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Committing Sociology: Part I

6 years ago

I was getting ready, peripatetically and mentally working on some language for an upcoming piece of improv at an annual gathering of Christian peacemakers, this year taking place at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.  However, I was not so deep in script experimentation to miss a t-shirt that walked by me.  It said in large letters:  ‘Commit Sociology!’

Could it possibly be that here, I thought, south of the border Margaret Atwood calls a one-way mirror, here, someone else was listening to our Prime Minister’s comedy routines from Ottawa, the G-8 and beyond?  As part of a slap-down to that curiosity-plagued Justin Trudeau – who insists on asking pesky questions about root causes and such, the Prime Minister had used that weary tone typical of parents of three year-olds who also ask ‘Why, daddy?’  We’re used to G-8 photos where the Canadian PM’s name is left out. This was extraordinary.  I had to find out.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper at G-8 2013

I confess to actually running after this man – who turned out to be a member of the sociology department at Gonzaga, Vik Gumbhir by name, part of a conspiracy of sociologists, faculty and students, who were alternately disturbed, amused and inspired by, yes, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s reprimand from a press conference that was supposed to be about Trinidad & Tobago.  So they produced t-shirts.

Steve on noisy non-stealth snowmobile.
Steve on noisy non-stealth snowmobile.

Perfect.  In case you think that ‘commit sociology’ is a regular part of our lexicon or, that some people say ‘this is no time to commit sociology’ all the time, you’d be in error on that one.  Go ahead. Google ‘Commit Sociology’ – it’s all, all, all about our PM, doing his bit back then in late April of this year to prop up this country’s ‘struggling satire industry’ – a phrase used by Thomas Walkom writing in today’s Toronto Star and in reference to another comic contribution:  Steve’s announcement yesterday from North of 60 of DND’s scheme to develop a, hold on, stealth snowmobile.  Ya can’t make this stuff up, folks. That oughta keep Putin shivering in his mukluks.

As another commentator noted, ‘Not only is this story not from The Onion, the government has nicknamed the program “Loki”, the same name as a key comic book villain. Programmes also in development: Ultron drones & Lex Luthor banking regulations.’

Lee wears a Commit Sociology t-shirt

Back to committing sociology.  The prof at Gonzaga, besides giving me the last extant copy of the t-shirt, told me that his class went so far as to define what they mean when they insist on ‘committing sociology’:

To COMMIT SOCIOLOGY is to:

  • Examine social problems and issues closely and critically.
  • Appreciate the complexity of society and reject simplistic explanations of phenomena.
  • Use existing knowledge and theory to inform our understanding of the world.
  • To collect and analyze data to study social problems and issues empirically.

Pretty subversive stuff.

Sociologist, Anna-Liisa Aunio, who spreads this stuff regularly at Dawson College in Montréal, suggests a narrative for what she calls ‘Harper’s Fairy-tale Canada’: ‘Once upon a time there was a beautiful and blessed land called Canada. Its citizens and government prided themselves on their ability to welcome those seeking refuge or work in their land, [their] capacity to include and appreciate those who made a home within their borders, and munificence in the exercise of justice and law such that peace and happiness reigned. To a visitor, this was immediately evident; after all, the people were so damn polite.’

Lining up at Tim Hortons

However, there was evil afoot:  ‘There were still those, however, who hated this happiness and sought only to sow terror and fear to destroy it. Evil, hatred, and violence dominated their souls; they engaged in sinister plots to inflict pain and suffering on anyone who said “please”, “thank you” or insisted on waiting patiently in line at Tim Horton’s. The wise and just leaders of this land worked tirelessly to root out and punish these evildoers before they could inflict harm on the innocent and good people of the land.’… even in Kandahar.

Lining up at Tim Hortons in Kandahar

This Harperland fairy tale version of reality sees ‘evildoers who hate Western values and who want to destroy Canada [as] responsible for terror.’ They’re not really ‘us’; neither home-grown nor human. Professor Aunio rightly asserts:  ‘This narrative is compelling and just in many ways: it shifts our attention to the suffering of the victims rather than the motive of the perpetrators, emphasiz[ing] the need to police and prosecute evil acts.’ It’s sepia-coloured cinema, black hats, white hats, ‘where it doesn’t matter what someone’s motivation is, it matters only whether and how they are caught and brought to justice.’

Black hat on ground

But there’s a cost to living in a fairy tale.   ‘For a generation increasingly detached and disaffected by democratic politics, one which participates less and less in political life, we need to more actively and openly encourage inquiry, critique and debate, to complicate the childhood fairy tales about Canada, and to hopefully foster a more engaged citizenry. We need to commit more, rather than less, pondering and sociological thinking.’

Conservative MP, Pierre Poilièvre "Terrorism is caused by terrorists"

Exactly.  A couple off brief PSs: Just hours after the PM advised against ‘committing sociology’ by considering the root causes of terrorism, Conservative MP, Pierre Poilièvre, came up with an even more bumpersticker-ready position, telling his co-panelists on that evening’s edition of Power and Politics that ‘the root cause of terrorism is terrorists.’  So that’s clear now. The Twitterverse loved it and our struggling satire industry got another boost.  Yeh. The slightly less funny NDP International Development critic, Hélène Laverdière (who holds a PhD in Sociology), had this to say to Stephen Harper:  ‘I can walk and chew gum at the same time.’  So take that, Steve, even if that sounds more like biology than sociology.

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