Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Affirmative Action, Merit, and Wealthy, Middle-Aged White Men. . .

Sometimes I think of Andrew Coyne as our national poster child for intellectual impairment. There are, as we are painfully aware, certainly more obtuse, dim-witted individuals on the national political and journalistic scene than Mr. Coyne. But more of these, such as Margaret Wente for example, are so thick that they are really beneath contempt. And such people only hold their positions of notoriety because they are shills for neo-liberalism and corporatism; if the prevailing social ideology were different, Wente would have trouble getting a writing position on a church newsletter, let alone a job as a nationally syndicated columnist. But Andrew Coyne is a great illustration of Woody Allan's dictum from Annie Hall, that you can be "brilliant and have no idea what it going on." This is Coyne in a nutshell. Like many people Coyne has attained his position in part because he comes from a rich and important Canadian family. But he is by no means incompetent. But his status as a white male from a well-to-do family makes today's Editorial piece extra ironic.

Today Coyne railed against the affirmative action approach toward women in the cabinet taken by Trudeau. The crux of Coyne's argument is summarized when he says that this affirmative action is like "asking the country's interest to take a back seat" to an abstract notion of equal representation.

This is a standard kind of argument against affirmative action, but it is particularly ironic here for a number of reasons. The first, and most obvious, reason is the one I have already mentioned. There are dozens of writers better and more astute than Andrew Coyne in this country, so to suggest that Coyne is a representative of a meritocracy is simply ridiculous. On the contrary, Coyne is an illustration of the fact that when it comes to being a national columnist in Canada's rightwing newspaper field, ideology, connections, and dare I say gender are all more important. And if you don't believe me do a small experiment. Go to your library (if you are fortunate enough to live in a large urban centre with a large central library) and look at as many Canadian newspapers as you can and count the number of bylines and classify them by race and gender. This experiment will demonstrate the shockingly lopsided representation in the national media, particularly when it comes to editorial work. (Incidentally, an interestingly similar experiment is one in which you simply count the number of images of men vs women in the national newspapers. You will see quite quickly just how gender biased our society really is) The fact is that it is ridiculously ironic for someone like Andrew Coyne to champion merit over everything else when you would have to be in a coma to imagine his own status and success is a result simply of merit.

The simple fact is that we don't live in anything like a meritocracy. That is the whole point of affirmative action. The obviousness of this fact is so startling to anyone who is even vaguely analytical is overwhelming. We live in a socioeconomic system that offers very lopsided degrees of education and opportunity at every level. We know this by this simple fact - if we believe that women are equal to men in ability (and I assume that everyone reading this does), then they would already hold more than half of all political jobs since they make up more than 50% of the population. The reason we need affirmative action of any kind is precisely because we don't live in a meritocracy! And if Andrew Coyne's ego wasn't so huge he would understand this very simple fact. But like most people who are successful, Coyne believes that his success is a direct result of his merit.

But I think that an even more important point is that even the notion of merit is much more nuanced than people like Coyne give it credit for, particularly in a field like politics where the criteria of 'merit' are vague and often unquantifiable. Being a 'good' minister does not necessarily mean being an expert or overly familiar with the nuances of a particular issue. God knows if that was the criteria for being an effective government minister then every government would have a hard time creating a cabinet since the real experts almost never run for office in the first place. Thus Coyne would do well to remember that where strict or regulated notions of merit are unclear, the very notion of merit is flexible and redefinable. One might, for instance, think that women or members of a racialized group are more likely to have a better take or grasp on certain portfolios, and they also may be better placed to communicate and deal with the major players in the field. This is a central point, the apparent complexity of which is missed on men like Coyne.

And this brings us to the most inflammatory thing in Coyne's statement above, the implication that ensuring gender parity in the federal cabinet is somehow putting the "country's interest" at risk. But here's the thing: it IS in the country's interest to have gender parity in politics for so many reasons. And it is Coyne's failure to understand this very simple point that makes me say that Andrew Coyne is, sadly, a poster-child for intellectual impairment. If you can't understand how the inequalities in our society are operating, how could you ever be expected to address them???


rumleyfips said...

Reading National Newswatch this morning, I was assaulted by pieces written ( Darwin's monkeys and typewriters ? )by Coynes cohort of angry , old white propagandists. It was just like a bunch of nine year old boys up in their tree house fort with a sign that sais NO GIRLZS on the ladder.

What are these clowns overcompensating for ?

ps: the boys in Trudeau's cabinet better be careful- there's some serious ability on the girl's team.The boys may actually be happy that they are allowed 50% representation.

Pamela Mac Neil said...

Obedience to your leaders wishes is also not based on merit. If I'm not mistaken being obedient is how Harper chose his cabinet. I don't recall Coyne or any other journalist addressing this. Coynes promoting the Neoliberal, Harper agenda strikes me as Coyne being a follower more then anything. A truly intellectually independent journalist is one who challenges the status quo and exposes the power seeking government such as Harper and his Cons. There is no one like that in the MSM and certainly not Coyne. Watch Coyne and his journalist cronies continually trash Trudeau.Canadians for the most part ignored what the MSM had to say and voted Harper and his obedient serfs out.Coyne does not hold his position on merit. He has been and still is Neoliberals mouth piece. The days at least in Trudeau's cabinet, Kirby, of rich middle age white men or just middle age white man, holding most of the power are over. I also hope that Trudeau gives the Indian Affairs portfolio to a First Nation.This was a great post to read.

Anonymous said...

"There never was a time when cabinet ministers were chosen strictly on merit." Coyne says. He's right. And there have been many women appointed to Cabinet in the past due to their gender (at least in part). The difference now is that Trudeau gave a somewhat greater importance to the matter and set a goal of equal representation based on gender.

I don't have a problem with that. Indeed, it is critically important to have more women leaders, in all fields (Ministers, CEOs, judges, etc).

However, I do have a concern that is related to all the hubbub surrounding this issue: that is a tendency to conflate the legitimate advantages of different points of view (different life experiences) with a necessary *inability* to understand or represent a point of view different from your own life experience. That is: an argument that suggests that men are fundamentally unable to understand women's issues or represent women.

Trudeau says: "The days when old men get to decide what a woman does with her body are long gone." Well, I get his point, but it's not really true, is it? There are still plenty of old men deciding what women (and men) can do with their bodies. Or is Trudeau proposing something more radical? His statement implies that an elected male representative cannot legitimately engage in debate or lawmaking on matters related to the women's health or women's rights, *even* if they are feminists. Would Trudeau require his male MPs to *abstain* from voting on a CPC MP's Private Member's bill on abortion? I don't think so (it's a pretty dangerous idea), but such a move is implied by his remarks.

Kirby Evans said...

@ Anonymous - Indeed it would be incredibly naive to imagine that the days of white men telling women what to do with their bodies is "long gone." Thos days are still alive and well. Perhaps the best we can say is that Trudeau's statement was hopeful thinking. But we must remember that Trudeau represents a very wealthy, socially progressive class. As human has he is when we compare him with Harper, he really has very little idea what average people go through (women or men) in their everyday lives.