Too Much Freedom, pt II

So, let me try to summarize the previous entry (this a just a running thought, folks, and if it seems to be directionless I’ll pull the plug): I’m attempting to invert the notion of “too much freedom,” which is typically aimed towards people seeking acknowledgement of social justice issues, seeing as in reality if there’s going to be an argument for “too much freedom” it’s in the much more serious and widely documented actions by right-wing extremism.

Part of what I’m musing on are questions of how we got here. How, for example, we have so many people who are poorly informed.

There’s an interesting piece in the Globe & Mail, by columnist David Parkinson, pointing out the chasm that can exist between what a populace thinks they know, and what the more complicated truth may be. In this case, some myths that Canadians seem to have come to believe about our economy. We think our interest rates are the highest compared to other countries, but the opposite is true; we think the carbon tax is hurting our wallets but its overall effect is practically negligible on the average person. An easy takeaway from this is the need for better public education about how the parts of the economy work. But even the best education can’t save us from our own psychology.

We’re easily influenced by phenomena which can seem to draw its own conclusions. The sight of a street person sitting on the sidewalk, drinking from a bottle a sherry distracts from the many possible reasons, likely spanning many years, how that sight came to be. If we were able in that moment to step back, we’d begin to see how factors such as socio-economic status, childhood instability, and mental health issues probably contributed to this outcome. Were we magically to have access to this information, it’s likely we would conclude the street person we see on the sidewalk probably didn’t choose to be where they are, which is where our minds might go if we don’t know any better, or don’t wish to know any better.

A very interesting piece of data is the prevalence of brain injury in homeless populations. We know through research data that street people suffer from a host of unfortunate situations. While data may not tell the full (read: nuanced) story, more and more it provides a scaffolding to better understanding, potentially leading to better social outcomes. The problem is that, to the average person a) data is invisible, and b) because most of us just want our individual lives to go well, and don’t have the time or capacity to understand everything else, we rely on a combination of news, friends, social media, suspicion, projection, transference, you name it. So, even before treading into the topic of intentional disinformation, there are many ways in which we can unintentionally lull our way into thinking we know more about things than we do.

All of this said, a defining issue, which I touched on previously is one of severity. There’s a significant degree of difference between someone who mistakenly believes the federal government is responsible for the Bank of Canada’s decisions to hike interest rates, and someone who is spreading hatred against LGBTQ+ individuals on public channels. The consequences to the former are few and isolated. To the latter other people’s lives may be at stake.

And this is where disinformation makes everything worse. It’s the difference between someone having strong feelings against a politician or member of society, and that same someone wanting to storm the Capital building or intimidate drag storytime at the local library.

And I should take a break and come back to this…to be continued.


Too Much Freedom

I’ve been piecing together something recently, or rather I’ve been doing it very passively for the last few years.

There’s something I took from a controversy from years ago. It was during the conversation that was happening about the voice of Apu (first started through the documentaryThe Problem With Apu, then followed by a rather wilting Simpsons episode in response). I don’t want this particular controversy to necessarily be a centrepiece of what I’m trying to get out, and yet it might be so that’s why I don’t want to jettison it entirely.

The thing I took was from a response by Matt Groening to the suggestion that Apu’s depiction was outdated and/or even racist. “[…] I think it’s a time in our culture where people love to pretend they’re offended.” (link to larger USA Today interview).

I’m not sure what Matt Groening’s technical role description is today, but in the beginning he was counter-culture. All you need to do is look at some of his Life In Hell strips to get that picture. He knew how to tweak the nose of authority with a deeply humanistic empathy for the severe consequences that come with authoritarianism and fascism. The Simpsons gave him a larger canvas, first as an experiment/time-filler on The Tracey Ullman Show, then when it had its own TV slot, which it proceeded to…well, it’s such a ubiquitous cultural product that any summary seems trite, doesn’t it?

I was deeply disappointed by Groening’s dismissal at the time, and something about it has been eating at me. It was a mark (if not a casual philosophy) of a type of individual who was speaking from a place of disproportionate comfort: money, power, influence, achievement, cultural impact. And what he was suggesting was that we were the ones with too much: accommodation, choices, ideas. And that by virtue of this we were the thin-skinned ones. He might as well have said — and I swear that Groening did say this, but I must’ve inserted it into my memory because it’s not part of any response of his at the time — that this was a case of “too much freedom”.

There’s a great irony to this dismissive sentiment, and it’s something I largely see perniciously emulated in right-of-centre cultural criticism: these people [children, racialized individuals, the systemically disadvantaged, etc] have it easy, and maybe if they worked harder they would shut up and enjoy their life. And I guess this is where I’m doing some mental wrestling because I actually feel there is too much freedom, but, rather instead of it manifesting in some nightmare of political correctness (waiting for that any day now btw), I’m seeing it in the form of the anti-vax movement, the so-called “freedom convoy” movement, the indisputable rise of far-right militarism under our noses, denial of climate catastrophe and people who demonstratively don’t understand what 5G is.

I’m tempted to ask: are these just two sides of the same “too much freedom” coin? If so, what’s on the other side, because it feels like a bullshit piece of bothside-ism to frame it as such. Is the answer truly you can’t have any progress towards a more just society without a carte blanche allowance for the worst of humanity also?

Separately — just sayin’ — supposing we could, how would we go about lessening “freedom”…without that being a flaming giant untenable nightmare-in-the-making [insert ghost of Stalin]?

I’m tempted to ask: are these just two sides of the same “too much freedom” coin? If so, what’s on the other side, because it feels like a bullshit piece of bothside-ism to frame it as such. Is the answer truly you can’t have any progress towards a more just society without a carte blanche allowance for the worst of humanity also?

I’d be happy to live in a society where my neighbour is a conspiracy freak. To each their own. But when the conspiracy freak starts vandalizing public infrastructure and sowing wider social chaos for beliefs that — political ideology aside — are unfounded or delusional, then part of me sometimes wonders whether there is too much freedom. I’m not talking about being inconvenienced by traffic due to a protest. I’m talking about something like Jan 6th. I’m talking about not just freedom to be stupid, but an enabling of stupid, a metastasizing of stupid as freedom gives it more license. I can’t help but want to tie this into what I think a big part of the problem is: where we get our information, and who/where we get it from. The thought being not that there’s a central source of misinformation/distortion that needs to be regulated (or vanquished), but rather — yes, you saw this coming — social media.

Anyways, I need to leave and come back to this … I’ll either tack onto the end or start something later…

[quick insert] But here’s the thing: social media is just a messaging service; McLuhanism aside, within the context of what I’m talking about, the social medium isn’t the message(s). I also want to avoid a reductionist approach that is hyper-focused on seeking a singular villain, and leave room for complexity and randomness, the stuff that keeps us from convincing ourselves that patterns, just because we notice them, have to be something (causal, intentional) outside of themselves.

(to be continued)