By: Christopher Friesen
If you’ve seen the youtube clip of Brian Pallister wishing “infidel atheists” a happy Holidays, you might be thinking I’m lobbing myself a journalistic ‘meatball’ here. I can’t blame you—when I saw the headline, every fibre of my being told me, “No, you can’t write about a sound bite, you don’t want to be that kind of writer.” Plus, it doesn’t seem like large swaths of people from any interest group are especially up-in-arms. Hell (not a pun), I’m not even up-in-arms; though, as someone who grew up in the Portage-Lisgar riding (where Pallister served as MP from 2000-08), I am familiar with Brian Pallister (the Progressive Conservative leader for Manitoba since last year), and sensitive to the ‘plight’ of non-religious people living in very-religious communities.
So here we go, earnest journalism based on a sound bite. I feel dirty already…
First, I’ll say I don’t think Brian Pallister is a bad person. I’m sure he’s not. That said, he’s vying to be our province’s Premier, and I am going to judge him for this (admittedly innocuous) fiasco. Conservative-slanting pundits have said this is a joke gone wrong, that poor, dowdy Brian is simply all thumbs at delivering a punch-line. I was ready to accept this rationale, until I actually watched the video. From the pompous, antagonistic air of “I myself celebrate the birth of Christ…” to the patronizing, otherness-inspiring “I don’t know what you celebrate…” to his final, straight-up dumb assertion they must be celebrating “nothing”—you don’t need a behavioural psychologist to tell you his sensitivity to other religions is likely not off the charts.
Another thing lost in our natural fixation on the I-word, is his defence of the I-word. “What I was trying to do there is include everyone in my best wishes over the holidays.” Lets see: Christians-check, Jews-check, Atheists-check. Yup, that’s about everybody. Except of course, in reality, Manitoba is a very diverse place, with many strong religious communities Brian likely just didn’t have to think much about while rolling over the competition in the fairly white and very Christian riding of Portage-Lisgar.
I’m going to get to the ‘plight’ of Atheists in places like Portage-Lisgar in a second. But first, let’s consider the ‘sound bite.’ A short clip used to exemplify something the speaker was saying. Easily digestible, immensely sharable—its pros read like its cons: in reality, its major impact is over-simplification. A medium, but, these days, also a style—a chameleon style, blended into the everyday diital fabric.
But no matter how you broach the phenomenon I’m trying to get at here (a phenomenon the very idea of something going ‘viral’ rests on) at the end of the day we’re talking about the transmission of information. If, in light of the subject matter in play, we consider technology’s interaction with governance, we can all likely agree a viral video is a less-than-ideal medium for facilitating democracy or genuine understanding between people. I understand this likely isn’t blowing your mind-hole, fellow Internet user, but stick with me.
You see, there’s the inherent, or obvious reason this form of quick-transmission isn’t great: namely, its lack of breadth, context or substance. But, I’d argue, that as we adapt to our new digital ‘normal’ (smartphones for now, HD glasses and watches in a bit), there is increasingly an emergent reason this digital phenomenon falls flat: the issues or people behind the transmission are without-fail subject to the same gut-instinct-based judgement. The way jokes are instantaneously processed in a binary (funny/not-funny) fashion, my guess is most people watched this video and responded in one of two ways: either “My gut tells me Brian Pallister is a jackass” or “My gut doesn’t care: simple-minded people must be blowing this out of proportion.”
I’d argue this creates a significant blind-spot in how we perceive current events, politicians, you name it—and furthermore, that, without recognizing these sort-of banal and obvious-seeming attributes of our new ‘environment’, a systematic shift towards populism could already be insidiously gestating. I’m getting a bit too ‘Sci-Fi-Thriller’ here, I’ll admit. But I’ve got to say—it is really boring and complicated to talk earnestly about technology and politics in 2013. There’s a feeling like you’re pulling down your pants and presenting the world with a firm grip on your underwear’s elastic when you write about this kind of thing.
But back to our sound-bite-generated issue.
I grew up in the Portage-Lisgar riding, and recently spoke with an atheist friend of mine, who has been living and working there over the past several years. He told me “there is definite atmosphere of prejudice. A lack of belief tends to define an individual as the opponent or antagonist right out of the starting gate. I have had a few encounters with people who, upon realizing my unbelief, became unwilling to become acquainted. As kids we’re often told to be accepting of others, to not judge a book by its cover, and yet there is this exception when it comes to religious beliefs.”
Now this sound bite, and the fairly-benign discrimination described above, is no tragedy. But the two propositions I’d like to raise are that, after eight years comfortably sweeping his homogenous riding, and after winning a PC leadership race that consisted of exactly one candidate, isn’t it possible this (yes this facile ‘sound bite’) could suggest Pallister is not sensitive and worldly enough to lead Manitoba (a jurisdiction where immigration, aboriginal issues and foreign trade play critical roles)? It would seem Pallister’s own calloused response to the slip up illustrates this: he likely knows everyone will make up their mind about the clip immediately. He doesn’t even seem to think it’s worth it to much pretend like he cares. Everyone’s already reacted, no one’s going to ‘think’ about a sound bite. Right?
Again, though no tragedy, I’d argue that this is a real issue: because there’s room for deliberation between ”getting up-in-arms’ and ‘not caring because you’re self-conscious you’re blowing it out of proportion.’ And that the less we deliberate on our differences, the more we endanger widening rifts of misunderstanding and intolerance.
Not to mention the double-edged reason that (especially these days) these incidents can lead our increasingly-secular society to go overboard with a heady mandate to secularize the commons. A discourse which can turn equally intolerant and can be just as divisive, as witnessed in Quebec at the moment, with the Bloc Québécois’ secular charter.
And finally because—come on, everybody knows the end of December is a festive and noteworthy time for most Manitobans. And if a guy who wants to represent our province comes out belittling “getting together with family and friends,” compared to his highly analogous, ‘righteous’ version of the holiday, I’d say he deserves to take a few on the chin beyond forgettable Facebook comments lamenting him SUCH AN ASSHOLE. No matter how silly the writers of those long, hopefully-thoughtful articles aiming to do it may feel when typing that first word.