Tough as nails

There’s something I want to be honest about: I’m not tough as nails. I’ve cried three times in council meetings. Criticism stings. Nasty comments hurt. Gaslighting pushes me back. You don’t need to be tough to be an elected rep- we need more softness, more emotion, more humanity.

On July 21, I posted this to Twitter. It was roundly misunderstood. Many folks, including other politicians, responded about criticism they have and are receiving and the de-humanizing way that politicians are often treated, especially when they’re women or people from underrepresented communities. 

I received comments from people telling me that receiving criticism “is my job” (it’s not, but thanks for explaining my job to me) and basically that I’ve got to toughen up. Some other comments focused on ethics and common sense, without questioning who gets to define those concepts. 

What a lot of people seemed to miss is that this was not a complaint about criticism or bullying. Receiving criticism of policies is very different from personal criticism and I’ve received my share of both. I’ve had folks tell me that they don’t think I stood up strongly enough for housing before I was elected. I’ve recently had folks tell me they think I’m shoehorning housing into neighbourhoods that don’t want it. I’ve had comments about me dressing inappropriately (actually my favourite criticism ever – I will never apologize for bright colours or flowers in my hair), that I’m not nice enough, that I’m divisive, that I’m an idiot. I recently was told that I care more about my legacy than about reconciliation. 

As per my tweet, these criticisms do hurt. I’m somewhat hesitant to acknowledge this fact because it seems to give power to the people who say hurtful things simply to be hurtful. 

The reason why I say it now is because there’s a myth that politicians need to be tough to do this job. That we need thick skins. And this myth is part of the problem.

I was prompted to share this because a close friend told me recently that I come across as “tough as nails”. This isn’t how I feel. And it was an interesting contrast because a few days earlier I had cried in a council meeting. It was in camera (private) so it’s not available to the public, but what I can tell you is that my throat closed up and I lost the ability to articulate. I talked about trauma I have experienced because of my identity in front of my colleagues and some senior staff. I made visible my trauma to try to communicate how seriously I took the issue at hand. 

I’m not proud of crying. I don’t think it was effective and I don’t believe people should have to disclose trauma to get their points across. But I’m also not ashamed. 

The point of my tweet is that when we tell people that they have to be tough in politics, we push out a lot of people with soft hearts. People with compassion. People with valuable lived experience and perspectives. People who have experienced oppression and who have cracks in their protective outer shell as a result.  And it’s a way to maintain the status quo and allow those in power to hold onto power.

I once was on a panel with another politician who told a group of mostly young, mostly racialized activists that you have to be tough to be in politics and that it’s “worse than House of Cards”. What did that person intend for that group of idealistic activists and future politicians to take from their comments? Who did they discourage and who did they encourage with those words? 

People don’t need to be tough to be in politics – I truly don’t believe that’s what we as a community want. Here’s what I want: people who represent our communities, who have the capacity to understand the complexity and interwovenness of different aspects of people’s lives. That transit policy is housing policy is equity policy is community-building policy. People who care deeply, who feel, who have empathy and compassion. People who can recognize which members of our community are being forgotten in our policy work and have ideas of how to address that. 

I won’t give up my softness. You may see it continue to leak out of me whether I want it to or not. You can disagree with me on policy and call me names. But I’m a feeling human being who cares and I refuse to believe that I should be any different. 

Post script: 

It feels important to note that I firmly reject the politics of civility. The politics of civility dictates how people talk, criticize, protest, and take action. It centres the comfort of those who are comfortable and is a white supremacist, classist, patriarchal, ableist, and colonial concept. An example of the politics of civility is Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem being criticized as the wrong time and venue to protest a very real and deadly issue for people in his community. 

The politics of civility prioritizes politeness over justice and tells marginalized people that if they just speak nicely (defined by whom?), protest the right way (what’s the right way?), and go through the proper channels (created by and for whom?) then the powerful will listen. It’s used as an excuse to dismiss real and critical issues rather than addressing them. 

Let’s be careful what and whom we’re advocating for when we push for civil discourse in the political arena. Who will and always has benefited from this concept?

If you’ve made it this far, feel free to enjoy the photo that prompted someone to complain to council that I lacked decorum. Doesn’t matter, I’m obviously feeling pretty shiny in my polka dot dress.