The elusive in-between

“It seems the only way to gain attention today is to organize a march and protest something”.
– Billy Graham

While online today, I was invited to sign up for an upcoming rally opposing the implementation of Bill C-51, the federal legislation that will expand the powers of various agencies tasked with combating terrorism, ostensibly in an effort to make the country safer. According to the invitation, I would be attending an event designed to oppose the Harper government’s intention to establish a “secret police” force within our borders. I have no plans to go.

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I do, however, have questions myself about the efficacy of C-51, this latest salvo in the “war against terror” here in Canada, but I am equally unimpressed by this group that wants a “national day of action”, as though a bunch of people waving placards and chanting (no doubt) a variety of slogans is the best public response to just about anything they don’t like. As I remarked to a friend this morning, what chance for discussion is there when those opposed to something have already branded those they oppose as Canada’s version of the Gestapo?

It’s a sad day, really, but it has been a long time coming. The impatience that society seemingly has with anything that requires subtlety and careful attention cannot be overstated. Simply put, it is much easier to attend a rally and carry a sign than it is to take the time to read and understand a proposal or, for that matter, to just think about it for a while without jumping to conclusions or following whoever has adopted a resolute response before you. Never underestimate the power of the bandwagon effect.
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Please note that the federal government is essentially employing the same tactic in their approach to seeing that the bill is passed. Riding a wave of popularity as the result of their perceived hard-line in the face of terrorism, the feds are pushing ahead with the bill in its current form more, I suspect, to reinforce their image as strong and resolute than because of any deep and abiding conviction that C-51 is the best possible way to confront whatever threat might exist within Canada.

I use the word “might” conscious of the impact it could have. In the current atmosphere surrounding this topic, I’m liable to be singled out by some as an apologist for terrorists, as though, again, anything other than enthusiastic support for dramatic and tangible opposition is equivalent to being an ISIS sympathizer. Outrage tends to be what makes the news after all. Few are those who want to pause and reflect and subsequently seek out other opinions in order to develop a more nuanced and careful approach to any topic. “Us” vs “them” is the paradigm that dominates discussion (or conflict that passes for discussion) of just about any overarching issue these days.

We shouldn’t be surprised when we see this tactic employed. My experience has convinced me that the average person pays little attention to things beyond the purview of his/her day-to-day living. As a culture, we have become so “busy” that we have very little time to pause, to survey, to consider and to reflect upon the issues that we face. For that matter, the speed with which technology advances doesn’t allow us time to assess the most recent “next big thing”. Within six months of its introduction, that next big thing is largely obsolete, more often than not.

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When politicians and groups seeking public support for a position appeal stridently for the simple yes or no, arguments are inevitably reduced to the “us” and “them”, namely, those who support our position and those who oppose it. Rarely are even the simplest of things readily reduced to such terms. We might, for example, establish clear boundaries for our children but the process of growing up is an unfolding story of prohibitions being qualified, changed and, even, abandoned altogether. When dealing with our kids, we realize that maturity brings deeper and subtler understandings of many things.

How I wish we could apply a similar standard to our understanding of the larger issues of our day. In the case of C-51, I’m not sure what the answer is. By and large, Canadians are concerned about radicalized Islam, especially when ISIS and al-Qaida go out of their way to identify Canada as a prospective target. Add to that events over the last year, and fear is to be expected. At the same time, do we need a national lockdown and expanded powers for our national security agencies? I don’t pretend to have the strategy to address either the situation or the questions it raises. I do, however, believe that we need to do something. The federal government has chosen to move in a particular direction that causes me unease, but, as I said earlier, I won’t be attending the protest on the weekend.

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More than anything, I wish we could find a way to engage people that didn’t demand such oppositional posing. In a world where so much information is available, you might think that being informed would be easier. Unfortunately, the sheer volume is problematic but, even more, the indiscriminate nature of the information itself is the greater challenge. How does one distinguish between the pertinent and the irrelevant when a search on Google reveals 171,000,000 hits on C-51? Is it any wonder that people are so often content to focus on the concerns of their individual worlds? Eventually, though, the larger world will inescapably intrude. We need to be ready for such eventualities, even if we must continually challenge just what being ready means. Contrary to what the “no” voice shouts so frequently and so persistently, Canada remains a democracy. However imperfectly that concept might manifest itself here, to borrow from Robert Frost: “I don’t know where it’s likely to go better”.*

*”Birches” (1913-14)

Do you have the time?

It’s amazing that the amount of news that happens in the world every day always just exactly fits the newspaper.
– Jerry Seinfeld

Over the weekend, I was reading an article in “The Globe and Mail” talking about how we consume news these days. I wasn’t surprised to read that most people – of generations subsequent to mine – rarely depend upon print; I had noted some years back, when I was still teaching, that, in a class of thirty students or so, roughly one third of households might be expected to have a subscription, in this area of the province, to Saint John’s “Telegraph Journal”. And that is being generous.

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Increasingly, print publications are moving online. Having an online version plays well in a world that depends upon iPhones and iPads for so many things: grocery lists, tickets for the movies, maps, phone numbers, contact information, quick fact checks, etc. If you think about it, “pervasive” may rank as one of the greater understatements of recent years when it comes to assessing the penetration of the digital in the various facets of our lives.

As I’ve said in other blogs, I am no Luddite. Return to some mythical age where one and all were better educated, more aware and more involved in their world? Can’t see it. Does anyone really believe that such an era ever was? Mind you, a group will always exist that believes in a lost golden age.

That being said, the passing of print concerns me. More accurately, if iPhones and iPads could be depended upon to preserve the written word and lead to people spending more time pondering the world and the issues that confront us, I would applaud loudly. I have no confidence that such is the case, however, especially as impatience with anything much longer than a tweet grows increasingly prevalent. That impatience bothers me more than anything else.

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A case in point would be when I sat down to start creating this blog. I was warned that I needed to keep it relatively short if I hoped to hold on to readers (assuming I attracted some in the first place). While I was sympathetic to the plea, it seemed at odds with my reasons for starting in the first place. I was tired of the oversimplification and narrowness so evident, in my opinion, in much of public discourse and I wanted to vent, if nothing else, my displeasure.

I do not, however, see the value in shouting loudly and hurling insults at opponents, a modus operandi that commonly seeks validation through appeals to democracy and to freedom, terms that are used with utter disregard for what they do or do not mean. As with so many things (education the example closest to my heart), the unstated premise is that the definitions of such things are self-evident. Surely we all know what “democracy” and “freedom” mean?

If you are reading this, chances are I am preaching to the choir. “Democracy”, “freedom”, “equality”: these are just three particularly good examples of complex concepts that become throwaways when people are trying to shut down opposition. We see this phenomenon at work all around us, whether in the halls of government where one side or the other is seen frequently accusing the other of perverting democracy or taking away our freedoms. If you doubt the truth of this, today’s “Telegraph Journal” contains a couple of very interesting letters. Both concern themselves with the current controversy surrounding the young Muslim woman who wants to wear a niqab at her citizenship ceremony.

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I’m not interested here in who is wrong and who is right. Each writer argues a point of view steeped in a particular understanding of the issues at stake: identity, religious freedom, democratic principles, freedom of speech, citizenship, etc. If it were possible to somehow eliminate the subject matter and isolate the tonal quality of each letter, I think it would be hard to tell them apart. Both adopt a kind of moral outrage and determinacy that brooks no argument. Perhaps such characteristics feature prominently in the editorial letter format. By virtue of their limited length, such writings have to be focused in order to achieve maximum impact.

If such a lack of subtlety and nuance were limited to the letters to the editor, you might say: par for the course. But when that same deficit becomes the common mode of discourse in politics and the public arena in general, who can blame people for tuning out. “Sides” on just about any issue are united in their stridency and, at some unconscious level perhaps, we know that neither side is serving either the issue or the audience well.

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We are increasingly victims of two minute radio or television spots, tweets and other social media broadcasts, and a pervasive parade of headlines, all of these – whether by design or by happenstance – providing some sense that we are informed if we just pay attention to such things.

As for paying attention, who has the time for that?