Last week, I, along with some of my associates from the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, had a meeting with a Member of Provincial Parliament. OPSEU had asked for this meeting as part of their Stop The Wage Freeze campaign, which is their… *ahem*… counternarrative to the Provincial government’s plan to freeze the wages of all public sector employees for two years, a move which they say is necessary to help reduce Ontario’s deficit. OPSEU’s official position is that the wage freeze is really just a set of corporate tax cuts that will result in over $2.8 billion in profit for corporations such as the Royal Bank of Canada, Rogers Telecommunications and Imperial Oil. (They have recently launched a hilarious website that speaks to this point: People for Corporate Tax Cuts.) That’s why the goal of these meetings with Ontario’s MPPs is to ask them to speak with Premier McGuinty and Finance Minister Duncan, and stress to them that Ontario cannot afford these cuts to the public sector, nor can individual Ontarian families afford these cuts to their wages, especially in light of the global recession.
When I was first asked by one of the OPSEU “mobilizers” to attend a meeting with a key MPP, I wasn’t sure I would do it. Given my somewhat ambivalent stance toward activism, I was skeptical about how effective such a meeting would actually be. After taking some time to think about it, however, I decided that I would attend: not only because I agree with OPSEU’s position, but also because I was curious about what it would be like to “speak truth to power” in this way. I figured it would be an interesting and illuminating experience.
The MPP we visited is a member of the Liberal Party, and has long been a supporter of some rather progressive causes.* He was respectful, attentive, and engaging, and met with us for thirty minutes longer than had originally been scheduled. During our conversation, he acknowledged that the most vulnerable Ontarians would be even further marginalized by the public sector wage freeze. Yet, he maintained that because the pendulum has swung so far to the right, his government has no choice but to act according to that ideology, even if they disagree with it. He said that, in his nearly thirty years as a politician, he has never seen the general public this angry, fearful, and unwilling to be persuaded by facts and reason. He cited the hatred he witnessed in the U.S. while campaigning for Barack Obama, and the election of Rob Ford as mayor of Toronto, as examples of the direness of our current social and political climate. My OPSEU colleagues and I agreed with him; however, when I asked about what we could do to change the general public’s attitude, he said that it was “impossible”. He said that they were just too angry, and too easily swayed by the simplistic answers offered by right wing ideology, especially since that ideology could be accessed twenty-four hours a day via several media outlets.
Now, maybe this is just my contrarian nature, but when someone tells me that something is “impossible”, my back goes up immediately, and I want to prove them wrong. I also start to wonder what that person might be hiding, and/or what work they might be trying to avoid doing. So, in the days since my meeting with the MPP, I’ve been thinking about what, exactly, is behind his assertion that the public’s attitude is impossible to change. While I acknowledge that even politicians get the blues, so to speak, I have to say that “the public” is a convenient scapegoat, one that allows politicians to absolve themselves of the responsibility to find innovative, dynamic, engaging, unconventional solutions to our society’s problems. That is, it allows them to continue doing what they’ve always done, while shifting the blame for any failures onto an imagined irrational, uneducated, uncritical, weak-willed, faceless mob.
In truth, I think that we liberal-minded types, in general, are guilty of relying on this construction of “the public”, especially when it seems like our world is heading in a direction that we find really disturbing, but we feel powerless to stop it. Yet, I also think constructing those who disagree with us in this way is facile and, in the long run, unproductive. So, here’s what I’ve been asking myself as of late: what would happen if we considered “the public” to be as intelligent and forward-thinking as we consider ourselves to be?
What if we considered their beliefs to be perfectly logical, sensible, and acceptable?
What if we understood that their truths are as self-evident to them as ours are to ourselves?
What if we remembered that neither they nor we make choices that exist apart from unequal relationships of power – both between people, and between people and our social institutions?
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes because, ultimately, we are still ourselves: we don’t actually become the other person. (We just have their shoes.) What I am suggesting is that we choose to think more deliberately and clearly about the conditions under which people make sense of the world around them, and to imagine how those conditions might render their beliefs, truths and choices completely, utterly rational. If we can do this (and by no means am I saying that it’s easy), then it is possible to change attitudes that we think are problematic. It’s only impossible if you are unwilling to look past the boundaries of your own existence. And we all know how good politicians are at doing that.
Which means we – the public – have a lot of work to do.
*Keep in mind, of course, that progressive is a relative term when speaking about politicians, especially career politicians.