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You Can Run For Office, But You Can’t Hide Your Past

October 4, 2008

So far, the most striking aspect of this election has not been about policy direction or visionary leadership, but about finding candidates that don’t put their feet in their mouths. Tasteless jokes, racism, nudity…not exactly the model of democracy that Canada contends to be. Interestingly, however, a closer look at these political gaffs reveals some of the very societal changes that we like to talk about on this blog.

Take for instance the role that information and communication technology has played in this campaign. Forget about twitter, the star of this campaign has not been about the new means of communication, but about the overwhelming amount of information that is available on each of the candidates vying for our votes. Blog comments. Drug trip videos. Public displays of nudity from 12 years back. What used to be hidden in your past is suddenly out in public view. Full transparency is the new normal. But full transparency comes with a price. What information can you trust? What is worthy of voters’ notice and what is too much information? When should a candidate be forced out over past comments open to interpretation and when should old stones be left unturned?

So far we have seen one candidate allude to immigrants being criminals, two candidates making purportedly anti-Semitic comments in the past, and two candidates and a Minister’s aide making disparaging comments regarding Aboriginal peoples. What does this say about the importance of diversity in Canada? Sure there was general public outrage over the remarks, but that doesn’t change the fact that at least some of these comments derived from a place of real fear, misunderstanding and outright racism. This is especially true of the Aboriginal comments. While Aboriginal peoples have made great strides in establishing their rights in the courts, there is still much work to be done to replace the negative stereotypes that still exist in our society.

We all want to be able to vote for the perfect candidate that represents our personal worldviews, but that dream doesn’t mesh with reality. Candidates are only human. Covering up a candidate’s flaws with sweater vests, photo ops and scripted speaking notes only further embitters the voter when they wake up from their post-election hangover and see who they really voted in. In the world of full transparency, we have to be willing to listen to those ugly truths, and learn how to have the tough conversations with each other. To respect each other’s differences. To be honest with ourselves. Because there’s nowhere left to hide.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. corsullivan permalink*
    October 6, 2008 8:38 pm

    I think you’ve hit on a new sociological term – the prissiness-quotient, PQ, of a given society. All the factors you identified probably contribute to Canada’s high PQ, although I would argue that it’s a bit simplistic to say that our expectations of politicians are too high. I think we expect too much rectitude and too little boldness, originality and broad-mindedness.

    I was an undergraduate during the 1990s, and I certainly remember how silly the identity politics sometimes got. It’s one thing to take pride in an ancestral culture, or to conceive of an ethnic group as an entity with specific interests and concerns. It’s another thing to insist that the culture must be shielded from all criticism, or that the group must never be exposed to anything that might offend its members.

    Part of the problem, I think, is the prevailing attitude to sensitivity itself. A lot of people seem to regard this as a positive quality, or at least one that must be respected. I would much rather put sensitivity in the same category as greed, or laziness – character flaws that we all exhibit to some degree, but that we disapprove of and try to keep to a reasonable minimum.

  2. adamfritz permalink*
    October 6, 2008 12:19 am

    Let’s hope we grow up fast. Fragmenting into protective enclaves of those who think alike is not healthy for Canadian society as a whole.

    But who has to do the growing up? Is this a flaw of all Canadians? Are the expectations we place on politicians simply too high (especially considering how little we seem to respect the profession these days)? Is the media to blame for placing too much focus on the scandalous and the negative?

    Maybe our exceptional “prissiness-quotient” is a negative side-effect of the identity politics campaigns of the 1990s. The campaigns to make us all aware of the beauty of diversity perhaps were a little too successful, so that we are now fearful of admitting that we still harbour some remnants of the biases of past generations. Sweeping the things we don’t want to see under the rug won’t make them go away. They need to see the light of day, so that they can be dealt with appropriately.


  3. corsullivan permalink*
    October 4, 2008 6:46 pm

    Great post, and I agree that we need to learn to have those tough conversations. I would argue that it’s basically a question of maturity. Most of us have a few radical, shocking ideas rattling around in the backs of our minds, not to mention a few irrational subconscious biases we might wish we could expunge. We shouldn’t be too surprised when somebody else’s radical opinions or subconscious biases happen to end up on public display. Join the club!

    I also think we’re living in a climate of unreasonable prissiness, puritanism and political correctness, perhaps more so in Canada than in many other places. People too often get absurdly worked up over anything involving nudity or sexuality, and the bar for racism has become so low that the term is losing much of its original force and meaning. This also seems to be happening with a variety of other “isms”, although perhaps not quite to the same extent.

    With the increased transparency you highlighted in your post, we’re going to have to either grow up awfully fast or else retreat into some sort of permanent state of tight-lipped paranoia. It’s hard to think of anything that would have a more stultifying impact on our public life.

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