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Some disjointed thoughts on needles and pitchforks

This Won't End Well

A month or so ago, I was part of a discussion on … some social justice issue, I don’t remember exactly what, and I felt calm. Some policy thing hadn’t happened as fast as someone wanted. My comment was along the lines of: but we’ve moved the needle. It’ll move again.

And I felt ok with that, because at this point I am old enough to have seen various other needles moved a little bit, over and over, until it actually meant something real and produced real results. Marriage for our LGBT+ friends, for example. Lots of things around tobacco policy. Full-day kindergarten. Pick your favourite issue. I mean, we’re even making progress on basic income.

I guess I was feeling that moving the needle a millimetre at a time was getting us somewhere real. I think I’ve made the error of middle age, the one that says it’s ok to put down the pitchfork and take up the quill.

We can’t ever put down the damn pitchfork, it seems.

I know the pendulum (to switch metaphors) swings. I know that for every advance, there’s always backlash before we can really move on.

Right now I’m starting to draft some thinking around evaluation for some national projects in the general social justice field and I’m thinking about using backlash as an indicator.

Until recently I had a nice thick file of hatemail from several decades ago when I ventured to work on things as innocuous as keeping Women’s College Hospital as its own entity or keeping Toronto un-amalgamated.

Yes, even in the 1990s a substantial number of folks thought I should be raped, tortured, dismembered and/or killed for advocating that women control an actual hospital and felt quite free to tell me so. It was an unending cascade of threats, 100% by men. A nice thick file of hatred and threat and vitriol.

I kept the letters as a reminder that we were succeeding. That we weren’t preaching to the choir, that the message was out there. And I keep saying that backlash is a sign of progress. How can I incorporate this into evaluation plans for this project? How can you measure backlash?

By elections, apparently.

It’s nice to think of backlash as an indicator of progress but I have to keep thinking: how do we move past backlash (this severe and this close to home) into real progress — into a society that is less and less based on fear and scarcity and zero-sum accounting and more about supporting everyone to live a good life?

How do we keep moving the needle towards a country which works to support its residents instead of tearing everyone down to the lowest common denominator? How can we prevent a Canadian Trump?

It’s a fragile needle, our progress indicator.

Twenty-one years ago, I sat in an Environmental Studies grad school seminar discussing when — not if, when — climate change would reach its tipping point. Collectively, we said: 30 years.

More and more I think we were right. Nine more years of the status quo and we’re pretty much fucked, climate-wise.

“No wonder the undergrads find us depressing,” noted the professor.

But we were right. We’re watching the world go over a climate cliff — no scientist even questions this, although we might argue about the details — and here we are electing people who think the planet is some sort of unimportant externality, who prioritize the economy as if an uninhabitable planet can continue to produce double-digit growth forever, as if new modes of living won’t also produce economic opportunities, as if we can ignore carbon dioxide permanently over 400ppm. More magical thinking. This is four years the planet can’t afford.

And yet people drive to pipeline protests. Sometimes I think there is no winning.

I found myself feeling real anger towards Americans casually declaring they’d move to Canada. Yeah, no. We’re not your consolation prize. You stay home and fix your country. They need you — if you leave, don’t you see you’re moving the needle in the wrong direction? If you have enough points to succeed in Canadian immigration, you’re probably not the sort of person who needs to leave. These are the kind of people Canada welcomes as immigrants. Stay. Act. Fight.

And take care of those of you who DO need protecting. They need you.

People — privileged people, of all stripes; people who have the leisure to contemplate policy — sometimes forget that all policies kill people. You can kill more or fewer people, and you can kill more of one kind of person or another, and you can kill people through action or inaction. But in order to make the best possible policy, you need to know the reality of it — you need to look at established fact and evidence and then make your best guess about what’s going to happen if you enact your policy, because systems are complex as well as complicated and we can’t always predict everything.

Policies based on ideology divorced from evidence and fact almost inevitably kill more people, because people’s lives are (imagine that) lived in reality and not within the bounds of ideology. It’s not wrong to be terrified when people are appointed or elected who vow to make policy based on their own imaginations instead of on the available evidence.

Generally, I think it’s a good idea to try to make policies that kill the fewest people. It’s apparent that not everyone agrees. I know that; I know it’s true and yet every time dangerous people get elected I always end up sitting here in stupidly naive shock.

I haven’t seen raw fear as an election reaction before. Fear, real fear, accurate, personal, deep fear for one’s life — this in a democracy; that’s the new thing that’s come out of this election. Possibly it’s also a new thing to elect someone who hopes his policies do kill people.

I’m not sure how it’s feasible to work to move the needle with such a person in charge — barring the pitchforks.

(Don’t put down the pitchforks.)

But also I think we need to keep working on moving that needle, millimetre by millimetre, even when it seems pointless or hopeless. Taking care of ourselves and taking care of everyone else. Not losing the vision of something better. Calling out assholery and discrimination when we see it, when we can. Love is love is love is love and let’s not forget that.

(Don’t put down the pitchforks.)

One Response to “Some disjointed thoughts on needles and pitchforks”

Kelly Baxter Golding says:

(…picking up my pitchfork.)

It’s a privilege to know you.