“I don’t think we’re in 1984, but I certainly do see a lot of the very, very same signs that create fertile ground for despotism.”
These are the chilling words of pollster and political sage Allan Gregg, who was speaking to me recently about what he called the “nefarious” state of affairs in Canada when the government is “vilifying” environmentalists and anyone else who might oppose the direction they are heading in.
He said it’s evident in other areas too, such as cutting the long form census. No one ever lodged a privacy complaint about it, he said, “but they don’t want the long form census because it is what informs progressive, rational decision makers about the policy direction they want to go in. They don’t need data to get in the way, or more importantly, to contradict where they want to go. Vilifying critics is part of that tactic of getting the ship on the course they believe the nation needs and wants.”
When I asked if he worries that we are heading towards the kind of gridlock that we have been seeing in American political discourse, Gregg said he is.
“Although in America, when you have gridlock, nothing happens because the checks and balances are so structurally pronounced in that country. In this country, when you have gridlock, you basically have the potential for tyranny because so much of the power is vested in the centre. In our system the Prime Minister — especially one with this Prime Minister's abilities and a majority government — can to do pretty much anything he wants. I do worry about that.”
He pointed out the Harper government employs the kind of doublespeak and newspeak that Orwell wrote about in his satirical novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Gregg calls this willful dissemination of misinformation — “War is Peace … Freedom is Slavery” — a highly misleading tactic.
It was used symbolically in Nineteen Eighty-Four, but today is being used very practically, not only by this government but others around the world.
A few examples of this style of Orwellian misdirection are seen in recent Canadian legislation including Bill C-18, the Marketing Freedom for Grain Farmers Act, which dismantled the Canadian Wheat Board; Bill C-5, called the Continuing Air Service for Passengers Act which unilaterally extended the contract of the National Automobile, Aerospace, Transport and General Workers Union of Canada removing any prospect of a lockout or strike; and Bill C-10, entitled an Act to Enact the Justice for Victims of Terrorism (sub-titled The Safe Streets and Communities Act) which stiffens penalties for possession of pot and builds more prisons.
Why would governments want to disguise the substance of such Bills? Because they know at the end of the day reason will always trump ideology. “It will always win if applied and if used. So, they employ this misdirection or obfuscation in order to ensure that reasonable, rational, thinking people won't look more closely at what is being done.” By shrouding the truth, legislators are admitting that their intentions likely lack both support and respect.
“If you see a bill to keep communities safe, who's going to argue against that?” asked Gregg.
He adds, the fact that government is building more prisons when all criminologists tell us crime is going down and that incarceration is not the most effective way of having safe communities — doesn't matter. What they're doing is appealing to a sentiment that doesn't require reason and that ends up polarizing people. It avoids reason because reason runs contrary to the emotional base and what replaces it is the allure of the simplistic, unreasoned solution.
I told Gregg, when I see the Harper Conservatives’ attacks on environmentalists, it defies normal communications thinking. Why would they put themselves in that situation where it could backfire? The fact is, they're actually not thinking normally, because what they are basically trying to do is polarize people. They don't care if you trust them, they just don't want you to trust anybody else.
Gregg agreed and said another development that allows this to happen “uniquely in this particular point in time” is what’s called the Zero Sum Society — a term that refers to a game or economic theory where advancement, or upward progress, always comes at the expense of others who must move down.
In short: One man’s gain is another man’s loss.
Gregg explained, for as long as we can remember in modern times, the predominant ethos was that progress was normal, everything was going to be better. My next house would be bigger, my next paycheck would be fatter, and my next car would be faster. And as long as everyone believed that, and they did, whatever success one person had wouldn't take away from anyone else’s, because opportunity was limitless.
Now the tables have turned. People now believe that opportunity is finite, and that whatever you gain means there will be less available for me. So people are at loggerheads, we have a growing situation of polarization, conflict and dispute.
“What’s more, if I vilify you as a bad person who is not to be believed, then my friend over here becomes even more attached to me as a consequence of the attack on you,” said Gregg.
It’s what I have recently started calling the “Why bother?” syndrome and it’s something that came to light in our sustainability research initiative, which observed a growing hopelessness regarding environment challenges like climate change: “I can't make a difference, the system is rigged, everyone is so argumentative. Why would I engage in this?”
Gregg, who is an expert in Canadian public opinion, a progressive conservative pollster and founder of Decima Research, agreed saying this despondency applies particularly to the environment. If you probe public opinion you find Canadians are very sensitive to the environment and find it insulting that Canada is viewed as a laggard internationally. They throw up their hands and do nothing because they feel so diminished, that the problems are so insurmountable, and that people who should provide solutions are unreliable.
It’s not about apathy; it’s about impotence and inefficacy.
He noted many environmental leaders are partly responsible for this attitude because they make the consequences of doing nothing appear so dire and apocalyptic that it literally exhausts people who might otherwise be their friends and supporters.
Gregg was quick to add we needn’t despair. Ask a Canadian their political outlook and, two to one, they will say they are progressive rather than conservative. Canadians are by nature reasonable people who seek compromise. That's been our history.
And we now have a distribution system in social media that is nothing short of remarkable. He said it’s incumbent upon those who care about the public square, who care about public policy, who care about making better public policy using science and reason, to learn how to use these tools more effectively. It’s the same way our generation had to learn how to use television as an advertising tool to persuade consumers. We now have far more effective, far more targeted distribution systems, and we should look at them as a gift.
Image Credit: 1984 Anniversary Edition, Penguin Books.