I was given to thinking about a recent presidential campaign, looking back at a man who focused on a message that could be dubbed the ‘audacity of hope’, a man who challenged the political orthodoxy of the day and fought against the prevailing elite with powerful rhetoric. A man who offered solutions that resonated as a positive and powerful for his millions of followers.
But, I am fed up with talking about Donald Trump.
The most positive messages of the recent political campaigns in Toronto (Mayor Rob Ford, “Stop the gravy train!”), the United Kingdom (Brexit, “Take Back Control” and Jeremy Corbyn, “For the Many!”) and the United States (both Barack Obama, “Hope!” and Donald Trump, “Drain the Swamp!”, “Make America Great Again!”) have all been powerful anti-establishment messages of hope. Even Trudeau, that most establishment of politicians, ran on legalizing Cannabis and changing Canada’s electoral system, he’s since reneged on one of the them, but Canada is still due to legally toking later this year.
The sentiment may be positive, but prescriptions and the audiences are completely different. The dog-whistles of campaigning, loud and ringing to those in the know, silent to those out of the loop are getting louder and louder. The differences, the chasm, between the audiences getting wider. On one side the old manufacturing rust belts and rural communities, lazily caricatured as old, white, racist and uneducated or under-educated, on the other, equally caricatured, the young, effete urban snowflakes out of step with the traditional values of the country (any country).
It is reaching the point where the world picture of our separate communities, our separate identities are becoming so disjointed, so out of phase that we are increasingly speaking in parallel, all sides attempting to impose prejudice and misunderstanding on shrill and often unappealing messages, unable to comprehend the life and experiences of the other. We are getting into the territory of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s lion.
In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein suggests that if a lion could speak in words we could understand, we would still not be able to understand the lion. The lion’s world view, it’s experience as a lion, being so alien that words would not adequately convey meaning or understanding. The only way we could understand would be to anthropomorphize the lion, in which case a lion it would no longer be. Red State. Blue State. Red Pill. Blue Pill.
We aren’t listening very well, either.
The recent UK Channel Four interview with University of Toronto Psychology professor, Jordan Peterson, is an (almost) perfect case study in parallel communication and the art of political interviewing. Peterson speaks in the nuanced words, chosen with the extreme precision, of an empirical academic, the interviewer, Gaby Newsome paints in the broader strokes of the journalistic political interviewer. It allowed Peterson to come across as reasoned (which he his) and reasonable (which, I fear, he mostly isn’t.)
Peterson is a paid-up adherent of the neo-Marxist conspiracy school, which propositions that our education system and very social policy is being subverted by a loud and outspoken clique of Marx or Antonio Gramsci worshiping hegemons imposing their cultural view on our society. Unfortunately the shrill and un-nuanced response often offered by his soft-left or liberal opponents, allow his arguments to sound more than reasonable.
He paints himself as a champion of free-speech, his opponents ‘Snowflakes’ (though he doesn’t use the term, the dog-whistle is evident). He has contempt for the folks demanding safe-spaces lest they be offended. When it comes to this argument, Peterson abandons nuance and puts these opponents squarely on the same plain as Mao and Stalin, an ideology that has killed millions. (Let's not forget that Gramsci killed no-one and died in the fascist jail in Italy where he wrote most of his theories.)
I am not going to attempt to offer a comparison with Peterson's most vocal supporters on the so called ‘alt-right’. The people who make death or rape threats or who drive cars into crowds of demonstrators. My horror and contempt for such thoughts and actions will not allow me to dignify their hatred with any response. “Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.”
Peterson’s arguments are enlivened by the recent attack on Margaret Atwood (not a stooge of a radical patriarchy), or Jagmeet Singh, the newly minted leader of Canada’s Social Democratic NDP, and his ridiculous proposition that Presumption of Innocence is a mere legal convenience, suitable only for the courts. NO IT ISN’T.
Believing victims means allowing them access to a safe hearing and due process, it means believing them enough to allow a trial where they are free to give evidence without fear (something that still does not happen in 90% of cases). It means believing them to get action and justice. It does not mean that we abandon all concepts of civilization and impose the (manipulated) judgement of the mob on the alleged perps. “Lock Her Up!” or take the Hemlock, Socrates. And yes, it is imperfect, and yes there will be verdicts we know, societally, to be wrong. But that is the (high) price I am willing to pay.
In one of my favourite scenes from Robert Bolt’s wonderful A Man For All Seasons. William Roper, young and zealous, wants to marry Thomas More’s daughter, Meg. Both Roper and More are lawyers, and friends, in that most devout age they discuss giving the Devil the benefit of doubt, allowing him the concept of innocence until proven guilty:
“Will Roper: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law!
Thomas More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I'd cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man's laws, not God's — and if you cut them down — and you're just the man to do it — d'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake.”
So yes, I’d give the Devil, or Harvey Weinstein (or Jian Ghomeshi) the benefit of the law, for society’s safety’s sake.
And yes, I’m trying to understand and appreciate why Michigan and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin all believed Trump’s (false) prescriptions in his message of hope.