CROYDON COMMENTARY: Town Hall meetings have become notorious for generating more heat than light, especially on matters of greatest importance tothe borough. SUSAN OLIVER says councillors must clean up their act
When the council’s budget meeting was broadcast on Croydon Radio, I could only listen for about 45 minutes. That’s all I could stomach. After that, I read the tweets and was glad there were heartier souls who could digest the vitriol and produce a newsfeed that I could swallow.
I’m still trying to figure out what that meeting was all about. I know it was a meeting done in the name of democracy, but that’s like saying that a drowning is done in the name of cleanliness.
The immature and ugly behaviour of our councillors that evening cannot be excused. There was goading. There was humiliation. There was a real nasty undertone.
Why is that bad for Croydon?
First, we residents are forced to be suspicious about how much thinking or work our councillors are actually doing. To what extent are issues being analysed and discussed rationally? Or is more energy being directed into bluff and bluster?
Second, how many councillors are not participating in the discussions because they, too, can’t deal with the maliciousness? And, how much intimidation and bullying is happening behind the scenes both between and within parties? How much gang-like activity is going on?
Third, how much are meetings being used not to govern Croydon, but for political purposes? Has the council chamber become just a south London colliseum in which the two titans clash?
But my biggest worry is how Croydon’s political culture affects us residents. Why? Because people copy people. We humans are constantly teaching one another about what is acceptable, particularly when it comes to behaviour and how we treat one another. And no one is more powerful than a person in the public eye.
Whether these people are elected or not, humans who have some sort of public role – celebrities, actors, sport stars, newscasters, politicians – naturally have the ability to impact a lot of people. Partially because they have a larger audience but also because they set an example. People think, “Well, if that person does or says this, I can too”. That’s how the mind works.
Croydon councillors may not be in the national limelight but they certainly are on the main stage locally. And month-after-month, year-after-year, the general atmosphere of the council meetings must influence the borough. The sourness, the surliness, the petulance. Certainly Croydon is being shaped by the incivility of these debates.
The mind is very subtle, very clever and it is human nature to look at power and want to emulate it. Should power mean the ability to be ornery? Do we gain influence by our ability to persuade, or by ripping our opponent to shreds?
These questions are being answered by councillors by their behaviour during the council meetings. And as they do, they affect business and social behaviour and set an example for civil servants, police and other people who work with the council.
For political reasons I haven’t mentioned either political party so far. Of course, that’s the crux of the problem. Both sides blame each other for their bad behaviour. It’s become like a civil war that has become too complicated to stop. It seems that both parties have embraced an attitude of “anything goes; we just have to prove a point and gain power”.
The problem with the “anything goes” strategy is that it teaches that force is the answer. And because they are public figures, this teaching goes far and wide. It’s like a song that catches on and people start singing it throughout the day. It legitimises aggressive tendencies both large and small. It’s used to justify emotional violence, which paves the way for physical violence.
Am I saying that the culture of the Croydon Council meetings has something to do with the amount of emotional abuse and physical violence here in the borough? Yes I am.
Of course I can’t prove it – yet. Our psychological and mental sciences aren’t sophisticated enough in 2013 to exactly pin-point how the tone and philosophy of government discourse ripple through a society like pheromones through a bee-hive. If we could actually see how it does this, we wouldn’t put up with it.
But just because we can’t scientifically prove something doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take heed. In the 1800s, some scientists ridiculed the new idea that tiny creatures called “germs” caused disease. Macho doctors refused to wash their hands in an attempt to deny their own responsibility in spreading disease from one patient to another. Many patients (particularly child-bearing women) died unnecessarily, not from ignorance but from arrogance.
I think that negativity and ill-will can spread very much like germs do. All of us know that we have to be emotionally hygienic. We must restrain our anger for the sake of the greater good. Of course there will be heated discussions and the occasional lost temper – that’s understandable. But the Croydon council chamber has become a place where personal restraint seems unfashionable and even looked down upon.
Croydon residents need to be more aware of the level of mean-spiritedness in the chamber. We need to be mature enough to recognise when things are getting out of hand, even when it’s benefiting our point of view or the party to which we belong.
I realise this is a sticky wicket and that sometimes it’s difficult to differentiate between belligerence and passion. But the need for self-expression shouldn’t become more important than the responsibility of one’s office. Croydon’s political elite have created a sub-culture that does not properly reflect who we want to be as a community, and the people of Croydon have every right to rectify that.
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