that the level of attention I’ve been giving to local government here in Victoria is new. The City is not used to people staying for whole meetings and continuing to attend all meetings. They are used to folks who are interested in specific issues. Which is to say that I don’t think they quite know what to do with someone like me who is interested in the largest issues of process and governance.
Take this tweet for instance:
Response From Lisa
Council process fascinates me, and because the mayor, council and senior city staff are all visible players in any process, I will continue to comment on their behaviours and actions. But what I promise I won’t do is ascribe any motivations to their actions. Nor will I ever seek to tie the actions of any one player to something as fundamental as their character. I will stay focused on process.

TL:DR

In closing, trying to understand what goes on in Council is hard work and simply following the advice/suggestions of Mayor Helps will not get me (or you) anywhere. Much much more is required.
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