2019 has been a rough year in our politics so far, and with a big election coming in the fall, it seems to be sure to get harder before it gets any better. Some of that will come from policy differences that have existed since the very beginning of the country, so that’s not new. But some of that of that roughness and anger will come from individuals of note making comments on social media, comments that are just beyond the pale. We saw an awful example of that this weekend on Twitter, one that was just so very wrong:
Where to begin with this? Well, lets start with the premise of the comments from Professor Attaran. Yes, that Abacus polls and many others have shown for many years that Conservatives tend to do better with people with a high school or college education. There is nothing new in this finding, nothing at all, and there are probably many good reasons for that fact.
But yet Professor Attaran went way too far and showed an ignorance of his own in the process. Here’s the thing about what Professor Attaran did; as much as he professes that he’s just stating a fact, he didn’t do that at all. Nowhere in that Abacus poll, or any other polls that I can point to, is any group referred to as “uneducated”. He made that leap, he made that judgement and he then ascribed an ugly caricature to these people in the process.
And that has me all kinds of insulted for so many reasons. First off, it plays on some of the oldest, ugliest, classist tropes that we’ve seen in society for centuries. It plays on the idea that somehow those who have less formal education are somehow less smart, that they are rubes, that they are unable to “see the truth” and are just unable to be enlightened because of their intellectual abilities. Of course, that trope is disgusting and completely wrong for so many reasons. Yet the professor played right into that with his “uneducated” comment.
Secondly, I come from a family of hard working, middle class people, a position that my family rose to over time. In my dad’s family, my generation is the first to attend a university, let alone graduate from one. Me, a Métis guy from Northwestern Ontario, graduated with two university degrees. That came through not only hard work and perseverance, that also came from fighting through many institutional barriers in my way. I had two separate guidance councillors who told me I had no business considering a university education, that I was going to fail in the attempt. I just told them to tell me what I had to do and I would do that. And that’s precisely what I did. That didn’t make me a better person, or a smarter person. Those degrees didn’t elevate me to some better status in life.
Those degrees were a result hard work and using the intelligence that I had to use. I was fortunate to be able to get past those barriers, but not everyone is so fortunate, which brings me to the next point. The fact that someone hasn’t attained a certain education level does not mean for an instant that they are incapable of doing it, and that’s what throwing around a term like “uneducated” implies. The fact is that there are many people with only high school educations or less who have achieved tonnes in our world. They have started businesses, they have created inventions that are a part of our lives and they contributed greatly to our betterment. There are many people with college educations who have done the same and are extremely intelligent, doing things that people with PHD’s could never hope to do. Some people come from poor families who simply can’t afford to send their children to get that higher education, so it’s not a lack of ability but a lack of opportunity that is holding them back. Not having that piece of paper does not make them any less intelligent or empathetic.
The point is that while tracking those kinds of things in a poll might make for an interesting stat, it doesn’t not have some deeper meaning about the quality of the people they are categorizing there. And it seems that Professor Attaran seems to have missed that point.
Finally, this whole episode upset me so much because I’ve met far too many people in progressive parties who express things like Professor Attaran did. They act as if they have some kind of moral superiority graced upon them because of their education, and that those who disagree with their world views are simply incapable of understanding because of their education. That is complete crap, something that I believe is completely counter to the very ethos of progressive thought and is ignorant in its own way. Taking someone’s education and trying to extrapolate a connection to one’s morals is just disgusting and completely wrong. The Professor will deny this, he has already. He said that the Conservatives are “The party of the uneducated. Every poll says this.” The problem is the polls say nothing of the sort; I’ve never seen a poll call people with a lower formal educational attainment “uneducated”. In fact, I can only think of one person of note who I can remember calling these people those kinds of words; Donald Trump, during his victory speech after the Nevada Primary. I doubt that was what the Professor was aiming for.
As a New Democrat and a progressive person, it drives me mad when I see episodes like this happen. It upsets me because this is precisely the kind of stereotype that so many Conservatives put out there about all progressive minded people, a stereotype that is hardly representative of all of us. Not only are these words offensive, hurtful and wrong headed, they stick in the minds of voters. As a progressive, I believe that it’s our job to call this crap out when it happens. We can’t stay quiet and shake our heads, hoping that everyone forgets this. Silence is complicity in these kinds of comments. Silence sends the signal that we agree with these words. Therefore silence is not an option here. Professor Attaran needs to apologize for these comments and give some reflective thought to what it is that he said. Given his comments on Twitter, I doubt that will come. This is not shooting the messenger and this is not disliking the data; this is calling out the messenger for ascribing conclusions to the data that are simply wrong and hurtful. I’d hope that a professor of all people would be able to stand up to that kind of intellectual rigor. We’ll see if that’s the case.