Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Objectionable Language

Yesterday morning at oh-dark-thirty, I thought I could help myself mentally wake up on the way to work with some sports talk radio. Pretty soon, however, I had to change the channel due to some of the objectionable language coming across the airwaves. Mind you, at this point in my professional life, I'm pretty numb to the standard four-letter words that some folks might find 'objectionable,' so it takes other things to rile me up.

Like endless waves of complaints about the Seahawks making the playoffs at 7-9, while some teams with winning records (even with 10 wins) did not. There were calls for complicated rules changes, like a league that says, "All division winners make the playoffs...except the ones who aren't good enough, for whom we'll develop a complicated substitution scheme."

Here's the problem: The NFL now has 8 divisions with four teams apiece. If you work the math out, it's inevitable that from time to time you'll see some 8-8 teams getting in (happened before, too, but was a real rarity) and even some losers squeak by. It's hard to even say who is necessarily *better* than whoever else, because you would have to factor in strength of schedule before saying a 10-win team is better than an 8-win team, and so on. Statistically, it's much harder to become the Attorney General of California than it is that of Rhode Island, but that doesn't necessarily make one *better* than the other, either.

No sport can bring about outcomes to satisfy everyone. Baseball's NL East has two perenially strong teams (at least for the last decade or so) who could probably be hands-down division winners in many other locales, ceteris paribus. Basketball fans for years have complained about how much tougher it was out west.

Last I checked, division winners making the playoffs works, and it's straightforward. It may lead to some outcomes that make Giants fans upset while Seahawks fans celebrate, but it's preferable to a system filled with asterisks, ifs, buts, and goalposts that change after the proverbial ball has been kicked and someone THEN decides they don't like the way it's sailing through the air.

Which, of course, leads me to my next point. Last week, I was also privy to some objectionable language, though this time in the form of a massive e-mail distribution's back-and-forth about representation of such-and-such group, neighborhood, ethnicity, etc. here in Lowell. I held my virtual breath, of course, for fear of invoking a massive e-mail "flame war." Much like in real wars, I find, e-mail flame wars tend to leave lots of innocent people hurt without creating any real winners, because neither side is really listening to the other anyway.

Anyway, what stirred me up about a lot of the comments was that people were saying, "There's no elected official who represents my [neighborhood, ethnicity, constituency, etc.] so therefore the system must be in need of serious repair."

Okay, I'm not saying I have all the answers -- or even any of the answers -- about how this or any other city ought to be run. As to specific reform proposals, as Ross Perot might say, I'm all ears. THAT SAID, I wish people would stop and think a bit more before declaring something broken just because it doesn't work for them or their constituency.

Instead, how about someone saying, "I don't like the way my neighborhood gets short shrift, so why don't I organize a campaign around a strong candidate who can help fix that?"

Or, "I don't like the lack of ethnic diversity, so I'm going to register [x] number of new voters, find a great person who is a member of that group, and we'll rally behind her this time."

If people from a certain neighborhood or group were being turned away at polling stations, denied registration, or even discouraged from participating, I'd say that would be an unfair set-up. That would be something worth shining a spotlight on and trying to fix. However, if a process is transparent and equitable, someone not liking the outcome isn't reason enough in and of itself to call a system rotten.

For instance, the process of becoming an Olympic 400m sprinter is open, transparent, and fair. It involves running one lap around a standard-length track in something like 45 seconds. Even though I'm aware of that, I sort of missed out on Sydney, Athens, and Beijing. There are many reasons for my failure to appear in any of those, but none make the process inherently unfair. No great, outside forces conspired to keep me from making a go of it.

Just to reiterate my earlier disclaimer, discussions about things like districts vs. at-large vs. hybrid models, full-time professionalization of elected positions, term limits, alternate voting systems are all worthy points and all worthy of discussion -- even those who disagree with certain proposals will be forced to think critically and sharpen their own perspectives in the process.

But if you are going to say that any process must be automatically broken just because you don't like the outcome, you're committing a Herculean leap of logic.


C R Krieger said...

Well said.

Regards  —  Cliff

C R Krieger said...

And having said that, I do think that the system today encourages some to use only one of their nine votes for City Council.  I am in favor of allowing people to use up to none of those votes for any one candidate or to divide their vote, five votes for Rita and four for Bud, or some other combination.  This would cause candidates to adjust, but it would give each voter an equal voice, rather than having some just exercising one-ninth of their vote due to a fear that their second through ninth votes would work against their first vote.

Regards  —  Cliff

KMM said...

I'm happy you brought this up...having attended a meeting recently to discuss city elections I want to hear how people feel we can improve the process.
The first thing that needs some consideration is how does this city, or any community, encourage more participation in the process. Possibly the city has taken a first step by lowering the voting age to 17. By getting people involved at a young age they will likely continue to stay engaged. I think this should be the main focus of this disucssion...how do we encourage more people to be involved in local government.
We also need to look at why we lack a broader and more qualified group of candidates. My simplistic view of this is that most people just do not have the time. If you have a full-time job how would you possibly have time. This point was discussed at aforementioned meeting and maybe it is time for the city to consider things like compensation for councilors that would allow them to be more full-time than a few hours a week. Even something as simple as holding meetings at 8AM instead of 3 or 5 in the afternoon. Most people do not have the flexibility of walking out of their downtown office and over to city hall in the middle of the day to attend a meeting.
All-in-all the most important thing is to having this discussion about how we improve the process. Having an election oommission or task force is a great idea but I suggest the meetings might be on a Saturday or at some time when more people who are interested would be able to attend.