So­cial media at­tacks on Victoria’s mayor are un­war­ranted

Times Colonist - - Comment -

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps has de­ac­ti­vated her Twit­ter ac­count after two of her tweets ig­nited a firestorm of an­i­mos­ity and worse. Vot­ers will have a chance to ex­press their views on Helps’ performanc­e as mayor. That’s for vot­ers to de­cide at the next mu­nic­i­pal elec­tion.

We are con­cerned rather with why the firestorm arose, and what it says about rea­soned dis­course in our com­mu­nity.

On the Fri­day be­fore she de­ac­ti­vated her ac­count, Helps had tweeted sup­port for the Ocean Fu­tures In­no­va­tion Hub, a pro­posed ad­di­tion to the city’s ma­rine sec­tor.

The next day she tweeted a photo of the new float­ing dock in­stalled on the Gorge Wa­ter­way by Aryze De­vel­op­ment.

As mayor it was her job to wel­come these boosts to the local econ­omy, suf­fer­ing as it is from the COVID epi­demic. This should have been an op­por­tu­nity for op­ti­mism in the midst of end­less bad news.

But that’s not what hap­pened. In­stead Helps was slammed for shift­ing her gaze, even mo­men­tar­ily, from chal­lenges like home­less­ness and the other af­flic­tions our com­mu­nity faces.

It’s scarcely a se­cret that so­cial media sites like Twit­ter and Face­book pro­vide an op­por­tu­nity for frus­trated con­trib­u­tors to let off steam. Ev­ery politi­cian can tes­tify that some of this comes with the job.

But what Helps en­dured went far beyond. Some of the ver­bal as­saults were crude, misog­y­nis­tic, and downright ugly.

We un­der­stand the pas­sion for so­cial jus­tice. There are very real wrongs that need right­ing. And sooner than later.

Yet all Helps had done was pub­li­cize good news in the mildest of ways. For this she should be at­tacked? And not just at­tacked but per­son­ally vil­i­fied?

This is pro­foundly unCana­dian. It is not who we as­pire to be, nor should it.

Free­dom of speech is about shar­ing ideas, not try­ing to bully into si­lence those we dis­agree with. What sep­a­rates our coun­try from the so­cial mael­strom south of the bor­der is a will­ing­ness to hear dif­fer­ing view­points.

It is some­times ar­gued that the more im­por­tant a so­cial is­sue, the greater the lat­i­tude that should be granted in ad­dress­ing it. Barry Gold­wa­ter, the Repub­li­can can­di­date for the U.S. pres­i­dency in 1964, voiced that opin­ion: “Ex­trem­ism in the de­fence of lib­erty is no vice. Mod­er­a­tion in pur­suit of jus­tice is no virtue.”

Yet mod­er­a­tion is pre­cisely what we need at this mo­ment, when the very foun­da­tions of our so­ci­ety are be­ing shaken by a pan­demic of un­known limit or du­ra­tion. The anx­i­eties this has loosed have us all on edge.

Had Helps used her po­si­tion to un­der­mine ef­forts at elim­i­nat­ing home­less­ness, had she be­trayed cal­lous­ness or in­dif­fer­ence to such mat­ters, this would have mer­ited crit­i­cism. Though not of the kind that de­scended on her.

But to repeat, all she did was pass on good news. She said noth­ing that could, in any rea­son­able world, give of­fence. Yet vi­o­lent of­fence was taken. And it can be a small dis­tance from vi­o­lent speech to vi­o­lent acts.

If this is where we’re headed, a cross­roads lies not far ahead. For the mayor’s ex­pe­ri­ence is be­com­ing all too com­mon.

Like other news­pa­pers, our mail­box in­creas­ingly holds let­ters to the editor that can­not be printed.

Yes, there have al­ways been a hand­ful that should not see the light of day. We in­vite cor­re­spon­dence; it is an es­sen­tial part of any opin­ion page. In­evitably some let­ters cross the bound­aries of good taste. Yet with­out ques­tion the trend is dis­qui­et­ing. This is not about good taste, or at least, not mainly. It is about one of the more basic re­quire­ments of civil so­ci­ety, the need for self-re­straint.

We are not urg­ing in­ter­net cen­sor­ship. So­cial media, on the whole, have been a lib­er­at­ing force. Peo­ple who pre­vi­ously had no voice, can now be heard.

Nor is the is­sue which top­ics may be raised, or who may speak out. The wrongs of so­ci­ety, whether past or present, will only be cor­rected if attention is drawn to them. The con­cern is how mu­tual re­spect can be pre­served in a world be­set with its fail­ures. For lack­ing re­spect, we become part of the prob­lem.

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