Wednesday, July 08, 2020

The Same Old? The Morass of Canadian Conservatism

In the wake of the 2015 election and Andrew Sheer's inability to gain any traction with the Canadian public, Canadian conservatism has been in a tail spin. That spin has continued through Covid-19 as the federal Conservatives attempt to find some principled opposition to federal policy that also does not make them look completely insensitive to the desperate needs of ordinary Canadians. This problem has been complicated by the fact that their provincial allies have been working closely with the federal government and supporting (more-or-less) the same policies. Provincial conservatives in Canada (PCs, Sask Party, CAQ, UCPs) have also recognized that they cannot politicize the pandemic in a manner similar to what has happened in the US.  This means that the normal federal/provincial bickering has been shelved and given the federal Tories little ammunition to suggest that there is serious disagreement with the course on which the federal Liberals have set the country.

So ... where are federal Conservatives in Canada?  What is the state of Canadian conservatism? How have conservatives responded to Covid-19? Will they try to draw on a soft alt.right basis of support, the politics of discontented exaggeration that I noted in my last blog? What are the Conservative's options? 

In this blog I want to argue that the Conservatives (and their intellectual allies) have done things wrong. To be sure, they had a tough road to hoe. I will address that. But, they are also missing an opportunity to redefine conservatism in Canada and a potentially vital political program that offers an alternative to liberalism. The NDP is actually working hard on this from the left-wing of the political spectrum. They may succeed, or they may fail, but they are, at least, working to redefine what a progressive left-wing politics means as a political program that can be implemented. So far the Conservatives seem to have done little more than squander their opportunities. Let me start by asking why this matters and then turn to some first steps conservatives need to take. 

Why Conservatism Matters

I often feel compelled to note somewhere in blogs I write that I am not a liberal nor a member of the Liberal Party. I do that because conservatively minded people I know periodically say I am one and that, in their minds, provides a way to dismiss my comments. I think it is fairly evident that I'm not a conservative and I have little interest in nor support for the trajectory of the Conservative Party of Canada. I have also been deeply troubled by the New Brunswick PCs and their adoption of a soft anti-bilingualism as well as their support for hydro-fracking and I find some of the comments made, over the years, by Jason Kenney and Doug Ford, among others, odious. The decision of Kenney and Scott Moe, for instance, to double down on fossil fuel is, in my view, not just bad policy but shockingly short sighted. In even the short term, this approach -- and effort to force the feds to support a dying industry and coerce other provinces to do the same -- even hurts their own provinces. It looks to squeeze that last few dollars it can out of an industry that is past its best before date, as opposed to providing sound leadership to take their provinces into the future. Let me make this clear: I don't like these people and I don't like them -- much less Stephen Harper -- for a bunch of reasons that relates to what I will argue are clear and manifest policy failures. 

I still want to argue that conservatism matters both as an ideology and a political force and that is, I fully recognize, a tough argument to make. It is a tough argument to make because conservatives have not made it easy to argue that they should matter. I don't want to engage in nostalgia, but there was a time when politically and ideologically conservatism meant something in Canada and, most particularly, it meant a different way of seeing the country.  There were a lot of problems with that way. Canadian conservatism and the Conservative Party (which went by a number of names) was deeply implicated in colonialism. Its members were often xenophobic and it dragged its heals on a host of measure from LGBTQi+ equality, to women's right to control their bodies, to bilingualism. We cannot neglect these considerations because they are part of the history of Canadian conservatism and they part of the shadow from which Canadian conservatism needs to emerge. 

And, this is my key point. Conservatism cannot be simply the defense of the way things used to be. Whether it was a success or a failure, the kind of thinking that historically people like George Grant or Joe Clark did about conservatism and what it entails has been lacking. One might end up disagreeing with, say, Clark's "community of communities" or Grant's "public good" and rural organic society, but the important point is that they signified something other than opposition to the liberal policies of their day and a desire to freeze time. What does, for instance, social conservatism mean? It has come to mean opposition to LGBTQi+ equality and women's control over their bodies. Quite frankly, this is not social conservatism in the sense that it does not offer a vision of what a socially conservative society looks like other than rejecting the rights of different Canadians to control their lives, be equal in employment, make decisions about their own bodies, and not have to hide who they are. This type of perspective makes conservatism a small tent: it begins its entry into public discourse by rejecting the rights of others and this is a point on which it will not win ground because it is (a) wrong and intensely problematic from an ethical perspective and (b) stakes out a political and social space that the vast majority of Canadians cannot accept.  What it means is that to win election, conservatives have to convince Canadians that they, in fact, are not who they are claiming to me be or that other issues (say, the economy) outweigh the negative aspects of their politics. 

This matters not because I want conservatives to win or even agree with what they say. It matters for two reasons. First, on a simple level, because it shrinks the Canadian political spectrum.  There may be good reason for this and that can be a discussion for another day, but the failure of alternative political perspectives ultimately means that what we have as Canadians is a more limited choice of political futures. In effect, what the CPC offers Canadians is not a different vision of the future, but a less equal, less generous, less humane version of what the Liberals are putting on the table.  Second, and following from that, the morass into which Canadian conservatism has fallen legitimizes perspectives that never should have been legitimized. For instance, it tells people who oppose equality that they are not opposing equality (that is, being, quite frankly, bigoted) but guardians of an important ideology: social conservatism.  With regard to, say, opposition to Indigenous rights, it tells people that there is *no* conservative way to build positive relations between First Peoples and Canadians and that Canadians are legitimate in rejecting reconciliation as a meaningful goal for their country. Are these really messages we want to send? 

The Tough Road

Canadian conservatism entered this year in a mess. It was in a mess before Covid-19 and the pandemic has not been kind to it.  CPC leadership contender Peter MacKay called the 2019 election loss the equivalent of taking a shot on an empty net and missing. That is not 100% accurate but the metaphor captures some of the situation. In 2019, the CPC seemed to have the cards set in its favour. It had experienced candidates, they were facing a weak PM who had back-tracked on key issues, broad provincial discontent with the federal Liberals, disaffection among a significant section of the Canadian population, and what appeared to be little competition for Canadian votes form the NDP and BQ. Said in other words, the CPC could have done what opposition parties want to do: gain power by providing an alternative to the government that speaks to Canadians. 

This perception disguised a deeper level of malaise. Canadians never warmed to Sheer, the first past the post political system worked in the Liberals favour (and there is some irony in this in that CPC fought so hard to maintain it), and the CPC's association with some provincial conservatives became a liability.  Canadian conservatism appeared internally divided, hypocritical, and reactionary.  Sheer and his supporters seemed to have little direction and seemed to be trapped in their own base of support. They offered Canadians not a different future but a recycled version of a past that most Canadians had already rejected. 

For Canadian conservatives, there were other warning signs that they should have read and these are some of the things that conservatives will need to jettison if they want to provide a real alternative to the governing Liberals. First, disaffection with Trudeau was odd and gendered. The anti-Trudeau cohort and symbolism (particularly but not exclusively the gun lobby, big oil, and the carbon copy "yellow vests"), were the kind of votes the CPC felt they needed but also the kind of voices that sound good only in an echo chamber. The idea that the solution to Canada's problems lay in a dying carbon-based energy industry was simply difficult for Canadians outside Alberta and Saskatchewan to believe and should have been difficult for conservatives in those provinces to believe as well. 

Second, conservative parties have been colonized by the very industries that they have to regulate if they are in government. In particular, the Saskatchewan Party and the United Conservative Party often appear as little more than fanboys for the oil and gas industry. What if you have legitimate environmental concerns? The conservative answer is that the economy is more important and so you need to hold your nose and vote for them. When pressed on this issue on the news one day, I listened to a conservative commentator trot out Brian Mulroney era policies to explain since the feds had once done something for Quebec, they needed now to support oil and gas in Alberta and Saskatchewan come what may. Hard feelings die hard. It is true, but as I listened to him I wondered how many people in the audience actually knew about something that happened 25 or 30 years ago? What is more, this commentator missed a chance to do something profound. Instead of fanning regional discontent (which was what he did), he could have offered alternatives to address the economic problems of those provinces. For whatever reason, he chose not to. 

Finally, the conservatives need to get recognize that they need more than an election issue to win. In the absence of doing the hard work of figuring out what conservatism means in 21st-century Canada, conservative commentators and political figures have moved through Covid-19 as if they were ready to form a government. They might be, but it won't be a good government. They have desperately searched for an issue and settled on the idea that their route to electoral victory rests in trying to portray Justin Trudeau as "unaccountable." I expect this line of attack will continue and perhaps even accelerate with some comments built in about the need to control budget deficits. Why do conservatives need to ditch this line of attack? Because it is sound bite politics that cannot provide the basis for reasoned public discourse. 

The Bad News

The bad news for conservatives is that their intense dislike of Justin Trudeau keeps them focused on slagging him. Trudeau symbolizes everything conservatives hate, much in the manner that Hillary Clinton symbolized everything the American alt.right despised. But they need to get their attention off him. Will they? I honestly don't know but if I were advising CPC leadership contenders, this is what I would be telling them. 

Monday, July 06, 2020

The Politics of Exaggeration: Is Freedom at Risk?

There are many things wrong with Canada. Anyone who has been listening at all to the world wide Black Lives Matter protests triggered by the death of George Floyd knows this.  It is something that we already knew, or should have known if we did not. And, we now cannot turn away from that knowledge or qualify it or mitigate it. I say that because I don't think I should speak to it. There are other people far better equipped and far better positioned than I to comment on BLM and so I will leave them to do that and respect and support what they have to say. 

I want to speak to a different kind of protest and a different kind of Canada: a simmering, largely male, copy-cat alt.right movement that looks to fault Justin Trudeau for everything. This movement comes in various forms, some of which are simply annoying in their inaccurate understanding of Canada. Others seem decidedly more militant. All aspects of this movement are concerning, although I will be arguing, for different reasons. It is this simmering movement of sort that this blog is devoted. I have a clear thesis: this alt.right politics of discontent is empirically inaccurate in its assessment of Canada. They clearly feel something of their Canada is under threat and they have latched on to Trudeau (among others) as the key architect of that threat. But, their concept of the problems they confront is in error and it is that very error that, I will suggest, tells us something important about their politics. 

Here is an example that hit home to me. The other day I was listening to CBC News in advance of the opening of the "Atlantic Bubble" and the host was engaged in one of those "man on the street" interviews with an "ordinary person" who was complaining that he had not gotten to go to his cottage so far this summer even though he clearly did not have  Covid-19 and lived very close to the NB border.  He began his discussion in a polite, sounded completely reasonable, way and recognized that there was an unusual situation but then began to deploy an exaggerated language about the supposed threat of Covid-19 restrictions. This was, he said, an impingement on his freedom. His freedom, he said, had been taken away.

What is important here is that this individual's freedom was not under threat. In fact, there were virtually no differences in his life as a Canadian citizen -- in terms of the rights he enjoyed -- before and after Covid-19. And, as it has turned out. what restrictions there were are turning out to be both temporary and effective in controlling a deadly disease to the extent that it can be controlled. What do I mean? 

First, there is no doubt that freedom is one condition of democracy but that freedom is always bounded. Every legitimate political theory that there is imposes limit on freedom. In a liberal democracy like Canada those limits are supposed to be far broader than in non-democratic societies, but they exist and we all recognize and support that fact. This is the basis of the one cannot "yell fire in a crowded building" (allowing that there is no fire) aphorism. The point is this: one cannot use one's freedom to needlessly endanger the lives of other people. One's freedom stops, another aphorism goes, at the point that it impinges on someone else's. Neither you, I, nor anyone else can use our freedom to commit a crime (my freedom does not allow me to rob a bank or walk into my neighbour's house and take her TV).  So, we need freedom for democracy, no doubt and to be sure, but we also know that freedom does not mean that one can do anything anytime one wants, particularly if the exercise of freedom brings harm to others (because that would hamper their freedom). 

There are other limits to freedom that I have mentioned over the years but you get the point. This is a light burden. We all accept these limits because they provide the basis for a good society and, in fact, protect us. When someone asks "why can't I steal my neighbour's TV if that is my exercise of freedom?", the answer is: the same thing that stops your neighbour from stealing your TV. The same thing that is supposed to ensure that the food you buy or the medicine your kids take is safe or that prevents someone from parking on your front lawn.  The good news is that the vast majority of us don't want to do these things and so the idea that this is some serious limit on our freedom (as opposed to a matter of, say, the rule of law) never enters into our calculation. To ensure the safe exercise of our freedom, we give up something that we were never going to use anyway (in my example, the right to commit a crime or harm someone else for no reason other than my own gratification). 

Second, we also all recognize that freedom can and should be limited in emergency situations. Emergency situations are, by definition, temporary. You might recall that that was one of the problems a lot of people had with the so-called "war on terror": it appeared to be never-ending and so temporary limits were extended into some future time without a clear end. Covid-19 is obviously a key example of an emergency situation, but there are others (ice storms and hurricanes; threats to national security; crimes in progress; fires). In all these instances, and I use them as examples, we as citizens cede authority to the state or institutions it designates (paramedics, fire fighters, police officers, etc.), in order to address that emergency situation. We do that because as a society we have determined that addressing that emergency situation  -- which often involves saving someone's life -- is important and because, again, the burden is light. The police officer who stops me from driving down a road because there is a crime in progress is, indeed, limiting my freedom but she is doing so in the name of someone else's (or, say, my) life. In this example, as soon as the way is clear (the crime is over), I can drive down the road again in an hour or a few or the next day. 

With these points in mind, let's think about the claim that restrictions on travel to cottages posed a threat to freedom. On the one hand, mobility was limited and I will come back to that. On the other hand, what bad happened? A whole series of other freedoms were not limited. For instance, legislatures and Parliament continued to meet, albeit in changed circumstances. Freedom of the press, speech, and protest were not limited. Freedom of assembly was curtailed but not eliminated: one could assemble, for instance, virtually and in small groups provided that social distancing was followed. No one lost their property (the status of which as a "right" in Canada is not clear); the rule of law was not suspended (so police could not just show up and drag people away). The right to equality and worship was not abridged.  One could, in other words, continue to say what one wanted (within the framework of the law), worship as one wanted, think what one wanted, live in one's house, drive to the store, buy things, watch whatever one wanted on TV, write blogs, etc. 

I don't mean to say that things were normal so don't hear what I am not saying. What I mean to say is that the entire infrastructure of freedom  (equality, rule of law, free speech, conscience, protest) continued to exist. There was no change to these things. No new censorship was introduced; no new laws were created that allowed for legalized bigotry; due process was not suspended and one could go down the list. And, this was done, in the midst of the global pandemic. 

Let me pause here to say that I am not writing in support of the federal Liberals' management of the pandemic. That is not my aim. We can and should think of provinces, territories, and municipalities, as well as the federal government. I am talking about an unusual convergence on the part of a range of political parties that worked together to address a national emergency. In NB, for instance, members of at least three different political parties supported emergency measures. This is not, then, a JT fanboy post. 

Where, then, is the loss of freedom? If we acknowledge that things changed -- parents were more responsible for the education of their kids, people lost jobs, people had to work from home, etc. -- there were significant changes that affected people's lives and we do need to reflect on these. But, in terms of the infrastructure of freedom -- in terms of those things that make for liberal democracy -- shockingly little changed.  In fact, in the case of this individual, the threat to his freedom lay in this and this alone. He had to argue that a late start to his vacation constituted a threat to freedom. I don't mean to minimize the hard work that went on. Indeed, it is what I going to say next. To make their case, this individual has to argue not only that a late start to their vacation by itself (since no other rights were affected or affected in only a minimal temporary way) posed a threat to freedom. Does that seem like a serious threat to you? Does it seem like a serious threat when weighed against the potential harm -- say to someone's life -- that could be caused? 

I argue not, but someone now might ask: why talk about this? After all, someone might say, this is just a guy who wanted to get to his cottage; not a political theorist. That is true. Except ... I select this example because it seems to me to point to something that is important: the politics of exaggeration and its link to an alt.right politics of discontent. In my next blog I will try to argue that the alt.right in Canada is different than in the US.  But, one of the things that is not different is that it is fueled by discontent and exaggeration and misapprehension. Exactly how a late start to a summer vacation in the midst of a global pandemic becomes a threat to freedom in a functioning liberal democracy is not clear. Nor, should it be. Quite simply, there was a reasonable and temporary restriction of some -- not all -- forms of mobility in the name of protecting lives. 

This is, I will argue in my next blog, one of the characteristics of the alt.right in Canada. It works through a politics of exaggeration and points to threats that do not exist. It attempts, in other words, to convince us of things that are manifestly and demonstrably untrue. It sees, in this case, temporary inconvenience in the face of an emergency as a threat to fundamental freedoms. A late start to a vacation is a drag, but it is not a threat to democracy. 

Should the journalist have called the "man on the street" on this point? Initially I thought they should but I now thing a different approach is needed.  Exactly what that will be, will be a matter I address later too. 

Monday, June 22, 2020

Rethinking Teaching: Trigger Warnings (Part II)

Trigger warnings are warnings (alerts) given by faculty to students. They indicate that potentially disturbing material will be addressed in future lessons. They are easy to implement and don't take a great deal of time, but serve to create a higher level of transparency in teaching. In my last blog I argued that a standard critique of trigger warnings -- that they are, in effect, caving in to too-sensitive "snowflakes" -- missed the pedagogical mark and was, in fact, more a form of politics disconnected to teaching practices than anything else.

At this point, someone might say "Ok, sure, I can give a trigger warning. But, aren't they about so much more than that? Aren't they about letting students opt out of difficult subjects or about policing language or about alternative assignments?" This is a good question because it alerts us to the fact that there are implications to designing courses. Said differently, there are considerations that we need to build into what and how we teach. I will argue that it is easier to build these considerations in on the front end of course development than to try to gerry-rig something on the back end. 

Let me be clear about my point: I see nothing wrong with the range of instructional practices that follow from trigger warnings. Why? Because without them, the trigger warnings run the risk of becoming meaningless. They become simply words that one says. From a teaching perspective, this is the equivalent of saying something like "here is a problem and I want to alert you to it, but I will not do anything about it other than tell you that there is a problem." Let me be clear: I don't think warnings are meaningless. I think that they do help students get ready for difficult material. (Or, even for material that is not difficult. I often let students know in advance what they will be addressing in future lessons.) But, I also think we should take the next step and pro-actively consider the practices that can give meaning to trigger warnings.  

If you disagree with me (which is fair enough) let me begin with a question: what is wrong with this range of teaching practices (alternative assignments, changes in language use, etc.) associated with trigger warnings? When I talk to people who don't like them, they paint their adoption in stark terms. They suggest that there is something horribly wrong with a student missing a class or completing an alternative assignment or with some modifications to the language we use and within which we teach. I think we need to ask: is there something horribly wrong with this? What bad actually happens if students have, say, alternative assignments? Or, with faculty providing information on resources for students who need counselling? Or, with modifying our language? What bad actually happens in terms of teaching and learning? 

"What are you going to do next?" someone might now say "let students design the course?" 

Well ... no. I'll leave off student involvement in course design for another day because I think that  can be a good pedagogical tool, but let's take alternative assignments as an example that can illustrate the broader trends. The point of alternative assignments is not to let students do whatever they want but, in fact, precisely the opposite. The instructor is still designing the assignment. It is just that students are given a range of different assignments that allow them slightly different pathways through course material. I think most instructors run into problems with this because the request for alternative assignments seems to "pop up" and so they are caught off guard in the middle of a course. 

But we shouldn't be and this is an important point. The fact that there are deeply disturbing and traumatizing elements to, say, teaching about residential schools should not shock anyone who is actually teaching about them. If you are teaching about Indigenous issues are not aware of, say, intergenerational trauma, you need to pause and reconstruct your course materials. If you are teaching novels with graphic descriptions of violence or racism or works that might, say, present LGBTQi+ as "perverts," you should be aware, from the beginning of your course, that there will be students who find this material troubling and disturbing and that it will affect students differently depending on their lived experiences. Instead of asking "why should I have to design alternative assignments?" the more pressing question should be "why did I not think of this before I began teaching this subject?" 

This is a mea culpa. I'm not looking to fault anyone here but I am looking to provide what strikes me as sound teaching advise: begin from the beginning. If you are teaching in subject areas that you know involve difficult and disturbing materials, build that consideration into your course design. This allows the instructor to retain control over assignment design (if this is a matter of concern to you) while simultaneously building a more inclusive pedagogy that addresses the diversity of our student bodies. Said differently, alternative assignments are ways of meeting students where they are, of teaching them difficult subjects, and working with them in a way that builds a strong pedagogical relationship that is, after all, what we are all about? 

I won't belabour my the other points (although I might return to them in future blogs) because you can see where I am going. My interest lies in pedagogies that promote learning and judged in that way, I think we can accept and design alternative assignments, encourage guidelines on the use of language, include information on counselling, provide alternative resources to address a subject matter, and a range of other practices that give substance to the trigger warning. 

Here are a few practical steps we can take.

  • Provide students with diverse trigger warnings. Particularly now, as we make use of different "delivery" modes for teaching, we are becoming more attuned to the fact that using a range of media can help teaching. Trigger warnings can be included on a syllabus, a web page, a recorded lecture, a voiced-over powerpoints. This provides multiple access points for students to the warning. 
  • With your course materials provide a list or resources (in effect contact information) for students who may have trouble with material. Don't try to solve problems of trauma yourself. Direct students to the resources on you campus or in your community. 
    • You likely should, btw, check into these resources in advance yourself. Give a quick call to your universities counselling services to ask what resources they provide. 
  • Provide a mechanism for students to raise their concerns with you. It could be a meeting, a virtual interchange, or e-mail but provide some dedicated space for students to indicate their potential problems.
  • If your course addresses disturbing subject or language, address that as a pedagogical matter early in the course (perhaps even, say, second or third day). You can do this in the abstract. For instance, I ask students to think about how they feel about having me, a white Settler Canadian, teach about Indigenous issues: do they see any potential pitfalls?  Would they recommend any particular strategies to address those?
    • Build in diverse voices where you can. Guest speakers, videos, artwork, discussions, poetry, painting, and the like all provide mechanisms through which students can gain by listening to different voices. 
  • Build alternative assignments in advance. Just as an example, a student who cannot write a short paper on residential schools might be asked to read look at other issues (say, compensation, land use, environmental protection, artwork). They key is that this is ready to go. 
One of the interesting things about this level of pedagogy is that I find it often helps me think more clearly about what it is that I want students to learn and why. And, no good assignment need go unused. If there is no need for an alternative assignment, you can use it in the course the next time you teach. 

What if a student indicates to you that they need to miss a class or not address a subject? This is trickier because your plan for a course might rest on a certain progression through material. I do understand that and I have never actually encountered this situation or, if I have, the students involved did not feel comfortable enough to discuss the matter with me (which is completely fair) and simply absented themselves from the class. 

My recommendation, then, comes from a place of theory as opposed to practice and someone might correct me.  If a student indicate this to you, I'd suggest that you acknowledge the legitimacy of their concerns and indicate that you respect them. I'd suggest as well, that you explain the importance of the unit, or lecture, or text within the framework of the course without going into details.  IOW, give the students the most information that you can about course development. Then, with the student, suggest a different approach to the material or other material. For example, one might exempt a student from, say, reading a certain poem but a different poem (perhaps with a written response) would be useful. A student might miss a lecture but you might be able to point them to a video or a on-line source. 

Both of these approaches require that as instructors we think about our goals: what is it that I am trying to accomplish with this lecture, the reading of this poem, this assignment, etc.? If we make that the first step, I am convinced that adaptions are possible, ethical, and do not disrupt teaching. 

Friday, June 19, 2020

Rethinking Teaching: Trigger Warnings (Part I)

What good are trigger warnings and why bother to discuss them now? I think this is an opportune time to address some of the basics of higher level teaching. I'll make just a couple of comments about Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter. First, the idea that there are more important things to discuss than trigger warnings is true. Covid-19 with all its implications is one of them. The dramatic and important rise of anti-racist activism is another. I'm not blogging about these things because there are better people than I to comment on them. I'll leave that truth there. I support Black Lives Matter and it is because I support it that I -- as a self-identifying white man -- want to listen to what others have to say instead of trying to put my views on the table. Second, I will try to offer a thought or two about Covid-19 and BLM another day with regard to its impact on American republicanism. But, enough people are doing that already and so jumping into a crowded field and competing for space is not going really advance any consideration of that issue and so I'll leave it of for a bit. 

We can and should discuss pedagogy because we have an opportunity to do so. The changes forced on higher education by Covid-19 allow us to revisit the way we teach and the ideals and values that animate our teaching. They allow us to think about what makes for good and effective teaching in a more concerted way. My goal is to try to engage a serious points relating to pedagogy over a series of blogs and I thought I'd begin with a matter that has become controversial for reasons that, I will confess, are not entirely clear to me, at least from an educational perspective: trigger warnings.

I support trigger warnings and I have, without actually using that term, been providing them for years. It seemed only proper. In fact, I was surprised to discover that there could be some debate about them because just about everyone else I knew treated them as an ordinary -- and non-controversial aspect -- of their role as a post-secondary instructor and as one of the bases of effective instruction. 

Trigger warnings are warnings (alerts) given by faculty to their students in advance of engaging subject matter that might cause some form of trauma or mental distress. For example, if one were going to address a subject that might create a situation where a victim of, say, some sort of violent act, had to mentally relive that violence. Trigger warnings, as I understand them and practice them, involve something more than a mild concern with course materials. I might be annoyed, for instance, by a particular aesthetic style because it does not appeal to me or because I find it kitsch-y, but that is something different than having to relive a deeply violent situation. Trigger warnings might be given for things like depictions of violence, or when students will encounter racist, sexist, or homophobic language. 

The argument against trigger warnings is, in fact, multiple and -- without supporting these arguments because I will argue against them -- there are a couple of points that do require some attention, along with some that don't make much pedagogical sense.  The arguments against trigger warning are that most things are disturbing in one way or another. This is particularly true in post-secondary educational environments where we necessarily address mature, controversial, and disturbing issues. Nothing is gained, or so the argument runs, by coddling university students.  The most extreme versions of this argument become deeply politicized: trigger warnings are presented as little more than a-historical efforts to police language in ways that protect the sensitive feelings of "snowflakes." There is a need, for instance, in viewing films to work with the original language of that film, the original images in it, however disturbing these might be. We should not, so this argument runs, strip works of their original language or engage in acts of self-censorship because of misplaced concerns about propriety. 

In my view, these arguments don't hold up well and, in some cases, completely miss their mark and end up addressing other matters that are not pertinent to the discussion. How so?

The first key point I would make is that trigger warnings do not distract from what is being taught. They don't prevent me, say, from showing, say, The Barbarians Invasions. What they ask of me is relatively modest: that I alert the students in my class to the fact that this film is going to be disturbing and perhaps to provide some overview of that disturbing character. In my view, and I could be wrong about this so feel free to let me know, I don't see anything wrong with letting students know what is coming. I do it for all matters of other things as a ordinary element of my teaching. I let students know when we are discussing the constitution and that this discussion (along with the reading and assignments) will require certain things of them (in this case, for instance, the exploration of a legalized language with which they might not be familiar). I do that to aid my teaching. Why would I do something less -- or, more to my point, stop doing the same thing -- when it comes to disturbing images.  As an instructor, I focus on the idea that I got into this gig to teach. Why would I not use a tool that would aid in my teaching? Why would I not use an easily implementable tool that takes little time if it could improve student engagement with the subject at hand and create a better teaching environment? 

Here is where I think the objectives of teaching have been lost in a politicized discourse. The idea that supposed "snowflakes" (not my term) are the problem misses the point for anyone who has taught. The goal of teaching is to teach. The critique of "snowflakes" is a matter of politicized rhetoric that engages none of the key elements of post-secondary instruction. Instead, it dismisses a potentially useful educational tool for political reasons. As an instructor, I'm not at all certain that that is a good ground on which to make decisions about teaching. 

At this point, when I talk to others about trigger warnings, someone usually says something like, "OK, true, but trigger warnings are not just warnings. They are about all kinds of other things: creating safe spaces, providing mental health resources, designing alternative assignments, and the like. And," whomever is speaking usually continues, "you still haven't addressed the point about the disturbing character of the world and whether or not we should shelter students from it." 

I am going to come back to the other points (alternative assignments, resources, etc.) in a second blog on this subject because they are important matters and I want to address them. I want  to close of my first part of this discussion with the last point: the disturbing character of the world. 

I am aware of this argument, as I think we all are. If we want proof of the disturbing character of the world, it seems to be right in front of us on our TVs every day as we watch protests, and killings, and the spread of disease. But, I might ask two things:

  1. Is this all there is the the world? Is the world simply disturbing and, even if it is, is that what it should be? 
  2. Are our students actually unaware of the disturbing quality of the world? 

Let me start with the second point first.  My answer is this: I don't think so. I think that students who have suffered from racism or homophobia or gendered violence are well aware of how dark and disturbing the world is. In fact, they are likely far more aware of the problems of the world than I am. I don't, in fact, think they are trying to hide from the world and the suggestion that they are -- I'll return to this point in my next blog -- disguises their intentions. I think they are looking for ways to engage the world that does not promote re-traumatization. I think they are saying "hey, we should be careful and polite in the use of our language." I think they are saying "we need to take steps to ensure that we don't replicate racism or intolerance." I might agree with any given point a proponent of trigger warnings is making or I might not. That can be a matter for further conversation. What I don't doubt is their commitment to addressing the problems that created trauma in the first place or their knowledge of it. 

This strikes me as particularly important to acknowledge when dealing with situations where individuals who have suffered from racism, or sexism, or homophobia, etc., are speaking about issues to which they have direct experience but, say, the instructor does not. As a heterosexual male I have never suffered from homophobia. I am not at all certain that I should claim the right to define what should, or should not, trouble people who have. I am not at all certain that I should say, to, say a victim of a racism that I have never experienced that they should accept my use of slur terms because the world is tough. Who am I to define what is, and is not, tough for that person? Or, equally importantly, what could, or could not, be an effective response for them? 

And, herein lies one of the key problems with this level response: the idea that people who have not experienced racism or violence or sexism should claim the right to tell those who have that they should, in effect, "suck it up," is not a pedagogical position. It is not predicated on any theory of effective education.  What good does this view serve? How does it advance education? The statement that "the world is disturbing" is not a reason to continue to be disturbing and does not provide rationale for ignoring simple and easy responses (trigger warnings) that could advance the pedagogical enterprise. 

I also think that using racist terms in class or showing deeply sexist representations and claiming that one is only holding a mirror up to the world is problematic for another reason. This is, for me, a matter of faith, but I think it is one that I could support if called upon to do so. I don't think the world is all pain and all suffering and just disturbing. Even in the most difficult moments, people find reasons to hope. Even in the most trying circumstances people seek to build connections with each other across gender, ethnic, linguistic, identity divisions. They seek to promote what is right in the world and to neglect that by saying that the world is disturbing or mean or tough is to neglect the complexity and nuance of human behaviours and the diversity of humanity. 

In teaching, the question we ask our selves is this: on what assumptions do I build my pedagogy? Should I begin from the assumption that the world is simply disturbing and use that as a rationale to replicate its disturbing elements. Or, should I assume nuance and complexity and diversity and mixed motives and try to illustrate what an inclusive and positive response to the deeply disturbing elements of contemporary life might be by illustrating that I care about my students whether or not I share there experiences. Trigger warnings are not a panacea. They do not solve all problems. But, I chose to build my pedagogy on this latter perspective and to try to model that behaviour. I will undoubtedly not succeed. But, I'd rather not succeed caring about my students than not. 

Monday, February 17, 2020

Privilege and Protest: The Politics of Words

At least according to CBC's Power and Politics tweet, Andrew Sheer said this:

“These protesters, these activists may have the luxury of spending days at a time on a blockade, but they need to check their privilege,” said @AndrewScheer. “They need to check their privilege and let people whose job depends on the railway their jobs.”

This is a disturbing quote, made more disturbing, for me, by the fact that it is not the first time I have heard this. There is, I've tried to argue, a problem -- an antinomy -- that lies at the heart of middle-class progressive politics, but no one should mistake this perspective for support for a more conservative position or for anything that Sheer might have said. Indeed, the politics of Sheer's quote is intended to do precisely the opposite of the comments I was trying to make. Here, Sheer is trying to call the wave of protests across Canada in support of Indigenous rights into question. He is trying to suggest that the protesters are somehow not authentic, that they are the modern equivalent of tenured radicals, and that they are not "people" who work but more or less wealthy lay abouts disconnected from the working world.

I'd be concerned about any general statement of this sort because it makes a pretension to knowledge that its speaker (whoever it might be) simply cannot have. In this case Sheer simply cannot know about the people on the protest lines. He can make some assumptions but he does not present his argument like that. He presents what he says as truth unadulterated. And, this is the first problem with this type of statement: its issues a truth claim that its speaker knows from the beginning he cannot confirm and so in its own way, it is dishonest.  But, there are some more problems with this and because I have heard these kinds of statements before, let me highlight a few of them. My aim, I want to say, is not to reject or push away people making these statements. Instead, I seek to engage them and ask them to be engaged and contribute to a new type of politics.

The second problem with this argument -- which may not apply to others -- is its hypocrisy. Sheer is as close to a person of privilege as you are going to get. His downfall as Tory leader was likely over-determined by its precipitating cause was Sheer's privilege: the party was paying for private school for his kids. I am going to argue that we need to think closely about privilege and what it entails and, in my view, I think we need to find another way of thinking about the contradictions of class positions. But, rank hypocrisy -- shooting someone else down for living the life you in fact live -- is not one I would suggest others follow. Sheer is trying to cast aspersions on the politics of support for Indigenous rights, but in the process he edits his own life out of the equation. He calls others out for privilege, whatever this might mean, but ignores his own.

The most significant problem is this type of argument proceeds from a false assumption. We might say that we can all agree with the first and second points I've tried to make. One should, for instance, try to proceed in a factually accurate way and not make statements about things one cannot know. Nor should one be a hypocrite. I don't think either of those points is controversial and if you want to know why people didn't like Sheer, well ... I suspect there is a big part of the reason right there. If he had not behaved in this way, he might still be CPC leader.

The more significant problem is what do people who are privileged in some way but who support the right cause, whatever this cause might be, do? That cause could be decolonization. It could be the need for action on climate change. It could be an anti-poverty campaign. Should one shoot down someone protesting against the mistreatment of Indigenous people or for support for the poor or for the state to take serious matters to address climate change just because that protestor might be wealthy (let's leave aside the question of what constitutes wealthy for the sake of argument)?

In my view: no. One might have a point to engage, a ground of discussion, some reason for starting a conversation, but a person's relative economic standing does not negate their politics simply and purely because of their economic standing. Imagine this scenario: outside of First Peoples themselves, imagine it was only white middle class people who supported Indigenous rights. Would that fact (the fact that white middle class people support Indigenous rights) mean that Indigenous rights claims had become illegitimate? Does it mean that the First Nations campaigning for their rights are wrong (and, you might notice, that Sheer here equates Indigenous activists with the "privileged" but let's leave this point off, too)?

I am arguing that it means nothing of the sort and this is where I disagree with Sheer. The campaign for Indigenous rights did not emerge from middle class or privileged people and we should not pretend or suggest that it did. Even if it did, however, would the fact that people want to support good causes be a bad thing? What, after all, would we think of the alternative? Imagine this scenario: you daughter comes home from college and has learnt about the problems of colonialism or how poverty negatively affects people or gendered violence. What would tell them? Gee, dear, I know there are a lot of problems with gendered violence but we're middle class so we ignore those things because we are privileged and so we will do nothing about them. Do we tell our kids: our privilege makes it wrong for us to support a good cause.

Is that a message anyone would feel comfortable in sending? If you said no ... the implication of Sheer's argument is actually precisely that: if you are middle class and see an injustice ... ignore it because you are privileged. I know I likely talk too much about my own life and I am not trying in any way to hold myself up as a model. What I will say is this: at my church, we spend a great deal of time telling people the exact opposite. If you see a problem, you should try to be part of the solution and ignoring it -- or, telling others to ignore it -- is not a solution.

Let me conclude on one other issue: positive go-forward politics must necessarily draw people together. I am arguing that we need to build connections between people and ignoring the chances to work together on good causes is a really odd way to think about society (again, think about it, did anyone's parents ever tell them that, hey ... here is a good cause. Ignore it. Don't work on good causes with other people who may be economically different from you.). If we are going to build dialogue and politics across socio-economic divisions, we can't tell people to stick to their own economic kind and not become involved in issues if they or their families happen to have a bit of money. It is by working with others that we can create a stronger and more engaged society with deeper and more meaningful social connections.

We have spent the better part of the last twenty years lamenting the fact that youth appear politically disengaged. Here we have a concrete example of youth being engaged, of taking a stand, and putting a lot of time and energy into it. Not one of the protesters caused this problem. It was caused by a number of factors but the most significant one was a raid on Indigenous territory by the RCMP.  If we want youth to be involved, if we want our citizens to be active and to treat their citizenship serious, if we want citizens to make commitments to important causes, we can't tell them that they are wrong when they do precisely that. The politics of protest is not always pretty, but the politics of the words being mobilized against them never is.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

I Was Wrong About That: More on NB and the Politics of Health

The People's Alliance of New Brunswick (PANB) has said that it will not support the government's controversial health care cuts. The NB government is planning to end over night ER services as six rural hospitals as well as a slew of other changes that include ending surgeries, ambulatory care, and acute care admissions. While I do not have this confirmed, Facebook groups that have popped up to oppose the cuts are suggesting that some medical staff have already been laid off or transferred or soon will be.

I stated that the PANB would likely go down with the ship on this and support the Higgs PC government to the end. I was wrong. They will not. I thought they would continue to support the PCs because of political calculations. As a third party, they had unusual influence over a government that needed their votes in the legislature to keep going.

In addition, one PC MLA (the former Deputy Premier) has resigned and left the PCs.  He will sit as an independent. Word is that the current Legislative speaker (right now a Liberal), will step down from his position in the near future and force the Tories to elect one of their own to that position. If all this happens, this is what it will mean. The Tories will be down to 20 votes in the House (and possibly 19 if another MLA breaks away as the Sussex MLA is hinting) (22 seats - 1 resigned MLA - 21 - 1 for speaker = 20. If the Sussex MLA voted against the government, too, this would mean that they'd be down to 19 votes in the Legislative Assembly, a position that is clearly untenable).

The combined opposition would now have 28 and possibly more votes: 21 Liberals + 1 independent former Tory + 3 Green + 3 PANB. If the Sussex MLA voted with them they would be up to 29. This would be a significant defeat, much greater than Gallant's after the last provincial election.

Why was I wrong in my assessment of the PANB? The simple answer is that my reasoning gambled that the PANB would trade influence and longevity for other folks health care. They didn't. Perhaps the issue resonated with their largely rural supporters. Perhaps they read the writing on the wall. As I explained in my last post, the Higgs government was likely going down anyway. I thought the math was close. I did not spell it out but  I was guessing that they could scrape together 23-4 votes depending ... on a range of factors. The Liberals and Greens would have 23-4 (depending on who was speaker) so a future non-confidence motion was not guaranteed.

The PANB might have done the same math and figured they did not want to end up carrying the Tories water. They might honestly and sincerely support rural health care and I am sure that a goodly part of their supporters do. But, they might also have recognized that the Tory ship was sinking and he little desire to go down with it.

What can the Tories do now? I don't know. They might get lucky and something else will distract attention or boost their fortunes, but I'd have to say that it does not look good for them. The Liberals have an election issue, they have a clear point of differentiation between them and the Tories, and so if one were PC, it does not look good.

I guess Higgs could try back tracking enough to keep the recalcitrant MLA in the fold. This strategy might allow him to split the opposition enough that he could stay in power. If he gave on the health care issue, this would allow the two Tories outside the fold to come back in and vote against a non-confidence motion on the grounds that they opposed health care cuts but other than that had no problems with the government.  Such a strategy might, likewise, work to re-secure PANB support. This would push Tory votes back up to 24 tying them with the Liberal/Green opposition and letting the now Tory speaker cast a vote in favour of the government.

I am not going to say that is the strategy Higgs will follow but it might be the only one open to him.

Friday, February 14, 2020

The Politics of Stupidity: ER Cuts and Public Life in NB

Elections are never decided on a single issue ... but someone remind me: wasn't it health care cuts to small communities that helped do in Bernard Lord's government?  In New Brunswick we have a minority Progressive Conservative (PC) government that is propped up by a small anti-bilingualism third party called the People's Alliance of New Brunswick (PANB). The result of the 2018 provincial general election was improbable. The Tories secured a slim plurality of seats (which allowed them to claim that they "won" the election) on the basis of less than 32% of the popular vote. The Liberals garnered 37.8% of the vote but the character and nature of its distribution as well as the success of the Green Party relegated them to second place in seats. The Liberals tried to hang on to government, but the legislature was against them, their government fell, and current Premier Higgs and his 32% Tories were asked to try to form a government. Since that date, Higgs has governed with the support of the PANB.

Around the time Higgs assumed government, I attended a panel discussion of the provincial election results. The general conclusion was that New Brunswickers would almost certainly be back at the polls inside of six months. That did not happen. Higgs managed to govern by trying to give the PANB what it could -- rejecting the report of the NB Commissioner of Official Languages, making more room for uni-lingual anglophone health care workers in francophone regions of the problem, promising the end of the immersion education for anglophone kids. While there was a large community of interest between the Tories largely rural anglophone vote and the PANB, the PANB was holding the reigns of power. The Higgs government gave them no reason to stop supporting the government and I actually don't think they will now. 

PANB support was not the only reason Higgs has stayed in government. A series of other factors came together to help him out. First, the concerns of the PANB were actually easy to address because the party is, more or less, single-issue. Despite having a platform there is no evidence that its supporters were particularly interested in issues other than languages politics. But, the PANB's position on, say, fracking was almost the same as the PCs so no modifications needed there and it had no significant views on lands and forests, fishing, school curricula, social welfare, policing, immigration and migration, other forms of energy. In retrospect this has made it remarkably easy for the PCs to find common cause with the PANB.

Second, for its own reasons, the PANB has come to have a vested interest in the Higgs government, which is why I think they will continue to support it despite the mess in which it currently finds itself over health care cuts. The PANB has every reason to want a continued minority PC government that depends on them for support. They are unlikely to increase their seat count in any future provincial election and, even if they could, they were never close to winning enough seats to even be the leading party in a minority government. Moreover, the polls show them going in the wrong direct. They are losing support. The most recent poll numbers (admittedly before the current ER room closing fiasco) suggest that potentially none or only one of their three seats are safe if there was another election. So ... why would the PANB do anything but try to keep the Tories in power which guarantees their influence on the issue that matters that most to them. From their perspective, not only would an election almost certainly carry negative consequences for their party, but if things went the other way and, say, the Liberals returned to power, they would have no influence and a party committed to reversing what Higgs has done would be in the driver's seat.

Third, the Liberals had no leader. Former Premier Gallant resigned in the wake of his government's collapse. Without a leader -- and with just about no one seemingly wanting the job -- the Liberals themselves did not want to force any issue. Their francophone and middle class base was concerned with what Higgs was doing but the Liberals seemed to have little desire to fight an election. For its part, outside of language, the Higgs government was doing as little as it could to upset anyone. I will confess, I was surprised by its moderation compared to, say, the Ford and Kenney governments. The Higgs government may or may not have wanted to go after civil servants and teachers, but it must have recognized that it needed to keep its powder dry. It might have wanted to dramatically cut government spending, but took very few steps in that direction.

This moderation seemed to be working: the polls (see previous link), showed the PCs running around 40%, perhaps dropping a bit in late 2019 and the Liberals in the 30% ballpark. It does not look like the Tories were taking Liberal votes and I don't think they were. I think the Liberal bleed was going to the Green Party (more on this below), but they were taking a bit and likely siphoning off PANB voters.  This did not necessarily do the Tories any good because taking PANB seats was not going to actually increase their overall legislative support. It was just going to re-arrange the chairs on the deck, as it were. But, it did show that Tory moderation deprived the Liberals of an issue that could animate an election campaign.

For their part -- and despite their opposition to just about everything the Higgs government was doing -- the Green Party did not want an election either. I don't think Green activists see themselves as a viable alternative government in NB, at least as of yet.  They did well in the 2018 election, but were exhausted by it. The Greens in NB are incredibly grass roots. Their supporters are devoted and enthusiastic and committed but they are by and large not a professional organization. That is an incredible strength and one of the reasons for their victories in 2018. But, it also carries with it a downside and that downside is that fund-raising is more difficult and organization tough and it can tire.  I also think that the Greens were not 100% certain of how solid their vote was.  They garnered 11.8% of the vote (less than the PANB), but was that support or the product of circumstances and popular local candidates and the collapse of the NDP?

Finally, the one issue that really might have been divisive was fracking but the energy glut took that off the agenda. Where fracking had been a wedge issue that drove votes away from the Tories in 2014, it is now absent because there is no reason to frack in 2019 and 2020. Even if the Tories wanted to frack -- and I think they do -- it has become a non-starter for industry.

So, you put all this together and the PCs were riding high. They had no particular reason to force an election themselves because they were already in power and needed time to increase their support.  They had easy PANB support; the other opposition parties didn't want an election. There was, in fact, no threat to them. They were in power, they were guiding the ship of state and there were no storms on the horizon .... until ...

Until the engaged in an act of unmitigated political stupidity. They returned to the issue that contributed to their demise in the past (was it Lord? Am I mis-remembering that?) as if they did not know their own party history. Whatever the particular merits of health policy in general, here is what the Tories did wrong with their recent announcement that they will scale back emergency services at six rural NB hospitals.

  1. They picked an issue that will drive some of their core voters away. I drove by the protest in Sackville yesterday against the ER cuts and the protesters were an incredibly diverse lot. This has upset people who I've known as lifetime conservative voters. There were a lot of +50 people at the protest and those people vote. IOW, they did not upset, say, just young people (whose voting record is more checkered), but people who will vote and for whom this issue is important. IOW, they upset people who will *vote* on this issue. 
  2. The issue resonates. The problem is not just the six communities that will lose emergency services, but that other communities and other voters will start to wonder about their health care services. It turns out that in Sackville, for instance, scaling back emergency services is just part of the changes being introduced, which include ending acute care hospitalization and the already modest ambulatory care that was available. The Sackville Memorial Hospital, it appears, is to be turned into a weigh station for seniors on their way to care facilities. 
  3. The Higgs government does not seem to have briefed their own caucus on ER closures. Two Tory MLAs seem poised to vote against this measure and seemed, in fact, broad-sided by it. If one were going to do something controversial, a government should make sure its own members are in the loop. 
  4. They handed the Liberals a key and easy to understand election issue. It took less than one day for Liberal social media to state clearly and unequivocally: if you elect a Liberal government, these hospitals will stay open.  It is clear, quick, and sets up a dichotomy that everyone can understand: vote Tory and lose your health care. Vote Liberal; keep it. 
  5. The announcement was mistimed. It is rushed: implementation is to begin in early March, which looks really really bad. It looks like a government, whose claim to democratic legitimacy was already shaky, is trying to rush a policy through because it knows that it will be unpopular. It looks like they are saying "screw you" to rural communities and that is not a good optic. It is made worse, however, because the Liberals now have a leader, an anglophone with some name recognition. Will he be a good premier? Who knows? But, from a political perspective, that might be at least a bit beside the point. 
  6. The Tories seem not to have recognized that times have changed in other ways. While the declining popular support of the PANB likely means they are not interested in an election and so will continue to support the PCs come what may, the Liberals are now not afraid of an election, Nor is the Green Party. The polls show its vote increasing and its strong showing in NB in the recent federal election also bodes well for it. Green Party leaders can read these numbers as easily as I can. 

Put all this together and the Tories are in trouble. Even if they withdraw the policy, they have created a wedge issue that will drive votes away from them. Even if they survive an impending non-confidence motion (and they could; the math is tight but they could survive), the issue will not go away. The protesters, in Sackville at least, are well organized, make effective use of social media, know the community supports of them. In Sussex, the news reports suggest real anger.  

This all makes me ask: why did Higgs do it? Is this really a response to health care problems in NB? I suspect that there was a political calculation. Four of the six hospitals affected are in Liberal or Green ridings. And, I do think there is another level of calculation here that relates to the unwinding of the Tories plans for economic rejuvenation in NB. I just think that they made the wrong calculation. 

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