The fear that guides us: G20 op-ed

Maija SaariAfter a York University graduate student was detained under a city bylaw law nobody knew about (including him), Maija Saari wonders just who we really have to fear.

Hearing the news on the eve of Toronto’s G20 that a York University graduate student was detained under a city bylaw law nobody knew about (including him), I was struck by the degree to which those caught up in bubbles of the like-minded can become terrified of demons of their own creation.

It reminded me of the time a couple of years ago when I was sitting in a pew between rehearsal sets for a regional chamber choir’s performance in Toronto. In that context, I was just a singer and I was sitting having small talk to kill time with another singer whose name I don’t even remember and isn’t important for my purposes in raising this.

That night we were in the Toronto Metropolitan United church at Queen and Bond streets, just south of the community known for its gay population (much in the same way as The Danforth is known for its Greek food).

The night before, Halloween night, we’d rehearsed at a church further north. She noted these things in the course of some small talk leading up to a point that gave me pause.

“It’s a good thing we weren’t down here last night,” she said. “The homosexuals take [Halloween] very seriously.”

I smiled at the irony that this woman, in taking this tack, had no idea that I taught university courses relating to human diversity and human rights as they relate, in particular, to journalism. She probably extended assumptions about my choir life to her own, the way that I also had made assumptions (confirmed by her comment) when she had told me earlier that she was a member of a particularly fundamentalist and segregationist form of Christianity.

I figured she’d be anti-gay. But then, she took me someplace new.

“It’s very dangerous,” she said. 

Wait a minute. Dangerous? I knew lots of Christians and knew the diversity within that faith on the question of gay rights. But a fear of physical threat from gays? Where could she possibly get that idea?

I’ve kept that moment in my head a long time when thinking about how to teach journalism to students who might hold similar views – how to approach questions of bias and neutrality when the very sense of neutrality might be offended by an effort to encourage them to see the world from unfamiliar points of view.

But contemporary critical theory teaches us that our perceptions are horribly skewed by our historical and social locations – what we think “makes sense” depends a lot upon where we sit. And whom we sit with.

And this makes communicating an objection – the need to speak up when someone says something we find to be unfair – all the more difficult in actual practice. And it all the more important, to keep the metaphor going, to take as many seats in life as we can.

These thoughts reverberated during this run-up to the G20 and all the preparations to lock down the city, including the news of Toronto’s latest “temporary” bylaw that changes what we all thought are the rules of the game when communicating with police.

York University graduate student Dave Vasey assumed he knew the law when he refused to hand over ID to police when he was walking near the barricades.

We act, as my choir mate did, in context – based on what we assume to be true.
Dave Vasey ended up under arrest under a bylaw intended to protect “us” from “him”.

Some will assume that makes him something he may not be. He’s a student. He’s a radical. He’s an extremist of some form.

He shouldn’t have been there.

And that’s where we’re going off the rails. We’re buying into a hysteria that’s tossing out the baby with the bathwater.

Molotov-cocktail-throwing anarchists aside, it is important to remember that a fringe element can be conveniently used to stereotype an entire group.  That goes for any group. Christians. Gays. Politicians. Radicals. Journalists.

The bubble on this G20 is already formed around us. Daily details about uprooted trees, massive fences, armies of security guards and little-known bylaws intended to protect us from the worst behaviour of some has become a type of white noise – a spectacle that drowns out the details, further reinforcing a dehumanized boogie-man at the barricades. 

And that facilitates the ease by which the story of the summit becomes told a certain way  – a full spectrum of perspectives becomes symbolically constructed as an oppositional binary – one side to be trusted as “official” and “sanctioned” truth, the other side something to be feared.

It’s a perceptual bubble – an ideological way of thinking about the summit and trans-national politics that deserves careful consideration and intellectual critique.

And it isn’t real – the world won’t stop turning if it gets burst. 

The point of good journalism within a democracy is to teach us, inform us, such that we might make good civic decisions as we participate in society.  I can’t imagine being well-informed on any issue if I limit my reading about transnational economic politics to the perspectives discussed inside the barricades. I have to assume there’s always more to know.

I’m particularly critical about any attributes of the “other” implied by the spectacles set up for us by the fearful.

What is, is. And people are gathering. That, in and of itself, is a story. Perhaps the story.

You won’t know until you go.

Sadly, that healthy curiosity, both professional and personal, will be enough this week to get journalists, in the course of doing their job properly and fully, tear-gassed. Arrested. Maybe even shot.

Journalists who venture outside the gates are at risk of demonization, too. 

There is a lot of risk.

But from where I sit, from what I know, I wonder today, as I wondered sitting on that church pew, why all this fear?

And who, really, has become more dangerous to whom?

Maija Saari teaches journalism at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Brantford Campus in Ontario.