Wednesday, January 6, 2010

proroguing parliament and armchair activism


If you’re like me and didn’t know what proroguing meant until recently:

prorogue: to discontinue the meetings of (a legislative body) without dissolving it

Lately I haven’t been writing about politics. I’ve been more focused on crafting and the holidays than reading the news and commenting on it. But recent events brought to us by the Harper government have this blogger up in arms, once again. (‘Cause nothing gets my blood raging like the Harper government!)

Ostensibly called in order to able to celebrate the Olympics, Harper has successfully called for the 2nd prorogation of parliament in the span of a year. I may not have been all that aware of politics in the past, but I would venture a guess that this is a rare, if unheard of, event in our political history. And that we’re calling them for the Olympics? Seriously? Every other country keeps parliament running, why should we be any different? Especially given that Harper has a track record of not even attending the major public events that he’s expected to be present for (or waits until the last minute to show up, not that that is anything new in Cdn politics!).

Here’s the thing, everyone knows that he’s proroguing parliament to avoid political accountability. See the Globe and Mail, x2, Elizabeth May, The National Post counterargument, and a more neutral, yet still sceptical CBC.

So for us Canadians that think that this is a BS political manoeuvre, what can we do? The web is awash with Armchair Activism, aka Cyberactivism but does it really work? From Facebook groups (see this article) to websites telling us to write letters to local media and post flyers around town, little real progress actually seems to be made.

Gone are the days when rallies and petitions seemed to make a difference. Our currently state of cyberactivism is belied by our political apathy. Clicking buttons and sending emails only works if we’re committed to fighting for the cause until the end. Sending off an email to parliament may or may not have effect:

[…] the effectiveness of email when it comes to influencing abusive governments is still open to question [18]. Firstly, the response of authorities to electronic messages is varied and the impact is not as predictable as in the case of conventional mail and faxes, although they cost less to send. Whereas letters must be sorted, documented and filed in most government offices, it is easy to simply read the subject line of an email and then delete it, or to shut down the accounts if there are floods of incoming appeals. […]

Indeed, the generation of identical notifications to the authorities for each person that “signed” the online petition was one of the key drawbacks of the website. Amnesty has always believed that the more diverse a letter-writing campaign is, the better its chances for getting the attention and respect of government officials. This applies to online as well as offline activism, so the organisation has now moved from the use of the auto-generated messages to one where activists are encouraged to send emails with distinct subject lines, by customising pre-existing text on their websites.

See here for further information.

The question that I’m trying to get at is whether or not it’s really worthwhile to join that Facebook group or sign that petition. I tend to sign up for online petitions via, but is it effective? Certainly, as McLeans Magazine notes, those members are enough to garner media attention. But do they accomplish anything? Pardon me if I remain a bit cynical. For all that I want to be able to bring about change through the Internet, I have to admit that clicking and joining has little merit if it’s not done on a personal level, with a certain amount a commitment to a cause. Because although numbers count, this is a place where the individual voice matters more than the masses.

One person can make a difference. But only if they work conscientiously towards a cause. Armchair activism is unlikely to get you any where, even if your group is thousands strong.

As John Moore, from the National Post notes:

This emphatic anti-prorogation Facebook group shares intellectual and cyberspace with “Feed the Olsen Twins” and “Save Bandit the Pitbull!” (who in theory could be fed to the Olsens if efforts to save him fail). Almost all of the activist groups are put to shame by the membership of a dancing lobster fan club which boasts 141,000 enthusiasts. True, all of these pages jostle for attention amongst many earnest and worthy causes. But few things say “I care” with the empty ferocity of a Facebook page. 

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