“It is the duty of every citizen according to his best capacities to give validity to his convictions in political affairs.” (Albert Einstein)
“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” (Ghandi)
“We do not act rightly because we have virture or excellence, but rather we have those because we have acted rightly” (Aristotle)
Here we are facing another municipal election in Squamish and once again there appears to be no shortage of high emotions, bitter disputes, accusations, suspicions, personal attacks and what appears to be at least one witch-hunt. Not the sort of environment which is likely to entice the 60% in our community who typically refrain from voting to get involved this time around. During the last round of municipal elections in 2011 I made the decision to vote and to become involved with local politics for the first time in my life. Since I am politically ignorant my only contribution was around helping candidates with getting out their platforms, aggregating election material on a site which became THE most popular election/candidate portal in town, engaging on social-media and facilitating/administering the creation of the Squamish Speaks Facebook Group. A personal donation of hundreds of hours of my time and hundreds of dollars in costs which I believe benefited every candidate, the community and the overall election process in Squamish in 2011. Although I enjoyed contributing in a small way to the previous election, there was also a dark-side to the process. A disappointing dark-side which demonstrated how strong emotions, passionate beliefs, inflated egos and in some cases how personal and self-serving agendas can often evoke the essence of someone’s character, both for the good and not-so-good.
Through my involvement with the previous municipal election in 2011 and some of the controversies which erupted, I believe I learned a great deal about the characters of the candidates and of many others in our community. I tend to be sensitive to ethical digressions, particularly by persons in positions of authority or power and have been known to go on many moral/ethical crusades to expose and speak out against unethical or immoral conduct. And YES, I expect others to hold me to the same or higher ethical standards that I expect from everyone else. Although I did make an effort to discuss and raise awareness of some serious ethical, safety and even legal issues with those who could have, and should have, responded quickly and thoroughly to ensure public safety and demonstrate integrity, my efforts failed and so that was when I went public and wrote the article’s here and here. These articles seem to have taken on a life of their own with the current election as can be seen by the traffic spike in the chart below.
A few people and friends in the community have also sent me copies of some of the discussions (inaccurate, uninformed and untrue in many cases) and most are written from an ignorance of the facts, or they are intentional outright lies. I won’t be drawn into a pointless debate over those comments attacking me or questioning what happened during the last election and the Squamish Speaks Facebook Group since it would be a waste of my time and I am simply unconcerned and not interested. However, as much as I dislike these sorts of politically, personally and emotionally motivated attacks or debates, I felt the need to write something since many seem to be interested in what I had to say a few years ago, regardless of why there is interest now. I am also concerned that all the attention on one candidate and those articles is a distraction to what should be a positive community experience.
Although there are many valid reasons to not participate in or condone these ego-driven and emotionally charged personal attacks and witch-hunts, they may also provide us with valid evidence for choosing, or not choosing, a particular candidate since we tend to display our true nature’s or character traits (as opposed to personality traits) when we are faced with conflict and stressful situations. And this is the primary reason why I have decided to keep those articles posted so that those who may have been involved in controversy during the 2011 election might have a chance to demonstrate their true nature’s, their character traits, when asked to respond to current, or past controversies.
The Psychology of Voting
First, I am NOT a psychologist nor am I qualified to express anything other than a personal opinion backed by my own experiences, 25+ years of education, a bit of my own research, employment and consulting in various areas of psychology and a quick review of some articles I found online. With that caveat out of the way, the short explanation around the psychology of voting is really simple – who we vote for is a reflection of our own belief’s and our own perceptions of who we think we are, or who we would like to become. We tend to vote for people who we think reflect or support our own values and ideologies and often these choices are not so much based on strong evidence or a documented track record, but more on gut-feelings and personality traits which we often (mistakenly) extend to character traits (which are very different).
“Part of the self-expression associated with passion about our political ideologies is the desire to encourage others to think (and vote) like us” 2
Given that who we support and vote for in an election is a reflection of our own values and identity 1, it is no surprise that an election process can bring out the best, and unfortunately the worst, in many of us since it is our own sense of self and most deeply held values, which we defend when supporting or speaking out against a candidate. Even superficial attributes like physical attractiveness factor into our voting behaviours since it has long been established that we ascribe positive traits to those whom we judge as more attractive 3 and as I mentioned previously, we also tend to draw long-term conclusions about someone’s character based on personality traits alone. When we assess someone’s personality we make quick judgements on whether they are serious, funny, likeable, extroverted, confident etc – attributes which are highly immutable (difficult to change) and are often determined by genetics and early developmental environment (parents and family). Character traits like integrity, honesty, altruism, sincerity etc, stem from our beliefs (it is good thing to be honest and kind to others for instance) 2, tend to be more mutable and can change and evolve through personal experiences, a motivation for self-growth and of course moral development 4.
So why is the distinction between personality traits and character traits so important? When we vote someone into office we are placing them in a position of great power and responsibility where their decisions, actions, reactions and of course personal beliefs (which shape their character) will have a significant impact on the entire community. And since “we all have an uncanny predilection for observing attractive personality traits and manufacturing out of them the presence of positive character traits” 2, simply “liking” a candidate based on one or more personality traits may lead to voting for someone with potentially damaging character flaws contributing to irresponsible, dishonest, unethical or self-serving actions and decisions for the community. Personally this is why I do not vote – not enough information about a candidate to make an informed opinion about character. Unless I have sufficient contact with someone, regular communications and interactions and some form of long-term relationship (or strong evidence based on how someone responded in a time of duress or controversy), then I cannot in good conscience vote for someone based solely on personality traits, political rhetoric or empty platitudes.
“People are strongly influenced by transformational leaders who are confident, have expertise, seem emotionally strong, trustworthy, optimistic, and action-focused.” 1
Another strong influence on voting behaviour comes from social factors like our friends, family and of course the media. Social media has now been shown to play a significant role in the voting process, engaging voters and candidates and of course encouraging both support and mud-slinging around candidates we oppose for whatever reasons. And this brings me to why I felt it was necessary to try one last time to possibly have a small positive impact on our current election process.
As I mentioned earlier, given the amount of attention, discussions and suspicions around at least one controversial candidate in this year’s municipal election, there has been a spike of interest in the articles I wrote during the last election. I even contemplated taking them down since I felt they may be having a negative impact on this years election and given the amount of traffic and the snippets of discussions and communications I have witnessed, the articles seem to be getting used as part of a local witch-hunt for some in the community. Now don’t get me wrong here. In no way are my concerns over those past articles to be considered as any form of retraction of my words or opinions back in 2011. Everything I stated back then, all the evidence which was gathered and reviewed and my personal conclusions still stand. However, there is nothing to be gained (individually or for the community) by allowing our emotions and personal vendetta’s to get the better of us and spending/wasting our time with ongoing personal attacks and dragging up past examples of potential misconduct or ethical digressions (unless used to demonstrate a pattern of behaviour, a character trait). Everyone deserves a chance to learn from their mistakes. Everyone deserves a chance to demonstrate the true nature of their character in spite of past mistakes and to allow the community to make an informed decision on their suitability for office. Like everyone else I have made many mistakes of my own and if people judged me solely on any of those past mistakes I would not have any friends at all.
However, in my own personal opinion, if there is recent evidence of questionable conduct, dishonesty, duplicity, lapses in ethical judgement or other examples of damaging character flaws, then of course one’s past history and evidence of long-term behaviour which may reflect a pattern of behavioural and character traits, becomes more relevant/important. Once again please do not misunderstand what I am saying here. In no way am I giving any support or credibility to ANY of the current rumours circulating around social-media which have been levelled against any of the candidates.
Voting on Character
So now what? If we know that we are easily fooled into attributing long-term character traits like honesty, integrity and trustworthiness based on immutable personality traits, personal beliefs, personal values and the influence of the media, how can we make a relatively informed decision on the “best” candidate based on positive long-term character traits which will ultimately shape how that person makes decisions and conducts themselves while in office? Here is where our current and somewhat unpleasant political arena with all it’s emotional content, accusations, personal attacks and mud-slinging could benefit each of us.
“We actually need to observe people in character-challenging situations in order to make reliable deductions about their character.” 2
One of the benefits of these bitter disputes, contentious issues, questions around character and even the vile mud-slinging and personal attacks is that they create an opportunity for people to demonstrate their true nature, the essence of their character which in my opinion is the MOST important factor when choosing a candidate. The fact that a candidate has made or will make mistakes or even shown poor judgement in the past is NOT important in and of itself. It is even trivial since we all make mistakes, we have all shown poor judgement at one time or another and so when evaluating a person/candidate we need to determine the “sum total of his or her moral qualities possibly balanced against his or her imperfections“. 5
What is MOST IMPORTANT in my opinion, is how candidates evaluate their mistakes, reflect on their roles, responsibilities and actions, how they react and respond to those mistakes and most importantly how (or if) they learned something and then changed their behaviours in the future. If someone has shown a capacity to openly acknowledge mistakes, assume full and unconditional responsibility, demonstrated transparency and took steps towards ensuring the same mistakes do not happen again and there is long term evidence of the person having done this repeatedly, then this might be a good indication of votable character traits like honesty and integrity. Even better is to observe the person during “character-challenging” situations just like the bitter, contentious and mud-slinging political arena we seem to be facing in Squamish once again since it is when we are under duress and pressure when we are most likely to expose our true character. And of course since past behaviours are the best predictors of future behaviours, if there is a pattern and history of dishonesty, poor judgement or ethical indiscretions then these may be an indication of good reasons NOT to vote this person into office. Michael Josephson gives a good overview of 6 common aspects (or pillars) of character (trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, citizenship) that you may want to consider when looking at and evaluating our current selection of mayoral and council candidates for Squamish.
I don’t know if anything I have written or suggested here will have any positive impact on any aspect of our current municipal elections. But I did want to say a few things in defence of keeping those previous articles up, and to at least encourage civility, respectfully challenge all candidates and to be aware of our tendency towards making character judgements based on superficial or immutable personality traits. I also wanted to make some general suggestions on how to assess character and where to find a bit more information on how to choose candidates. I know there are many people currently on council or running for office who seem to possess many of the positive character traits which should make them great leaders and representatives of our community. But if we spend most of our time attacking, judging and slinging mud at the persons or candidates we dislike or mistrust for any reason, then we are shooting ourselves in the feet because we are creating an embarrassing and unattractive environment which is likely to keep out those 60% of us who do not vote. If you feel there is a candidate you cannot trust, have no confidence in or feel they have behaved poorly or suspiciously then just use your power as a voter and give your support to someone else instead of carry on with these personal attacks or witch-hunt. Although not an exhaustive selection (search Google for more), some of the links below might also be helpful in determining character and how best to select the “best” candidate with your vote.