For much of history, lay people dared not challenge religious authority for fear of reprisal. While this has declined recently in the West, a new set of ideological beliefs has become equally unchallengeable and punitive. Its proponents are our neo-clergy.
ALL TOO HUMAN
One of my favorite quotes is from James A. Michener, that perhaps the first animals to be domesticated by humans were other humans. This simple sentence can be understood in different ways, and one of those is that humans have an innate tendency to try and control other people. Naturally, this requires the use of force, but the word ‘force’ here is not limited to its physical aspect. It can be of different types such as persuasive, manipulative, deceptive, alluring, ideological etc. Furthermore, in a given situation, two or more types of force may be at play simultaneously.
In the latter half of the 20th century, the hold of some ideologies on societies went in decline, such as Christianity, communism and authoritarianism, while that of some others rose, such as Islamism, liberalism / neo-liberalism etc. Thus, while it may be tempting to believe that the societies involved became less ideologically-driven in recent times, often the case is merely that one ideology was replaced by another in these societies. As is to be expected, this change reshuffled the cast of characters that held sway in these societies. If we accept James A. Michener’s statement as a truism, it then follows that at any given time, in any society, some people will exercise – or seek to exercise – control over others. The only change is in the identities of people in positions of control; the power to control others shifts from one group to another. Sometimes, members of the former group are successful in becoming members of its successor group.
How has this ‘power-shift’ (to borrow a term from Alvin Toffler) manifested in Canada?
As I say often, I am firm believer in basing conclusions on data rather than anecdotes. However, Deductive Logic does have its relevance in many situations, so I wanted to line up my experiences & observations, and see if my conclusion based on these agrees with the overall reality in today’s Canada.
TRIGGER(ED AND) HAPPY
When the latest round of closure of in-person schooling was announced in Ontario, I came across a tweet that said, simply:
‘F%$# you @fordnation @sflecce’.
(The tweet used the F-word in its original, full form; I am not repeating it here because I am strongly against its use).
I noticed that the Twitter account had a ‘blue check mark’, so I was curious as to exactly who this person was. Going to the profile, all that I saw was ‘Award winning journalist’.
Going back to the tweet, I saw a reply from someone, asking ‘You are an award winning journalist?’ I responded to this with ‘My very first thought as well”.
I knew what was coming next. Returning to the original tweet about half an hour later, I saw that I had been blocked by the ‘Award winning journalist’. A few minutes later, the other person also tweeted that they had been blocked as well.
PRICE OF ADMISSION
About a year ago, in the spring (or summer?) of 2020, the government launched an App to track and trace the spread of Covid-19. This quickly became one of the main issues of public debate. There were several questions / objections to the idea, chiefly relating to privacy concerns. On the other side, the tone was that anyone hesitating to download the App was being socially irresponsible.
Following these debates, I came across a tweet by a Toronto Star journalist to the effect that anyone who did not download the App should not be listened to on the issue of its advisability / legality (I am paraphrasing here). This struck me as odd. Asking people that they should comply with a requirement / recommendation in order to be eligible to discuss whether it was a good idea seemed to defeat the very concept of ‘discussion’. I thought that unquestioning acceptance of ideas was the hallmark of religion, and so I asked how his belief was different from a religion. After a brief exchange of perhaps two or three tweets back-and-forth, he blocked me (which is why I am unable to quote him verbatim).
Around the same time, one day I jumped into an online conversation about green energy, with the point that manufacturing windmills requires significant quantities of petrochemicals. My conclusion was that at least in the short term, a push for more windmills only ends up in increased demand for oil. The person advocating for more windmills in this conversation is a professor at a university in Ontario, and has a well-earned reputation for rudeness. His field of study is not energy, but rather immunology and law.
During the course of the entire conversation, he threw out insults at several people, including at a lady who is First Nations, and thus has a stake in the energy projects located on or near Reserves. I found it remarkable that producing official data to prove my points had zero impact on his stance vis-à-vis green energy. From his side, he failed to back up his claims with data, yet persisted that everyone should accept them as the authoritative word. After a very lengthy and equally fruitless exchange, he blocked me.
… AND PERCOLATING DOWN…
In mid-April, CBC published a news story with the headline: “Toronto doctors advocate for higher vaccine priority for pregnant people as ICU rates climb”.
I had encountered the term ‘pregnant people’ a couple of times earlier. It seemed off, given how I was taught the English language. For example, I was taught that while ‘She is a boy’ may be grammatically correct, it was factually wrong. So I tweeted this article, with my only comment being the words ‘Pregnant people’ – without realizing that putting this term in quotes is considered offensive in some quarters. Soon enough, someone took exception to the way I had presented the term, and a (very civil) dialogue ensued. In its course, this person made the following statements:
‘The term ‘biological woman’ is used usually by trans-antagonistic people who wish to exclude trans women’.
‘The idea that trans women harm cis women is rooted in transphobia’.
‘Far more instances of violence against trans women occurs (sic) by cis women and by cis men’.
(At this point, I asked this person to point me to data that would support the claim. I was asked to use Google. I pointed out that that I may not be able to tell if the sources that I found were credible or spurious. The various responses to this are given below.)
‘Self-actualization is the task of any adult’.
‘Anyone truly capable of learning would not be worried about their subconscious biases’.
‘The purpose of truly learning is to be able to address those (biases) in the process of learning’.
‘Going through the process is learning’.
I am not sure if I am managing to convey the condescension that I felt was dripping from these replies. And while that may be a matter of subjective perception, what is objectively observable is the dodging of the actual question asked. I have encountered this phenomenon online countless times, and I suspect that so have you: When asked to corroborate their claims, many people treat piety as a substitute for answerability. Whether the tactic is the result of conscious decision or otherwise, it rests on the assumption that ‘speaking from a pedestal’ suffices to establish the veracity – indeed the authority – of the statement or claim.
… CREATES A HIERARCHY.
Viewing the entire community of these ‘preachers’ makes it clear that it forms a clear hierarchy.
Right at the top, there are the ‘prophets’ whose task is to make broad statements about what is good, beneficial and virtuous for humanity as a whole. At the next succeeding levels, you have the ‘popes’, ‘cardinals’ and ‘bishops who work out the nuts and bolts of the predictions that follow from these broad statements. At the lowermost rung, there are the friars and lay preachers who work diligently to ‘convert the heathen’. (Note: My intention here is not to single out or target the hierarchy and/or the ideology of the Catholic faith, but rather to use its structure as an analogy).
The underlying premise – which is self-evident truth to the faithful – is that the ideology represents THE true reality, and anyone who hasn’t accepted the gospel yet is either unenlightened or evil. In the latter case, they are naturally a menace to the society. The only response to their evilness must be censure and retribution, often regardless of these people’s productive / beneficial actions for society elsewhere.
THE HAND THAT FEEDS YOU
A few weeks after my exchange on Twitter regarding the expression pregnant people, I came across a story about a brouhaha that had erupted at Ryerson University in Toronto. Ms. Suzanne Rogers, wife of the CEO of the telecom company Rogers Communications who had donated $ 2 million for the institute of fashion at that university, had posted on her Instagram account a photo of herself and her family with former US President Trump. Some students at the institute, using its official social media account, took umbrage with her via this message:
“We invite Suzanne Rogers to enter into dialogue with our faculty, staff and students to discuss the impact that Trump and his community has had on further harming members of the fashion industry who are low income, Black, brown, Asian, disabled, Indigenous, trans, queer and/or part of systemically marginalized communities.”
I see multiple issues in that one statement. The first, of course, is that what someone does in their personal life should hardly be anyone else’s affair – and here ‘anyone else’ includes institutions of the State. If someone from the government were to ask Ms. Rogers why she had met with President Trump, that inquiry would be considered intrusion of privacy. But soon after we erected safeguards against violation of privacy by institutions of the State, we have created other pseudo-authorities who can do the same at will, and with impunity. The first bar to clear in this context would be the legal one – was it in violation of any laws? In this case, it clearly wasn’t. The second test would be if the act would directly impede the interests of the students as students of the institute. I doubt that it did. To me, the message appears to be a case of audacious hectoring by people whose only connection with the person being hectored is that she is a patron of the institute where they are enrolled to (hopefully) make good careers. In language that is fast becoming archaic, this would be called ‘biting the hand that feeds you’.
The University didn’t take kindly to this hectoring, but in the end, Ms. Rogers issued a statement expressing regret at her actions, so the waters appear to have been calmed. But the important question remains:
In an era where people share their personal matters in a manner accessible to everyone, who gets to exercise the authority to force the person to apologize or suffer adverse consequences for what they thought was an innocuous activity / behavior? It is important to note here that ‘what they thought’ need not have been correct; they could very well have been in the wrong. The question is in relation to the entity that is empowered to step in for corrective measures.
The uncomfortable answer to this question lies in the hierarchy of fundamentalist ideologies.
EMPOWERING THE (WRONG) PEOPLE
Stable societies have well-defined power-structures. This does not mean that the exercise of powers is always fair, though. Regardless of its fairness, however, it is clear to everyone as to who has the powers. Moreover, those powers are officially designated. This lends an element of predictability to the act of exercising powers (its degree may vary depending on whether the State is authoritarian or liberal).
In my view, the key feature that distinguishes fundamentalist ideologies from others is that they carry the concept of empowerment to the extreme. This results in a situation where the ideology (or its tenets individually) supersede official authority. This feature is most dramatically apparent in the most extremist hardline Islamist circles, where the lowest ranking cleric (or even a lay person) can not only accuse a person of acting in violation of an ideology, but also sentence the person to death. The sentence supersedes the authority of the State to adjudicate on such matters, but is nevertheless considered valid by many. Sometimes, the cleric / lay person doesn’t even have to actually pronounce the sentence; all that he has to do is to declare the accused person as ‘waajib-ul-qatl’ (‘deserving to be killed’). This declaration further empowers any individual (who may be from the clergy or the laity) to proceed to kill the accused.
A death sentence is of course, too extreme a measure in western societies, including Canada. While we may not have to worry about people randomly calling for someone’s qatl (killing), in place of ‘waajib-ul-qatl’, we do have ‘waajib-ul-cancel’. Though much less traumatic an experience than being killed, getting cancelled does affect the victim in significant ways. This is of particular concern in an environment where (as I have written in some earlier articles), accusation suffices as evidence. This brings us to another feature of fundamentalist ideologies: Punishments are meted out in a summary fashion. This is partly because of the probability – and in some cases certainty – that according ‘due process’ is likely to result in revelation of cracks in the case against the person. Therefore, ‘due process’ must be prevented from taking place.
This lack of due process is further exacerbated by competitive piety among the ideologues. As they compete with each other to prove themselves more ardent followers of the ideology than their comrades, the arbitrariness of the accusation, severity of punishment and the speed of its execution all intensify. This leaves their victim all the more defenseless and vulnerable.
One final feature worth mentioning is that when the accusation is of a type that focuses on the identity of the accused, those who do not belong in that identity group have that identity foisted on them. For example, when Iraq was in flames some 15 years ago, it became common to hear about Muslims being accused of acting like ‘infidels’ (‘Kafir’); the people levying the accusation came to be known as ‘takfiris’. This phenomenon is reminiscent of the era of Inquisition in Europe, when Christians could randomly be accused of being ‘secret Jews’.
Closer to home and to our ties, there is the case of Professor Rima Azar. Jonathan Kay wrote in the National Post, she is an Arab from Lebanon who openly believes that Canada is not ‘systemically racist’, but rather ‘a young country that wants to save the world’. For this stance, and others such as on ‘patriarchy’, she came under attack from activists. Because she has very light skin, she was characterized by her accusers as ‘white-like’. I view this as a trick by which she could be lumped together with white people (although not with her white accusers). This months-long episode ended with the university suspending Prof. Rima Azar. Without a hint of irony, the statement from the university says that she will be asked to take equity, diversity and inclusion training.
The clerical hierarchy that I described earlier needs a set of ideological tenets to proselytize (or force upon people, should they be recalcitrant). Currently, these tenets relate to: climate change, colonialism, Covid-19, green energy, patriarchy, race and trans-genderism (with veganism having a wobbly place in the list). Given human ingenuity, it is possible that other issues may get added down the line.
Whatever the collection of issues happens to be at the time, there is an ‘approved gospel’ as to what people are supposed to believe on those issues. If someone doesn’t, they are preached to. If they don’t become ‘converts’, then there are consequences. Depending on the visibility / prominence of the person, and their vulnerability, punishment is meted out.
When does this end?
Some ideologies are short-lived, when measured by the yardstick of ‘civilizational time-scale’. Their demise is brought about mainly by three forces, whether occurring singly or in tandem: external aggression, internal dissent, or a self-devouring tendency whereby the ideology runs out of fuel to burn.
On the timescale of human lives, however, these ideologies live forever for some people. As Captain Yossarian tells his colleague Clevinger in the book Catch-22, “It doesn’t matter who won the war to a man who is dead.” This was most clearly noticeable in the case of the citizens of the USSR who died before it collapsed; for them, communism lasted forever.
The collection of ideas that has given rise to Canada’s neo-clergy will, I am convinced, meet its demise at some point. It is a matter of conjecture as to what ideology will replace it (as we saw earlier, human societies do not exist in an ideological vacuum for long, if ever). What we can be certain of, though, is that before it is extinguished, its adherents will have wreaked a lot of harm on its victims.