Nov 272016

Recently I tagged an entry here as “painfully aware.” You might be wondering what the particular tag is referring to, or if you aren’t wondering, you might not realize it’s a reference to a very specific tagline that has to be one of the best, most true, most suitable taglines I’ve ever encountered. So let me tell you the story:

Long, long ago, in the 2008/2009 academic year (which really, I mean really, shouldn’t be as long ago as it is so can someone please do something about that? thanks!), I was back at school getting another degree. Unlike some people, my degree of this era was not in the most evil, horrible field ever—unless you ask Stephen Harper. That’s right: I was learning how to commit *gasp* sociology.

And while learning how to commit this most heinous of crimes, I joined up with the Sociology Students’ Association.1 And this group decided to print some club t-shirts. And on those t-shirts, they included the group’s logo and its glorious, glorious tagline, which as I’m sure you determined by now is this:

painfully aware

If you know anything about sociology, you can probably figure out what those two succinct words are getting at. If you are a sociologist—or, perhaps more accurately, you are someone with a sociological orientation or a sociological worldview—then you see that phrase and you recognize immediately how perfectly it sums up what I shall pretentiously label the “sociologists’ condition.” (it’s really not exactly the condition of sociologists; it’s more about the condition of having learned enough sociology that you just can’t turn off your sociologically-informed viewpoint)

You often hear writers or critics complain that they can’t properly sit back and enjoy writing or whatever art they are consuming as, let’s say, laypeople. Once you know a certain amount about a field or domain, you can’t help but look at it differently. For instance, when I watch TV or film or see theatre, a lot of times I will find myself thinking, “Good grief, this actor must be ecstatic over getting such good material!” That’s for a variety of reasons, stretching waaaaaaaay back to my childhood when my mum did community theatre. But basically, I know a lot2 about acting and TV and film production. So when I enjoy TV or film or theatre, it’s not, usually, because I’ve lost myself in the magic, or at least, it’s not because I’ve lost myself in the magic effortlessly. It takes a really powerful performance (like when I saw Wicked the first time in London) to simply overwhelm my critical faculties3 and keep me “in the moment” as an audience member. Either that or I have to essentially consciously make myself unconscious of all the extra stuff I’m observing and evaluating without even trying to.

When you are sufficiently immersed in sociology, you are pretty much constantly painfully aware.  Aware of what? Aware of all the crazy institutional structures that are embedded in our everyday lives, aware of all the subtleties of the various forms of oppression present in society, aware of how various forms of oppression can interact with one another, aware of how difficult it is to effect change in the world on any kind of large scale, aware of how language is made and re-made to suit various agendas, aware of exactly how complex life and its problems can be, and how small we as individuals are. It can be terrifyingly paralyzing.

I think, though, that the fact Harper exhibited such an apparently irrational hatred of sociology in general, and sociologists in particular, is telling. Sociology is a way of looking at the world that pushes you to see holistically, to uncover complexity, and—maybe most importantly—to see the interconnectedness of all things. To me, it’s the antithesis of conservative thought, because I’ve never read or discovered one conservative position that isn’t, at its core, founded in the idea of selfishness. Maybe not individual selfishness, but certainly fairly limited group selfishness. Family selfishness, racial selfishness, economic selfishness, gender selfishness… find me a conservative idea that isn’t about benefitting a group of haves to the detriment of a group of have-nots and I’ll eat my toque.

This is not to say that all sociologists are “bleeding heart liberals.” Oh no, there are some marvellously delusional schools of thought in sociology, like structural functionalism and rational choice theory, that actually dovetail quite nicely with conservative ideologies. Indeed, perhaps they were promoted and gained attention within the field because of these “fortuitous” alignments. But the fundamental perspective of sociology considers how groups of people act and interact, and that perspective, as certain people say about the facts in general, has a “liberal bias.”

I think there’s an explicit reason sociology isn’t taught as its own discipline (generally) in high school and I think it’s because it encourages a worldview that is perhaps a bit too likely to cause people to challenge authority. This isn’t to say everyone who studies sociology becomes some kind of enlightened left-wing activist who magically eradicates all their prejudices… but if ever there were a field of study that puts all the right tools at people’s disposal to at least start breaking down their bigotry, to start questioning why things are the way they are in society, to start cutting through everything in society designed to distract us, to start making connections that—to borrow a very famous idea from a very famous sociologist4—perhaps the power elite don’t want the rank-and-file asking, then sociology must be it.

And somehow, all of the above, along with innumerable other multitudes, is all contained in two small words: painfully aware

So next time you see someone you know is studying, or has studied, sociology, offer them a hug—because buster, you better believe they need it!

  1. note the proper use of the apostrophe to form a plural possessive []
  2. for a person basically untrained save for participation in some school musicals []
  3. as in, able to critique and analyze, not “unable to say anything positive about” []
  4. that would be C. Wright Mills in The Power Elite []
Nov 262016

A friend sent me this article to read: It was the Democrats’ embrace of neoliberalism that won it for Trump

I sent her back my thoughts and she seemed to think they were cogent, so I’m sharing them more publicly. (Thanks for the encouragement, kele!)

Not sure I agree completely (and it’s a bit self-serving since the Leap Manifesto is Klein’s baby) but it certainly encompasses how we’ve seen the NDP sputter federally and politically here in Canada.

But Hillary Clinton was definitely part of the problem… not because of past scandals or being a woman, but because of the Wall Street coziness aka neoliberal championing. It would have been really interesting to see a Trump/Sanders face-off, that’s for sure.

I think, though, that racism and misogyny are probably stronger forces here than Klein cares to admit in this article. Neoliberalism has put people in more precarious positions and that has heightened their fears, for sure, and when people’s fears are heightened, they are more likely to lash out, blame others, and not listen to their better angels… but it’s not like neoliberalism created racial and gender divisions to start with—it just creates scenarios where people can exacerbate them for their own gain (Trump and the Republicans).  You could dramatically improve the economy for the working class white male and that wouldn’t make his bigotry disappear, just go underground.

And I still think the media issue is a HUGE issue.  But ultimately the failure of the press could be seen as a direct result of neoliberalism, it’s true.

Ugh.  Not sure how we get people to realize the huge problem of neoliberalism.  Capitalism just enjoys this insane position of power and favour in our society and it’s hard for people (without a very specific background) to understand how capitalism in the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s is vastly different from capitalism since them.  The dramatic shift towards neoliberal policies is so cleverly positioned as just the “natural evolution” of capitalism, the “inevitability” of globalization… *sigh*

It comes back to how things like “the market” are just presented as these somehow “natural” forces that are outside human control, their own living breathing things.  ALL of this is under our control.  It only exists because we choose to allow it to exist, to make and enforce (or not enforce) laws that allow it to exist, to build (or demolish) institutions that are essential to it existing.

Nov 122016

A friend of mine posted this on Facebook as their profile picture:


Oh so very, very true! Totally reminds me of the UBC Sociology Students’ Association’s (brilliant) tagline: Painfully Aware

You know, unless you’re into quantitative sociology, in which case you are more than capable of being blissfully ignorant. ??

Nov 112016

Someone on Facebook posted a link to this article: Canada in the Age of Donald Trump

The person who posted it thought it was a good call to arms regarding being anti-racist in Canada.

I beg to differ, so here’s my response.

First, right off the bat, anyone who implies—as does this author—NATO and NAFTA are inarguably good things needs their heads examined.

This is one of the most shamefully hubristic articles I’ve ever seen on Canada. And I’ve read garbage by Margaret Wente.

Oh god… he actually had the gall to write an article on Canadian EXCEPTIONALISM?!

Does he know how our Indigenous peoples get treated in Canada? Under Trudeau? Does he understand Trudeau hasn’t halted revocations of citizenship under Harper’s legislation, but has accelerated them? Because that just smacks of multiculturalism!

Does he understand that Trudeau looks poised to support several pipeline projects, many of which tear right through Aboriginal communities?

Just because the US has taken a terrible, appalling turn doesn’t mean Canada has somehow been magically transformed into some kind of anti-racist paradise. Do you think we had ten years of Harper rule here because people are colour-blind?

If we are not extremely careful, we will end up just like the United States. There are no two countries more closely economically and culturally interlinked in the world, so if the author thinks we are somehow immune to that kind of hate, he only has to look at our own history to have that ridiculous notion blown all to hell. When the US was interning Japanese people who were five-generation citizens, so were we. When they were drumming gays out of the civil service during the Red Scare as “security risks,” so were we. When they were creating “yellow” ghettos of Chinese immigrants, so were we. As the US brings in cheap immigrant labour to do the jobs the “old-stock” population doesn’t want to do—or wants decent money for that the corporate overlords don’t want to pay—while putting up every conceivable barrier to citizenship, SO. DO. WE. (e.g. live-in caregiver program, foreign agricultural workers, tunnel borers for the Canada Line, etc. ad infinitum)

Canada has a hugely racist past and present—and 40 years of cheery-looking state policy wrapped up in a nice “multicultural” bow does not erase or change that. Any article that posits Canada as somehow superior on racial issues to the point where we are the “last” country to believe in “multiculturalism” is nonsensical. Idiotic. But more importantly, this kind of “journalism” is insidiously dangerous.

The entire situation in the US is possible because “good people” there cannot wrap their rah-rah-America brains around the fact that America, their beloved homeland—land of the free, home of the brave—is a terrible, awful nation-state. It has huge inequities and terrible bigotry, a horrific past, racist law upon racist law, a prison system that entraps countless black men, gun violence so bad that there is a mass shooting there nearly every day of the year, and the unbelievable hypocrisy to think, still, that it is somehow the best nation on Earth, the strongest democracy, the beacon of light and hope in the world. There is no greater hubris alive than the hubris of America.

And until I read this article, I wouldn’t have thought there was a Canadian in the world who would make claims in even a remotely similar vein about Canada.

I’ll tell you one thing: we certainly won’t become a better nation by falling into the same blind, believe-our-own-hype, Pollyanna trap. We need to do better not because we are the best and need to lead the way, but because every day we are failing. Every minute of every day, someone in this country is suffering from racism. Maybe every second.

Not in the US. Not in post-Brexit Britain. Not in France or Germany or the Scandinavian nations.

IN CANADA. The true north strong and free.

Nov 082016

If I had a favourite poet, Auden would be it. Or Whitman. But definitely Auden.

This is maybe the best most true thing about grief that has ever been written. Oddly, maybe, I found my feelings about the US election results tonight reminded me, a bit, of my feelings of grief when my mum died. That feeling that the world has been lessened, immeasurably—that a light has dimmed—yet on the outside, everyone is acting as if things are normal.

Anyway, it describes perfectly how I feel.

W.H. Auden

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Stop all the clocks.