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Is anybody listening?

Have you ever attended a public forum or an information session on a contentious issue? Foremost over the last couple of years, as a subject for such events, would be fracking. But these gatherings are more and more common as public opinion embraces the right of all to be involved in debates surrounding issues viewed as important to the community at large. Whether that community is your local school, parish, village, town or, indeed, the entire province, all are welcome. The “community of interest” itself is open to endless definition. If you have something that concerns you and if, in turn, you can find and/or cultivate sufficient numbers who share that concern, you can define your community in any way you might like.

In and of itself, as with so many things, this represents a noble ideal. The inherent good of concerned citizens coming together to discuss issues is hard to deny. Unfortunately, in my experience, all too often such events cease to be a true forum of exchange. Instead, become a podium for any number of groups who arrive at meetings to trumpet a pre-determined position (not bad in and of itself) with no intention of being dissuaded from whatever that position might be.

A few years ago now, I attended an “information meeting” that concerned a plan to install a high-voltage power line adjacent to some properties with a view of the Bay of Fundy. An engineer came to answer any questions arising from concerns the opponents might have. The opponents were well-organized and began the meeting by outlining their concerns regarding loss of property value, restricted views but, most importantly for the purposes of this piece, health concerns associated with high power electrical lines.

After allowing the opponent’s representative and anyone else who might want to add anything to speak, the engineer began a detailed response to the concerns. I had heard the property value question expressed many times through my years as a member of Saint John’s Planning Advisory Committee. It can lead to considerable disagreements, since it isn’t always easy to assess exactly what kind of impact any change might have on such values. The fear of a restricted view might have been assuaged a bit when it was pointed out that the wires would be 70 feet in the air.

The most significant reservation was saved for last: health. Studies have suggested that exposure to high-voltage power lines can cause health problems. The engineer pointed out that the proposed lines were on the very bottom end of “high-voltage” and, thus, represented no real risk. Further, the height at which they were to be installed kept them at such a distance that any imagined risk to people was mitigated even further.

The engineer pointed out that burying the lines (which was the preferred option of the opponents) would, in fact, bring the lines closer to people and, as a result, present a greater risk, since soil does not interfere with the emissions of high-voltage lines. In light of that last point, the conclusion, to me, seemed obvious. If health, rather than losing your view or a general aesthetic objection, is the core issue, then surely burying the line was a bad idea.

So the presentation was finished and the assembly was asked how they wanted to move forward. After a moment, one voice rose above the others exclaiming: “bury the line!” Whereupon the room burst into near-thunderous applause.

And so it goes with public information sessions. All too often, information is neither sought nor welcomed. Rather than encouraging serious discussion, such meetings allow the loudest voice to win the day and that voice is rarely open to debate. If reason and judgment threaten to invade the public arena, I guess the best strategy is to drown them out.

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Jon Stewart’s lonely crusade

At my daughter’s urging (she’s well aware of my concerns and complaints) I watched the 12/08/14 episode of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, specifically a segment where he vilifies the largely “right-wing” media for taking a factual error he made on a previous show and allowing outrage over this mistake to overshadow the larger issues he was attempting to address. While I sympathize with his dilemma, sadly, both Stewart and his show are part of the reason, yet again, for the rush to over-simplification and polarization of opinion, even if Stewart himself might wish it were otherwise.

Specifically, Stewart was calling attention to what many, myself included, believe is the racial profiling and extremity of response evident in a number of widely publicized deaths of young black men at the hands of police in the US. He listed some of the prominent examples and, among the list was one young man who, in fact, had committed a burglary and later died as a result of an overdose, drugs he had consumed before the commission of the crime.

Sadly (but predictably – I think Stewart and I clearly agree on that), the larger issue regarding police and black men was overshadowed entirely by Stewart’s error of including this example with the other, valid ones. Fox News was provided with an opportunity to vilify Stewart for his smugness and his seeming willingness to play loose with the facts if it served his own agenda, the very thing, of course, that Stewart attacks Fox for a great deal of time. The term he coins to describe what he does – “counter-errorism” – is pithy and sure to get a laugh, as indeed it does.

And make no mistake, Stewart’s point is well-taken: we do need to be willing to address the complexities that underlie the apparent injustices and propensity for violence that circle around the dynamics of race and policing in America. Unfortunately, what I believe Stewart himself needs to acknowledge, is the contribution his show makes to the very over-simplification and polarizing which he decries.

In some ways, the problem is not of Stewart’s making – his contributions are inherent in the medium he occupies. How much complexity and subtlety can be built into a 22 minute television show composed of segments that might be 5 minutes long? Further, it doesn’t take viewing many episodes to realize that The Daily Show can be slotted into a very easily identified (yet far from clearly defined) “left-wing” slot.

What makes this especially regrettable is that further viewing reveals that Stewart (and his team of writers, I presume), really does try to play fair. It is not uncommon to see the show reveal the ineptitude and/or hypocrisy of many different players in the public forum. While his general sympathy for President Obama is evident, Obama and his administration can be taken to task if the situation warrants.

That being said, perhaps comedy precludes the possibility of balance. By its very nature, comedy directs its attention to the foibles, failings and absurdities of the human element and the comic attack on all facets of life and society is nothing new. Consider Jonathan Swift as but one example of such efforts in the political realm.

But, today, television largely stifles debate. Secure in our living rooms, we listen and chuckle and nod (at Stewart, Fox News, CNN, CBC or whatever we find most appealing) and then go about our business. We tend to engage with those things which confirm our view of the world. The challenge for Jon Stewart is to find a way to defeat the “us vs them” mentality which has poisoned so much of public discourse. More than confirming our positions, we need avenues that will cause us to recognize and to challenge the assumptions we make about our times, our world and ourselves. The Daily Show can be part of that but it shouldn’t be seen as the lone provider of balance and insight, however much it might be more so than Fox News.

No Room for Nuance (conclusion)

Is there room for nuance? (conclusion)

And so it is, in my estimation, with so many of the tenets of the “progressive” faith. Fracking is bad; the province’s new forestry policy will destroy the forest; “conservative” is tantamount to evil (hence the characterization of Stephen Harper as a dictator and destroyer of the country); all those who agree with us love the earth and embrace common humanity– those who disagree are selfish destroyers of nature, health and the common good.

We hear a great deal these days about polarized opinions and “camps”. In part, I am arguing that such polarization results directly from the over-simplification of complex situations and concerns, an oversimplification that arises when anyone or any group, either formal (e.g., Council of Canadians) or informal (the “progressives” Wente references) imagines that truth can be absolute and that he/she possesses that truth. When I travel between Sussex and Saint John, nailed to a tree I see a sign which captures, perfectly and sadly, that trend: two boxes, one FOR Fracking and one FOR Health, and the viewer is asked to PICK ONE.

Does anyone really believe that the choice is that stark? That absolute? Sadly, it is but one small manifestation of a pervasive phenomenon, one where assertion substitutes for argument, where “yes’ or “no” is the only response we are invited to provide. Chances are a judgment of our moral character may very well be in the balance.

Personally – fracking being but the most current example – I believe taking the time to investigate and to think beyond the confines of a narrow interest is our most important responsibility, both individually and collectively. During my tenure as an MLA, I had the opportunity to ponder issues in considerable depth and I was repeatedly appalled at the oversimplification of complexity that was provided (through commercial media and/or online) and commonly embraced.

Overall, I want to encourage all those with an interest in public policy to avoid the absolute, to embrace nuance and to develop a carefully considered opinion. It will take time and effort – looking beyond the tweet, the headline or the online “study” – but it will be time well spent.

No Room for Nuance (cont.)

Is there room for nuance? (part two)

By way of an example, inclusion in education illustrates this trend very well indeed. If you are feeling a little wary when I mention this topic, chances are you have seen the derision commonly directed at anyone seeking to qualify, in any way, the orthodox claim that “inclusion is good” or, equally, that “inclusion is working”.

Be assured, I do not desire to undermine the idea. Inclusion’s goal – that all members of society should be given the opportunity to participate fully in all aspects of society – is noble. In fact, I believe that the overly simplistic, ideological approach to this topic (and many others) so common in public discourse these days does a profound disservice to us all; inhibits, in fact, the “adult conversations” (another buzz-phrase we hear frequently) we need to have if the pursuit of this noble goal is to be undertaken to best advantage.

In my recent experience as a member of the Legislative Assembly of New Brunswick, I have been subjected to the repeated claim that “inclusion is working”. However much I would have liked to qualify and to clarify that statement, I did not truly have the chance because those making the claim had no patience for such things. In this instance, the real question is: what is meant when you say “inclusion is working”?

If all you are considering is operational practice, then, indeed, inclusion is working. All across New Brunswick, children are gathered together in classrooms without regard to anything beyond class size and available space. That is the first and most important requirement of inclusive practice for those whose support is primarily ideological. To clarify, for the ideologue of inclusion, no good can be compared to the simple fact that the child who was once somewhere other than a regular classroom is now IN that regular classroom the entire day (in the most extreme cases, exceptions may be made).

Such a position assumes that physical placement is inherently good, that, in fact, physical presence in a classroom with others is a good BEYOND challenge. And there, for me, is the sad and destructive result of triumphant ideology. Having achieved a simple ideological end, the details are left to those who must deal with the new, inclusive reality on a day-to-day basis, always considering the multitude of other roles, either clear or indistinct, that society imagines the educational system should play.

Ever vigilant and jealously guarding the righteousness of their crusade, the promoters of this particular model of inclusion will offer educational assistants and various theoretical strategies for the “inclusive classroom” as the means whereby inclusion will “work” in the broader sense of not having a negative impact on a classroom in general. The actual situation – the reality, if you will – which necessitates such strategies is never allowed to be challenged. Perhaps the saddest and most perverse manifestation of this thinking comes from Gordon Porter, the “expert” who quarterbacked both the development and the implementation of New Brunswick’s inclusive education policy, who claimed that if inclusive education wasn’t working it had to be the fault of parents or of educators.

Again, to my mind, the parallels with fundamentalist religious thinking are inescapable. Porter’s stance suggests that the theory upon which practice is based is tantamount to a creed, a core statement of faith that cannot be questioned lest one be accused of heresy. While this characterization might seem extreme, once again I would turn to my former colleagues in classrooms across New Brunswick and ask if their reluctance to discuss publicly inclusion and its challenges arises out of a fear of being subjected to a brand of inquisition where their commitment to fairness and to the ethical treatment of all students is called into question.

No Room for Nuance

Is there room for nuance? (Part one)

I want to thank Margaret Wente (Globe and Mail 11/29/14) for providing me with a handy label for a group of people who have become – largely by virtue of an asserted intellectual/educational/moral-ethical superiority – the self-appointed definers and articulators of who and what society should champion, defend, promote, even believe. They commonly hold that they are beyond meaningful challenge by virtue of their intrinsic righteousness and, in fact, they are seldom challenged because they tend to be on the “politically correct” side of many issues we commonly encounter in the press and other public forums.

This group – Wente calls them “progressives” – have become, in fact, the purveyors of a modern orthodoxy that began to undermine education long ago, that continually stifles meaningful public debate, and that poses a real threat to the long-term well-being of our province and of our country. A startling assertion on my part? Some background is necessary.

I firmly believe that Canada is involved in what is, fundamentally, an ideological struggle. As an idealist myself, the distinction between ideal and ideology is an important one in that it separates me – at least in my mind – very clearly from the idealogue.

The idealist is essentially an optimist, insisting repeatedly that good can be found in the ongoing story of human folly, folly in evidence every day, whether in the newspaper account, in something we might do ourselves, or in any number of things we might encounter in the course of a day. While some friends of mine have described me as a cynic, I have always rejected that characterization claiming, simply, that my idealism is not starry-eyed. I choose to think my idealism acknowledges a hard reality: few things are ever truly simple. A logical consequence of that position is the rejection of extremes, positive or negative. When idealism crosses over to ideology, the opportunity for close-minded extremism is abundant.

The ideologue claims a position on an issue, commonly social/political, that is essentially unassailable, a secular version of fundamentalist religion you might say. In my definition, an example would be the anti-vaccine lobby that Wente references in her article. All scientific understanding notwithstanding, the anti-vaccine ideologue accepts, as a matter of faith, the “belief” that vaccines are inherently bad, that such technological tampering with some vague notion of what is “natural” cannot help but cause harm.

The role such over-simplification plays in our reductionist, 140-character dominated public forum is insidious. The simple assertion becomes the preferred method of public discourse as few have the patience required for the consideration of a long and complex argument.