May 3rd, 2013
Normally, on this blogspot I resist wading into the very shallow waters of political rhetoric but this week’s events compelled me to don my nose plugs. Those of us who work in education know well just how much Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s ongoing assault on Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau is revealing about himself. After the thwarted attempt by, allegedly, a graduate student and his pals to blow up a VIA Rail train, and alluding to Trudeau’s earlier comments about understanding the “root causes” of terrorism, Harper declared that now is not the time to “commit sociology.” This tasty sound byte has extended well beyond the typical 21st century news cycle. It’s just too irresistibly chewy—especially for us hungry academics who understand how the social sciences and humanities are being steadily starved.
That paragraph packs a lot of strained metaphors, and for that I apologize, but when your First Leader coins a phrase like commit sociology you just have to play in the word kit a bit. Everyone else is doing it. The freshly manufactured buttons you see above were produced just in time for a large conference on the media representation of education issues. All the participants will proudly commit sociology throughout. Yesterday, Environics Institute president Michael Adams wrote a smart, wry essay for the Globe and Mail in which he confesses that he does not intend to stop committing sociology. And there have been many tweets, jokes, and, yes, now, even those buttons dedicated to mocking Harper’s telling turn of phrase.
Just what does it tell? That to Harper and his supporters sociology is something you commit, like a crime. And that committing it is frivolous, an indulgence, something you do in your own time but not in the public sphere—not now when we all need to stop analyzing, questioning, interrogating, reflecting, and maybe even thinking. What does that leave? Just feeling sad? Hating?
Naturally, any self-respecting citizen is going to identify the root causes of Harper’s phrasing—a profound anti-intellectualism, a deep-seated suspicion of critical thinking, an ideological aversion to social theory—the very analysis that might lead to exposing the root causes of a phrase like commit sociology! There might be even deeper roots, of course, something having to do with Harper’s childhood or primal playground insecurities. But for such explanations we would be committing psychoanalysis, and I don’t want to go there anyway. Let’s leave it for the biographers.
What is threatening the Prime Minister? The Leader of the Opposition, Tom Mulcair, has advanced professional degrees from McGill and Trudeau was on track in an MA program in Environmental Geography at McGill before throwing his hat into the political arena. As we all know now from those embarrassingly juvenile Conservative Party attack ads, Justin Trudeau is, horror of horrors, a teacher! The ads brilliantly raised the ire of thousands of educators across the country who would prefer not to have their profession demonized, thank you very much.
Mulcair and Trudeau are solidly educated and comfortable in their heads when they commit sociology. Trudeau’s comment about looking into the root causes of radicalization, particularly regarding the Boston bombers, might have been an honest and widely shared response to the event, but it also at once reflected his inexperience and candor—two qualities that just might serve him well over the fiercely tactical, cynicism-inducing Prime Minister. Harper probably prefers to treat Canadians like infants, incapable of thinking for ourselves or reflecting more deeply on what is sadly becoming the common horror of terrorism in this century. More to the point, he would have us see the world as a battle of good and evil, the two spheres being, to his way of thinking, transparently obvious. Sociology tends to blur those divisions, making the world a lot more complicated, more like the world we actually inhabit and not some child’s fairy tale version of the world.
This whole ongoing episode does underscore the fact that words really do matter. I bet Harper thought he was being right clever tossing out that phrase, feeding the deeply conservative anti-intellectual base of his party. It’s even possible that attack ads, pathetic as they are, just might not work anymore, not when you start turning teachers into idiots, or questioning our right to ask probing questions.
Wonder if the Prime Minister is eating his words right now with a side order of humble pie. Somehow, I doubt it.