Our Daily Petitions

Via https://www.flickr.com/photos/lwvc/The right to petition is a key element of a democratic society, a fundamental tool by which we make our wishes known and require of our leaders that they listen. I think many of us retain the sense that our collective voice carries weight, as we should. In an enjoyable though perhaps apocryphal scene from the film Amazing Grace, advocates against the slave trade drag a massive scrolled petition into the halls of parliament and roll it out across the floor to emphasize their support. The politicians are suitably impressed.

Such is the ideal, at any rate; I think it somewhat tarnished now. Over the past decade the concept of a petition morphed from that ideal into little more than a social justice punch line. Internet petitions are created by the dozens, requiring almost no effort to build, market, manage, or deliver. As a user of social media with a fairly activist friend group, I see petitions in my feed at a usual rate of one per day or more.

I pay them very little attention, and I suspect they are given similarly little weight by their intended recipients. In economic terms, the petition supply now far exceeds the demand; their value has tanked.

I fear this bodes ill for the ideal of the petition, to which I wholly subscribe. I can imagine few citizens who would substantively disagree with the suggestion that our government ought to more honestly and attentively represent us. How then, when petitions may be generated and filled with little time and less thought, can we retain their value as a representation of our collective voice?

One requirement among many, I believe, is to apply petitions judiciously rather than haphazardly. Happily, the power to do so lies with we who sign them.

As most anyone who has signed an internet petition likely knows, your signature is quickly mined by other would-be petitioners, upon which a tsunami of petition requests floods your e-mail. “Ban herbicide that hurts endangered Whooping Cranes!” and “Shame on Indiana Gov. Pence for Signing Anti-LGBT Bill!” and “End part-time poverty at UPS!” are typical titles appearing in my e-mail and facebook feed. They are carefully crafted to arouse not my support, but my anger. That was when I started to get choosy. And so I started to read them closely. And that was a mistake (at least so far as retaining my faith in democracy was concerned).

It should have come as no surprise that the bottomless bounty of misinformation on the internet extends quite readily to the world of petitions. When employing a petition required mobilization of dozens or hundreds of people to speak individually to the public and collect their signatures for a particular issue, the petitioners had to have at least a basic familiarity with the topic. With the bar to the creation of a petition decreased, so too is the knowledge requirement about the subject. I can pretty reliably predict that the most irritating thing on Jon Stewart on Wednesday night will be a poorly worded petition in my inbox on Thursday morning.

While I am also irritated by things I hear about on Jon Stewart, I naively believe that one should rely on more than a single comedy skit as the source material for engaging an issue via the democratic process. One would, I hope, have done some baseline research on the topic to find out whether the issue is more complicated than it seems (spoiler: it is). One would also, I wish, have done a little checking to see if anyone is currently working on this and whether there is anything we can do to help them out (likely). One would not, if pursuing the ideal of petitioning, gotten frustrated and hammered a first draft of one’s frustration into a petition site (like The Petition Site) and then spammed your rage-gasm out to everyone on your friend lists, e-mail contacts, and twitter feeds.

But what are we to do when this flood of poorly conceived petitions appears demanding our attentions? I have a few suggestions to help you sort the chafe from the … well, mostly from the other chafe:

  1. Is it inflammatory? Delete it. I cannot imagine anyone responding anything but defensively to a letter that tells them to “stop pushing for a misguided and destructive project,” no matter how many people have signed it.
  2. Is it full of typos? Delete it. No one will take the time to read it seriously if the authors didn’t take time to read it themselves. In fact, many people respond quite badly.
  3. Did the author do their homework? If not, delete it. Finding this out will require a little research on your part, but if the petition argues one thing and the science or the facts of the case show otherwise, the petition is actually making things worse instead of better. The sources are a good indicator: if the only reference in the petition is The Daily Mail, it’s probably junk—at best.
  4. Does it have a clear target, and is the target someone who can actually make a decision about this thing? If not, delete it. Petitions addressed broadly are addressed to no one.
  5. Is this petition part of some other work? If not, delete it. Petitions can absolutely be valuable as evidence of public sentiment when there is an advocacy or stakeholder group maintaining pressure on the target, but a petition in a vacuum has no bite and not very much bark. Petitions work best when used in concert with other tools, not as the end strategy.

I have to warn you that this leaves very few petitions worth signing. But I see that as a good thing—in my view, the ideal of petitioning will only regain its value if and when we make the effort to clear out worthless knockoffs. So instead of devaluing your likes, shares, clicks, and signatures by attaching them to flashy nonsense, be choosy. Choose “delete.”

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