Friday 19 August 2011

Responding to Sol Chrom and How to Use the Word 'Elitist'

My friends call me out for being pedantic sometimes when talking about politics and policies. Frankly, it’s a fair assessment. I’m OK with it for the most part because words and nuance matter when it comes to politics. In fact, I’d say that’s where the real meaning is found-- that by forming arguments with detail, clarity and honesty we can more ably discuss solutions to the complicated and layered problems we encounter.

While words are powerful tools to illuminate the best and worst thoughts and ideas of our discourse, they can also obfuscate. Successful politicians have long been masters of this technique. Forming arguments, terms and divisions that appeal to our emotional thinking has long been an easier and more effective manner of winning broad support.

The Power of Words
Professional Evil Word Alchemist Frank Luntz opined that 80% of political arguments are emotional, 20% intellectual. It’s from this grounding that he coined the phrase ‘Death Tax’ as opposed to ‘Estate Tax’ and ‘Government takeover of healthcare’ for Obama’s healthcare plan. Luntz has made a career on condensing more accurate, official terms into popular, official and not-quite-as-accurate terms.

The same rhetorical techniques propelled Rob Ford into office. Like Luntz, he and his team captured the zeitgeist with some simple, emotional language that crafted a powerful if inaccurate portrait of Toronto (for more, read this excellent piece on storytelling and persuasion from the Toronto Star).

By creating the most powerful story and the touchstone terms of the campaign (gravy train, respect for taxpayers, downtown elites etc…) Team Ford defined the debate. They moved the intellectual and emotional goalposts to their comfort zone by winning the most important turf- the words that define our discourse.

Words Used to Sow Discord 
This political win by Team Ford was largely enabled through sowing emotional class war divisions between the ‘everyman’ and ‘intellectuals’. I bring this up due to an excellent piece by Sol Chrom on his blog from yesterday. In it, he argues that the anti-intellectual discourse which dismisses well-reasoned, expert ‘elite’ arguments is contrived backlash to feed manufactured narratives as a way to pose as the ally of the little guy. Thus the Fords, become the everyman through their love of football and BBQs despite their inherited wealth and the accompanying ideology which privileges fellow travelers.   

This stance is enabled and furthered by the likes of the Toronto Sun, a ‘populist’ newspaper. In it, columnists regularly deride alternative opinions and experts groups through epithets that are similar to what political and cultural critic Thomas Frank termed ‘latte libel’. In defining individuals and groups by right wing terms, such as ‘helmethead’ cyclists, ‘Poverty Pimp’ social justice programs and ‘La Poodle’ Margaret Atwood, the likes of Sue-Ann Levy dismiss and insubstantiate their opponents through reductive rhetoric.

This emotionally evocative and shallow language creates what Frank calls a “mutant strain of class war” where cyclists, the underprivileged and library users are coupled with ‘elitists’. This dismisses their goals and aims as outside of the mainstream, as mere social engineering experiments from which to test bizarre intellectual theories or ‘suck from the public teat’ financially.  

These are not accurate descriptions of the people who oppose Rob Ford and his enablers on council. There has been a concerted attempt by the likes of The Brothers Ford, Giorgio Mammoliti, and Doug Holyday to assert that the individuals at the Citizen’s Filibuster were organized labour or the unemployed, somehow an inauthentic and inaccurate voice for Toronto. But that stretches credulity when you look at the video of 14-year-old Anika Tabovaradanby, the articulate and impassioned animal rescue volunteer Laura Heslin Piper or senior citizens highlighting the importance of their crossing guard jobs for which they are paid $12 an hour.

Chrom's Solutions
Chrom’s solution to the inaccurate framing of the issues is twofold. One, don’t be ashamed about making intelligent, well-reasoned arguments. I agree with him here. Sophisticated and nuanced ideas should be celebrated; they shape the political terrain for the better and guard against being drowned out by the emotionally-charged and juvenile nonsense that flows from Levy and others.

Chrom also suggests a need to reclaim terms and own them. I partially agree here. Some terms should rightly be reclaimed. An activist is someone who engages the political sphere with community concerns motivated by a sense of civic virtue, not an ideologically lecherous sponge. Liberalism promotes liberty, opportunity, equal rights and inclusion and is not an ideology designed to dispossess individuals or groups of those rights.

Chrom concludes by looking at the word ‘elitist’, that term favoured by people such as Levy, Christie Blatchford, Don Cherry and the Fords. Chrom suggests that this word be reclaimed to in an effort to promote the idea that ‘the elite’- educated, informed and intelligent people- make important decisions that balance interests and deal with complexities.

Reclamation Not The Only Strategy
I would caution against this by putting on my Frank Luntz hat (ew, gross). The term ‘elitist’ conjures up a separation from the mainstream and is not so easy to reclaim. Even if the arguments are sophisticated or ‘elite’ the people they’re supporting are mostly marginalized or underrepresented. Instead, the people who Chrom cites in his post (@cityslikr, myself!, Matt Elliott, Mike Smith, Dave Meslin, Tim Falconer, Ivor Tossell, Hamutal Dotan, Andrea Houston, Jonathan Goldsbie, R. Jeanette Martin, Justin Stayshn, Justin Beach, Ed Keenan, Tabatha Southey, John Lorinc), are far from elitist. To the contrary, these individuals are driven by a concern with promoting the quality of life for the average citizen and the city as a whole.

Instead of reclaiming the word ‘elitist’, it’s more effective to turn it around to highlight the false consciousness sowed by Fordian rhetoric. What’s more elitist: supporting public libraries or suggesting they close down? People can buy their own books, damnit. What’s more elitist: wanting a bridge to connect communities or wanting to throw the land over to developers? What’s more elitist: connecting with a vibrant and diverse LGBTQ community or avoiding it to spend time at the cottage? What’s more elitist: fostering community growth through small and energetic organizations, or opposing all grant funding and suggesting they can find private donors? What’s more elitist: opposing cuts to bus routes or supporting tax break entitlements for drivers?

Chrom rightly argues for language’s significance and importance in politics. After all, to move the discourse, terms must be co-opted and shaped. But to change the discourse beyond City Hall’s bubble requires connecting sophisticated arguments to mainstream audiences and highlighting the substantive vacuity of Ford's language. This is a challenging task, and using a word like ‘elitist’ makes it more difficult (other words make more sense to co-opt). But through a detournement (elitist word!) of words such as elitist, the inadequate parallel of rhetoric and reality in Ford’s universe can be highlighted. Ford’s policies can be subverted by the very thing that brought him popular support-- language.     


  1. Thank you for writing this, very good points made, I am putting it up on our Facebook page

  2. David:

    A thoughtful and detailed piece, and thank you for the response (and the traffic). I think in a broad sense we're driving toward the same conclusions, and I can't argue with any of the points you make about the way language is used. I alluded to it toward the end of yesterday's post, but you've elaborated on it and said it better than I could.

    There's one respect, however, in which I think you've misconstrued my argument about elitism. My rejoinder is set out in full back at my place. Drop by anytime. The bar's open.

  3. For people who liked my post, go check out Sol's response to it which is as good as his original piece (and bookmark that dude's blog).

    I think your criticisms are fair and I agree that we agree on most everything except some details.

    The one thing I would like to clarify is that I didn't mean to suggest you singled out those excellent Toronto commentators as elitist but I do think Ford Nation might see them that way (to better dismiss them). I wholeheartedly agree with you characterization that these are people that are connected to the city, communities and ideas and from there they offer great insights. This is why I mentioned the list-- rather than being elitist I feel these people are the opposite (pluralist) and are misrepresented by our discourse because they use 'elite' arguments and thinking.

    That's part of the reason why I think the word 'elitist' and its negative connotations is misapplied and should be used to characterize Ford policies that privilege the well-to-do and ignore real community issues.