Monthly Archives: September 2015

Toward an Ideology of Balance. Or Is It Muddle?

Saturday, September 19th

It’s bad enough stereotyping others, but when we start stereotyping ourselves we are in real trouble. When our politicians, our representatives, the people who work for us, the people to whom we delegate the responsibility of our government, start stereotyping us, then we must not let them get away with it. We pay taxes, but we are not merely taxpayers. We consume, but we are not merely consumers. We have a complex identity, and we need politicians who want to govern us accordingly. But where can we find them, in any party?

I thought the whole campaign got a bit surreal this past week, with all the chatter about “the economy”, and the Prime Minister’s musings about “old stock Canadians”, and the rest. I wondered, first of all, why the Conservatives would want us to talk about “the economy” at all? They have been in power for ten years, and if people are “feeling vulnerable” about “the economy”, and for good reason, then how can they have the nerve to brag about their competence? They assure us that the problems lie in circumstances beyond our borders, that they did the best they could, better than anyone else could have done. Balderdash! If they can’t control the economy when bad things happen, how can they claim to be in charge when good things happen? Of course they would claim it, but on what grounds?

The reality, of course, is that the  Government of Canada does not “manage the economy” in any except the most marginal sense, and that its “leadership” in present circumstances is ambiguous to say the least: fiscal austerity combined with monetary stimulus. I don’t need to write about that, however, because Neil Macdonald of the CBC already has:

I mention it only because some Conservative was trying to tell us that the issues in this election are “the economy” and “leadership”. If I were a Conservative strategist I would suggest that the less said about those issues, the better.

I don’t believe those are the issues at all. I think the issues are Social Justice, Public Investment, and Democratic Governance, the over-issue in all these fields being Balance. On these issues the Government of Canada can indeed, if it chooses, exercise much power.

I have always believed that when someone is accused of persistently doing a bad job, then their supervisors or bosses must, by definition, also be doing a bad job. And who is the supervisor, the boss, of the Government of Canada? It’s not the Official Opposition, and it’s not “the media”. It’s us. I think, therefore, that we are left to confront the possibility that our governments are, indeed, an accurate reflection of our collective selves, confusion and all, that in some real sense our democracy does work, that our governments, over-all, do what we want them to do, or at least what we will allow them to do.

“I must find out where my people want to go so that I can lead them there.” Some French president said that, I forget which one, if I ever knew. Since that over-simplification of the politician’s task is clearly impossible, such being the diversity of destinations articulated by us people and the cacophony of our articulations, then I think we have to craft another set of expectations for these servants of ours.

Personally, I like ideology, as a way out of this problem. I respect the fact that Mr. Harper, and the Conservatives, have an ideology, and are now prepared to be frank about it. Of course, he and they were not frank, not at all, before they came to power, but now, after ten years, we know what it is, and can say whether we like it, and want to continue with it.

I hope it is obvious that I do not like it. Fervently, may October 19th bring it to an end. I am an “old stock Canadian”, and I would like to find a political ideology that somehow combined, to the extent possible, the best features of the politicians of my youth and maturation: Lester Pearson, Pierre Trudeau, Leslie Frost, John Robarts, Peter Lougheed. I was out of Ontario for the Bill Davis years; I liked what I heard about him, as I did about Saskatchewan’s Tommy Douglas and Allan Blakeney, and Manitoba’s Ed Schreyer. Remember, I said the best features.

I suspect that makes me, deep down, a “progressive conservative”, in the technical, not the party sense, probably slightly more progressive than conservative, although both strands are important. I dream of Social Justice, but am comfortable with a society that evolves in that direction and does not attempt any Great Leap Forward.

I would enjoy hearing a party leader who cultivated an ideology of Balance, with a progressive tilt. I don’t think Mr. Harper is doing that, to say the least, although some Progressive Conservatives have in the past. The idea is not foreign to Canadian conservatism. I think Elizabeth May is doing it, or trying very hard, although a strong leader of a weak party is not really the person of the hour. I think Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau are groping for such an ideology, but not doing a particularly good job. I find them confusing. But these are confusing times, and confusing may be an honest response to the political task we have assigned them. Better a prime minister of good will, muddled though he may appear at times, than some kind of pocket Il Duce, of any persuasion.

In fact, muddled may be as good as it gets. Muddled may be what we truly want. Maybe “Balance” is too technical, too cold. Maybe “Muddled” is more human. Maybe Muddled Are Us. The Muddle Party! Who wants the honour?

To Cure the Body Politic of Stereotypitis

Thursday, September 10th

Recent upheavals in the electoral scene, in particular the big one concerning Syrian refugees, triggered by a picture, and the smaller one concerning small business and its use as a tax shelter, triggered by Mr. Trudeau’s remarks, bring us once again smack up against the mega-issue of complexity, and the complementary mega-issue of stereotyping.

Stereotyping is the method we commonly, even pervasively, use to cope with the complexity of the world. It is a natural habit of the mind: human, understandable, and deeply malignant. If you don’t believe me about the pervasiveness, look around you. If you don’t believe me about the malignancy, do the same.

Stereotyping is everywhere, on every side and every facet of our political, social, and economic lives, and it is a very, very bad habit of thought. We use it to avoid the need to make decisions based on individuality. It’s cheap, it’s convenient, and it’s immoral. If we wish to evolve culturally, we must learn other ways to think. They will be more expensive, less convenient, and better: morally, practically, socially, democratically, and every other way that matters.

I looked up “stereotype”, both noun and verb forms, to make sure I am using the word properly. Its essence, as described in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, lies in three key words: pre-conceived, standardized, and over-simplified. There it is. We are drowning, intellectually, in a morass of stereotyping, and if we don’t find a way to put better ground under our feet, then we are indeed in grave trouble. The world we have created for ourselves and those who come after us has gone beyond the stage where action based on stereotypes can be justified on any grounds whatsoever. Stereotyping is pure laziness.

Stereotypes can be negative or positive. Either is equally lazy, but I am not convinced they are morally equivalent. If I stereotype the refugee as a human person trying to escape disaster, then I act one way. If I stereotype him or her as a terrorist or self-serving opportunist, then I act another way. Either way somebody suffers, because the population of refugees probably contains both kinds of people. The negative stereotype makes the refugee suffer; the positive one puts the burden on the receiving society. The same kind of analysis can be applied to myriad particulars. I don’t need to belabour the matter.

Stereotyping thrives on the reality that you can always find evidence, of an anecdotal kind at least, to support any stereotype. You can always find someone who conforms to it, whatever it is, positive or negative. And averages, I fear, although statistically based if valid, are no better, because averages are simply another form of stereotype. Some people match them, and a great many other people do not.

When we are being lazy, we use stereotypes to imagine populations, assuming either that the population in question is uniform in matching the stereotype, or that the people in it who do not match also do not matter. We can thus make policy based on the stereotype without doing any damage that we care about. The “tough on crime” policies of the present Canadian government are a classic example of this approach.

A more sophisticated way to imagine a population would be to imagine its frequency distribution with respect to the attribute in question, particularly its shape. This is not as difficult as it sounds, because a “normal distribution” is often a good approximation, and much intellectual enjoyment can be found in starting from that assumption and imagining how the distribution might be tweaked to get it right. You don’t have to be a statistician to learn how to do this, although some very basic theory helps. Looking up “probability distributions” will get you there very quickly, and without pain.

But imagining the population accurately is only the first step in taking appropriate action. In the next few posts I will apply the method to various cases, and see what that does to inform the decision lying ahead, concerning that vote on October 19th.

I think that we will find, when we look at cases, that they resolve themselves fairly quickly if we simply find new ways of thinking about risk, ways entirely familiar to us in our everyday lives. Imagination can help there too.

Since we are necessarily into realms of the imagination, the properly informed imagination, using-evidence-in-the-correct-way imagination, I am going to keep in play the metaphor that I have proposed, which imagines the world where all this is happening, our world, as under the sway of three Orgs: Oecon, Nature, and Humanites, in all their diversity of aims and methods, sometimes collaborating, sometimes conflicting, and sometimes simply confused.

That should keep us going for a while.