Saturday, February 28, 2015

On “Bullies”, “shills” and using labels to shut down legitimate debate

Last Wednesday was “Pink Shirt Day”, which for those of you not familiar with the event, is a day to “take a stand against bullying”. The day started as two boys’ response to bullying of a classmate and has become a laudable cultural phenomenon. One of the early proponents of Pink Shirt Day was our current British Columbia Premier Christy Clark, who at the time was a radio talk show host on an extremely popular local radio station. She used the power of her microphone to get the word out and championed the cause during its early years. As noted, Ms. Clark is now the Premier of British Columbia and on Pink Shirt Day this year was called out as “bully” by an otherwise highly-accomplished political opponent (NDP MLA Selina Robinson). Here is what Ms. Robinson is quoted as saying: 

The Liberals have power, they won government, and they are making lots of decisions, and order to hang on to the power, they make everyone else, those whose jobs it is to hold them accountable … feel bad, so that they are less capable of doing their job, which is holding government accountable. It’s bullying, and it certainly feels that way. (ref)

Now no one will deny that Premier Clark has an abrasive political style and part of that style is to use the tricks of her radio days on her opponents. This includes using anecdotes (often about her family) that she then turns around on her opponents. Most recently, she compared her opponents (the NDP) to a teenager (her son) who is “still sitting on the couch and he's asking you to clean up after him and he doesn't want to get up and do anything” (ref). Premier Clark’s other main sin is that upon receiving a majority of seats in the last provincial election she has chosen to govern the province as if she won a majority of seats in the last provincial election. That is, she treats the mandate of the electorate as an indication of their desires and thus tends to not follow the desires of the opposition (the NDP). For these transgressions (and making the NDP feel bad about themselves?) Premier Clark was called out as a “bully”. 

I questioned this use of the term “bullying” on Twitter, and was directed to a web site that nominally provided a definition of bullying as: “one person, or group of persons, being deliberately cruel to another person or group, for any reason”. I will readily admit to not being an expert on bullying, but I would suggest that the definition, as presented, and its use by Ms. Robinson, totally diminishes the power of the word. The definition could encompass my three-year old daughter getting angry at her siblings as easily as it would the prototypical schoolyard bully picking on the smaller kids to make himself feel bigger. It ignores any context or indication of relative power dynamics which form the basis of virtually every definition of bully out there (see Wikipedia, Merriam-Webster, Oxford English). 

The English language has any number of words to describe the Premier’s behaviour. She has clearly been unkind and can be condescending but is she really a bully?  So the question must be asked, with all the alternatives available to her in the English language why did Ms. Robinson use the word “bully”? Well that is because it has become one of words activists use not to stimulate debate or discussion but rather to shut down debate. Words, like “fascist” which used to refer to “radical authoritarian nationalism” but is now used by activists whenever a policeman politely asks them to make way so others can make use of a public street or sidewalk. 

Another word I read often these days is the word “shill”. This too, is usually used in an attempt to diminish the ideas and information provided by someone who holds an opposing point of view. The funny part is that the term “shill” is pretty much reserved for people who tend to agree with the status quo. In its correct form, a “shill” is “someone who pretends to give an impartial endorsement of something in which they themselves have an interest” (ref). The two people most likely to be called “shills”, in my social network (people I follow or who follow me), are Dr. Andrew Leach and Mr. Cody Battershill. The funny thing is that there has never been an iota of evidence to suggest that either has received a cent from any of the organizations or causes about which they communicate. Dr. Leach has had the good fortune to have earned a Professorship in Energy Policy via the Alberta School of Business and funded by Enbridge (ref). As anyone who knows anything about how Professorships works knows, the receiving academic is very much insulated from the philanthropic donor. To do otherwise would violate university policies and would taint any research conducted under the Professorship. That being said, whenever Dr. Leach strikes a chord on the internet you can predict, like the ticking of a clock, that someone will bring up his Professorship. These folks cannot assail his arguments so they attack the man (and his title). This is the textbook definition of an ad hominem attack but is repeated relentlessly by activists who cannot muster the information to counter his data. Mr. Battershill is somewhat different case. He is a self-taught activist who has become a thorn in the side of anti-oil sands activists. He is a real estate agent by training but spends his spare time informing the public about energy literacy with a definite pro-oil sands bent. Unlike most of the activists who attack him constantly, Mr. Battershill reportedly receives no stipend from any third parties to do his work. Based on interviews (ref) it would appear that Mr. Battershill actually loses money doing his blogging. That doesn’t stop activists from impugning his motives because they lack the data to impugn his information. Information that is typically well-researched and on point.

The common thread in the use of these terms is that the activists yell “shill”, “bully” etc.. when they have no case to present, nor data to support their point of view. Ad hominems and name-calling are used by the desperate to distract and to interfere with or stop all debate. They are not used by people who can marshal facts in defense of their opinions. As interested parties we should call out this practice for what it is. We should not allow the smearing of good people and should demand that organizations and individuals who use these terms are sent scurrying to find data to support their opinions rather than being allowed to throw out smears without repercussion or penalty. 

Author's note: I cannot believe that in writing this post I forgot to mention my personal favourite "shill" Ms.Vivian Krause who has had nothing but kind words for this blog and has done some of the most insightful research into energy and finance that money did not buy. After working for years on her own dime, she accepted one honorarium and in doing so earned her own personal poltergeist. The perfect example of a citizen researcher and someone we can all strive to emulate.

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