Mehta: What does silent majority think?

Michael Mehta / Kamloops Daily News
December 12, 2012 01:00 AM

There's nothing more delicious than the so-called "silent majority." This concept can make developers salivate at the opportunities before them, and can inspire dreams of a world where real opposition is easily labeled as minority perspective, a NIMBY response, or worse yet "something from the left."

If you want to silence a good debate, personalize it, politicize it and question the motives or social standing of opponents. These are tried and tested approaches.

When it comes to the proposed Ajax Mine, some have made the mistaken assumption that only a few radicals, educators, students, mobilized physicians and raging grandparents are opposed and that the "silent majority" support it.

Sadly, the Ajax Mine proposal has pitted Kamloops against itself by creating tension between the resource-based history and economy of the region and the knowledge economy and tourism-tournament economy that have co-existed for many years.

What is this "silent majority" and why should we care about it? There's little doubt that participation in the political process is at an all-time low. Data from Elections Canada shows that the percentage of eligible voters who vote in federal elections has declined from a high of 73 per cent in 1867 to around 60 per cent in more recent election cycles.

In British Columbia, only 51 per cent of eligible voters participated in the last provincial election and the recent municipal election in Kamloops attracted 29.75 per cent of us. Clearly, the "silent majority" has decided to remain silent by not exercising democratic rights and responsibilities and this is especially acute at the local level. When we don't vote or make our views known on key community issues like the Ajax Mine, we allow proponents and supporters of a development initiative to make the claim that silence indicates support. In other word, they can fill the vacuum with any interpretation they wish.

Another problem with such an approach is that it presumes uniformity of opinion where it may in fact not exist.

Silence can mean many things including support but it could also mean disengagement, reflect a sense of resignation or powerlessness, or perhaps result from real confusion and the need for more information.

Proponents of projects like the Ajax Mine likely realize that a slow and systematic release of information will maximize the size of the "silent majority.

The silence is deafening Kamloops because too many are being passive on this key issue.

A sustainable and mature democracy requires input from many, and while the majority of us will likely remain silent, let us never make the false assumption that silence indicates approval or support for anything.

Many of us learned this lesson as children because silence from our parents was usually a bad sign.

It's time for the "silent majority" to speak up and take the personal and professional risks that others have by working collectively on this issue.

Dr. Michael Mehta is a sociologist who focuses on environmental and risk-to-health issues.

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