Be not deterred by the ‘wall of plaid’

“We need a public life in common, some set of reference points and allegiances to give us a way to relate to the strangers among whom we live. Without this feeling of belonging, even if only imagined, we would live in fear and dread of each other. When we can call the strangers citizens, we can feel at home with them and with ourselves.” – Michael Ignatieff, from his book True Patriot Love: Four Generations in Search of Canada

2007 photo by Dennis Sylvester Hurd
The condo boom over the last few years has been a magnet for young professionals and their families to move to New West. 2007 photo by Dennis Sylvester Hurd

Is the gulf too wide between the citizens who came before and the young adults rising up to take our place in media and public life? According to Michael Valpy’s recent opinion piece in the Globe & Mail, indeed, this is so.

Valpy speaks of the ‘indecently’ deep cleavages in Canadian society that he feels are undermining social cohesion and national identity – everything from level of education to age to the urban/rural divide. He concludes that these schisms in our society, coupled with a drying up of the well of shared public knowledge (a.k.a., mass media), is dissolving our social cohesion. We have no shared mind-map, no “soul-map” of Canada, Valpy writes.

I don’t agree with everything Valpy’s got to say in his piece, but it’s beautifully written and full of food for thought. While Valpy is writing about Canada, I would say that these demographic and behavioural shifts are evident here too in New Westminster. Our condo boom over the last few years has been a magnet for young professionals and their families to move to New West, and although the old guard seems to welcome this influx as a sign of revitalization, in my opinion not enough is being done to integrate these newcomers into the social fabric of our city.

The backbone of New West community life is a powerful network of retirees and seniors. While, in my experience, these passionate organizers are quite welcoming to younger folk who bring enthusiasm and a willing pair of hands to pitch in, the first step in becoming involved is to become aware of who does what in the city and how you can help. To a newcomer, it’s a forbidding wall of plaid and green jackets, seemingly quite foreign and impenetrable.

So what is the solution? I believe, like Valpy, that a shared well of knowledge held in common is essential to empowering citizens to become more deeply integrated in their communities, and aware of their power to shape the social culture in which we live. Unlike Valpy, I don’t think this is a role the mass media plays well.

Mass media certainly is effective at reaching a large number of people. But the message is limited by the constraints of the medium. Heavy overhead costs mean publishers are more beholden to advertisers. Advertisers also require eyeballs – which is why a mass audience is targeted. A mass audience brings its own limitations in depth of coverage and attention to niche issues. And, ultimately what unites strangers into citizens isn’t reading coverage of crime, council meetings, rewritten press releases and staged news events. It’s seeing their own passions and concerns woven into a shared narrative about the life of a place. The mass media definitely has a role to play here, but this is a story that is too large to fit into a single 500-word feature, or even a lengthier tryptych of 1000-word articles. This is a story best shared online.

When it comes to the establishment of a shared resource of information held in common, it’s hard to beat the Web. Its distributed nature allows for many smaller publishers, each as niche or as mass as they want to be. This is what scares Valpy and many other journalists – that many competing voices will lead to a plurality of disconnected narratives about our country and our role as citizens. Yet the second great quality of the Internet is often overlooked in this argument: that these distributed sources are also highly interconnected. There is no greater fount of serendipity than the Web. Valpy argues the opposite in his Globe & Mail piece, but I find it hard to see how anyone can take seriously the argument that reading a single newspaper will expose you to a greater range of points of view than the smorgasbord of web publications and socially driven link-sharing in the online news reader’s diet.

One of the motivations for us in launching this website was frustration at how little the life of New Westminster was reflected online. We have so many great events, organizations and resources – but if Google can’t find it, it may as well not exist. Newcomers and most young adults are not hooked into the word-of-mouth network that seems to power most New West organizations. Young adults are also far less likely to read our community newspapers. When they do, they are more likely to do so online – and the print advertising that most local organizations use to communicate their event information doesn’t appear online.

This is not intended to pit young against old or online against offline media. My point is that all must play a role in creating the public life in common that Ignatieff wrote about in the quote at the beginning of this article. The supposed apathy of young adults related to politics and community is a symptom of alienation, not a widespread generational character fault. The solution is bridge-building, not finger-pointing or doom-saying.

Coming up on September 10, we’re co-sponsoring an initiative that hopes to do exactly that. It’s a mixer for New Westminster’s young professionals to get to know each other and hopefully make some connections that will help support better integration into the life of the city. We are looking forward to meeting and mixing with some of our readers there – and meeting new friends as well! If you’d like to go, please RSVP on Facebook.

7 Replies to “Be not deterred by the ‘wall of plaid’”

  1. Every Thursday, at the Farmer's Market at Tipperary Park in New Westminster, I see this town come together as neighbours and neighbourhoods in a way I rarely see. Young families, youth, merchants, politicians and seniors are all "[making] some connections that will help support better integration into the life of the city" as you very clearly phrased it, Briana.

    An afternoon market, like this website, is a way to connect with citizens and for residents to connect with each other. The key component is relevancy. Citizenship on the local level does not happen in front of the 6:oo news and it doesn't happen at the big box store.

    Citizenship is created by our collective interactions. Our society has blindly guided us to the mall, to work places, to our televisions just as we hear of "low voter turn out" and "political apathy". I suggest that the more opportunities we have to interact as a community, the more our political processes will seem relevant again.

    Go to your community events! Go to your parades and farmer's markets! Go to your speeches and free concerts! Go to your online forums and interactive websites! Go citizens! Go out and 'be not deterred by the wall of plaid' for it is you all, is is us all whereby relevancy is measured!

  2. Very well said Brianna. As a manifesto for the hyper-local blog, I will happily sign this Declaration of Independence.

    You’re absolutely right, the decline of public life so often cited in old media publications far and wide is greatly exaggerated. The old system of ethnic and religious enclaves that people lived in before was no great thing, and Boomers tend to see their 1960s and 70s heyday as being somehow different than what everyone goes through when they are in their 20s. For the Boomers it was “Times They Are A Changin'”, for us it was Jesus Jones, “Right Here, Right Now.”

    The larger point of the cohesiveness of the nation-state somehow dissolving may have some more truth to it. Place is a big part, but it is a smaller part of community than ever before. Through both our websites we are great believers in using new media to connect to our physical neighbours, but it’s always going to be a self-selecting bunch. So community is no longer, “I am Canadian” or “I am Presbyterian”, but it becomes a choice, and it’s a choice that is no longer controlled by elites; media, elected, or otherwise. Some are threatened by that, I think it’s incredibly exciting.

    After all, I would consider us to be neighbours, even though we’ve never met. And for the record, the exploding anvil at the Hyack Festival is still awesome for this new media guy.

  3. Yes, I'll give Valpy the fact that he got me thinking, but like you I don't agree with him (well, maybe a bit on some things). I do, however, find his focus (and Eaves) on media, social and traditional, misleading. And that's partly why I disagree with what Valpy concludes. If there is cohesion, or a lack of cohesion, it goes well beyond media and has social, cultural roots of which media is a part.

    You know, whenever I hear something on apathy, such as young people apathetic or recent immigrants or whatever, I always wonder, "Did you bother to ask them?" I think there is a sense of apathy in the population generally when it comes to large scale politics – provincial, federal – but that is the result of a system that has been co-opted by the micro-management of large parties, the obsession for control and the paranoia about saying something wrong. On that level, everyone's primary message seems to be, "I'm not the other guy." And seriously, who could get engaged by that?

  4. Seems a bit wordy way of saying get involved and know thy neighbour. Personally I don't buy Valpy's/Ignatieff's wordy fluff or the "good old days" rant of conservative people who cannot see progress. Go knock on your neighbour's door. Smile at people on the street. Chat in the elevator. Regardless of the demographics, your community is "you". I feel far more connected to New Westminster than any city or country I have ever lived in. It's far simpler than the analysts purport.

    In the eternal words of Kenneth Chow – "Your scene is what you make it." Some may argue that technology should not be the impetus for connection but hey, it's working right on these pages.

    New West ftw!

  5. I think what was referred to in the Valpy article as "the cohesive core of common information", is unravelling. I don't see that as negative, though. In order to have that core of information, it must come from a source that is considered authoritative, and the more authoritative, the more centralized. Centralized information sources are being eroded by the flexible user/provider relationship of information on the internet.

    Mass media and it's authority is being replaced by consensus of what a community is and how it represents itself. Identifying what it means to be Canadian is less dictated by a publishing giant's news agenda and more by the people of the community. This website is an example of that. I find it fascinating to root through the past posts here (I've only recently been exposed to this site) and learn about the history of New West through the personal experiences of its citizens. I've never been much of a history buff, partly because it can only really be understood through the broadest possible exposure to the perspectives of its participants, not a scholarly or politically endorsed version.

    In other words, I would rather form my identity as a Canadian, New Westian, or Otherian, through interaction with citizens, not by absorbing it from mass media.

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