About a week ago, I wrote a letter to Kathleen Wynne. At first I had intended to send it only to her, but I eventually decided to post it as an open letter as well. Here’s part of the reason why:
So I’m a huge Kathleen Wynne fan — let’s get that out of the way right now. When I first encountered her, she was my enemy, the management rep in a TDSB strike. Even then, though, I wondered to myself, “Who is that whippet-bodied woman in the tight fitting jacket?” After that, I got to know and like her through her involvement with Overland Learning Centre. It was a strange feeling watching her ascent, to MPP, to Party Leader, to premier, to majority election winner. We rejoiced at each step, but we were never really surprised. It just seemed the logical outcome, given her obvious drive, strength of character, and political acumen — that was just who Kathleen was.
But now we’re in 2018.
I guess I had been distracted, but suddenly there was an election coming and Kathleen’s unpopularity had become axiomatic. Even though each interview and press conference showed the old Kathleen that I knew, the press seemed to have endowed her with a new persona, often associated with the collocation “deeply unpopular.”
It was like with Hillary, but worse in a way. Nobody I actually knew uttered the words “But her emails.. ” at least in my presence. Now, however, I have to contend daily with people sharing their conviction that Kathleen is a) corrupt or b) ruinously extravagant, or c) some paradoxical combination of the two. It’s become a commonplace of daily discourse, second only to the opinion that it’s pretty fucking cold out for June, eh?
I just felt miserable. Intellectually, I was convinced this was wrong, but how could it be when so many people “knew” it was true? Had I missed something? But I went over the details of Ontario government actions under Kathleen, and nothing really stood out, nothing that would have indicated a change in her character or style of governance. The cognitive dissonance was so painful. Not just intellectually: it generated a feeling of shame. How did I end up in the unpopular crowd? If so many people, many of whom I respected, held these views, maybe there was something wrong with me. But I did nothing to resolve this. I felt immobile – swaddled.
And then support came from the most unlikely of sources: Christie Blatchford published Smarter more Capable Kathleen Wynne Makes it Difficult to-see her Lose in the National Post (!). This was followed by John Barber’s Kathleen Wynne was the Premier we didn’t Deserve in the Toronto Star, and then a steady stream of too-little-too-late apologies. I felt a little stronger — not so alone. By election night, I was ready to say something. “Don’t engage with the vitriol,” I told myself, “Just focus on what you know to be true. And for god’s sake, keep it short. You know that nobody reads wordy updates.” So I posted it, right after Kathleen’s fabulous good-bye speech.
I received a few comments and likes, but not necessarily from the people I hear from most often. The responders were all women and all around my age. A few messaged me privately, and it was clear from the ensuing conversations that their perception of Kathleen was very similar to my own. But where had their voices been? How had the press come to the conclusion that Kathleen was universally unpopular when most of the people I was talking to still liked and respected her? Why had none of them spoken up? Maybe they had felt lost and ashamed the way I did.
This is not about me, and it’s not even really about Kathleen. I know she’ll be fine — eventually. She’s a smart woman with a great family and a loyal base (Did you hear the love in the room during that last speech?) , and I’m sure that she has some money in the bank (although probably not as much as Doug will have at the end of his term!).
It’s about that feeling, the paralysis that comes with cognitive dissonance and the stigma of unpopularity. It does not feel comfortable to hold an opinion that differs from those of the people around you. It takes not just courage, but a supreme effort of will to speak against the popular wisdom (and for that, Christie, I salute you, however much I may disagree with other positions you have taken). It is so tempting to not push against the tide, to stifle your feeling that something is unfair or just wrong.
In this case, I lacked the courage to act until others had broken a trail, but even when I did speak out, I felt awkward and exposed. The mere act of thinking differently from the people around me felt painful. I had no concrete fear for my safety, or even for my reputation among my peers; but on a different level I felt deeply unsafe. The action of severing oneself from one’s group — even in thought — must violate some atavistic taboo.
I pushed back as much as I did because I know and like Kathleen. If I am being honest with myself I have to admit that I might not have done it for someone else. I might have just accepted the common opinion, even if it felt a little off base, because doing that was so much easier than pushing back against a tide of opinion.
So clearly we’re not just talking about a provincial election anymore. It’s about the need to belong, and how it can be so much stronger than the need to do what’s right. About a year ago, people began sharing the following meme:
I remember retweeting it, feeling excited and brave. I would be that person. I would fight back against injustice. I would make a difference.
Now, I realize that it’s a lot more complicated than I thought. The problem might not be having the courage to do the right thing, but having the courage to know what that right thing is.