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On Abstaining from Generalizations

It may surprise readers of this blog to know that I was a trucker in a previous life. In my early twenties, before I went back to university, I used to haul hotel furniture across western Canada. I remember more than a few harrowing winter trips over the Coquihalla or into the bone-chilling north. It was long and lonely work and I only did it for a few years, but it was an interesting and valuable experience. I have my class one license to this day. I’m not going to lie, there were days during these last two years of pandemic when it looked like an attractive option!

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the events and rhetoric of the past few weeks, I’ve been reflecting on my trucking days and on truckers in particular. Depending on who you listen to these days, the truckers’ convoy in Ottawa is either analogous to a horde of white supremacist Visigoths about to sack Rome or an entirely peaceful (and awkwardly religious) street party. Neither adequately or accurately describes, you know, reality. Things are always more complex than this, particularly when you’re talking about an amorphous collection of people with a wide variety of grievances and frustrations. But, as is so often the case, our preferred narratives take precedence over what’s actually the case.

In my experience driving truck, I found that truckers were an interesting bunch. The vast majority were kind and decent and hardworking. A little rough around the edges and plenty of strong opinions, to be sure, but they’re hardly alone there. On the occasions when I would have coffee or breakfast with one of them, they would invariably have interesting stories full of love and loss and humour and heartache. So, you know, kind of like everyone else on the planet. Truckers (and many blue collar folks I’ve worked with) often feel misunderstood and looked down upon by people in the higher echelons of society. This would especially be true out here in the wild west where there are decades worth of accumulated resentments at feeling ignored and trivialized by those in the centres of power (cultural and political) in the east.

So, when I watch the news and when I listen to people talk about “those truckers,” I have a bit of experience to draw from. I have some faces and stories in my mind. To be clear, I disagree with the methods being employed in these protests (or past protests for more “acceptable” causes). I have no admiration for some of the vulgar messages and symbols that are floating around. The citizens of Ottawa do not deserve the kind of ongoing chaos they have endured. I don’t think this is how we ought to do things in a democracy and I think it’s time for protesters in Ottawa and Coutts, AB to leave.

But one of the things that I find most frustrating about this particular moment—indeed, one of the things that inflames and accelerates these very behaviours—is how easily labels get tossed around and how people (particularly in leadership) don’t actually engage with those they disagree with. It’s so much easier (and more satisfying!) to label someone than to actually wrestle with things like complexity and nuance and humanity. And it does precisely zero good.

How refreshing, then, to encounter a certain Joël Lightbound, a Liberal Member of Parliament from Quebec who departed from the script today. Lightbound has important and interesting things to say about the pandemic itself and whether or how restrictions should be lifted (his whole news conference is well worth watching), but one of the things that I found almost unbelievably refreshing was his tone. You actually get the sense that he’s thinking about and listening to real human beings.

He begins by being honest and self-critical of his own party (a rarity, if ever there was one!):

I can’t help but notice with regret that both the tone and the policies of my government have changed drastically since the last election campaign. It went from a more positive approach to one that stigmatizes and divides people.

He acknowledges that there is a vast gap in how those with secure white-collar employment have experienced this pandemic versus those who work in more difficult and financially precarious situations:

Some seem to forget that isolation is felt differently. Not everyone can still earn money using their MacBook while at the cottage. Some are suffering in silence and feel like they’re not heard.

And then, this gem from his news conference:

I will abstain from the kind of generalizations that we’ve heard these last few days… I have enough respect for my fellow Canadians not to engage in these easy absurd labels.

I found myself wondering what things would be like if our Prime Minister had ever said things like this. What if, instead of describing a whole group of people as having “unacceptable views” or resorting to the predictable references to “hate” and “white supremacists” and “misogynists,” he would have said something like that last sentence from Lightbound? I have enough respect for my fellow Canadians not to engage in these easy absurd labels. Wow. What might the temperature in our national discourse be like right now if more people in leadership said and acted upon statements like that?

In my life, I’ve spent time in fairly conservative spaces and fairly liberal spaces. I’ve hung out with truckers and farmers and activists and academics and lots of folks in between. I can say that almost without exception I have discovered that when you take the time to sit down with a real, flesh and blood human being—to talk, to listen, to share stories—what emerges is quite a bit more interesting and complex than the easy categories that we toss around to describe people. It’s also quite a bit more rewarding. How desperately our cultural moment is in need of more listening and less labelling.

Image source.

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. howard wideman #

    Excellent Ryan 

    Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android

    February 8, 2022
  2. Elizabeth #

    I like that you speak from a place of understanding. “Having walked in their shoes…..”

    You are right! The world is sadly in need of more listening and less labelling. Perhaps even some real healing. But not the western view of just healing the mind, but mind, body and soul. We need our families, our friends and outdoor trips and breathing in air that isn’t recycled behind our masks. And you know what else? Just enough respect. I love that Lightbound used those words. In your previous post you mentioned the assignment from the professor. That is going to stick with me.

    A well rounded viewpoint sees both sides.

    I’m listening.

    February 8, 2022
    • I was struck by the same words from Lightbound. How refreshing to hear a politician talk in respectful rather than paternalistic and polarizing ways.

      February 9, 2022
  3. Gold buddy! Pure Gold!

    February 8, 2022
  4. Jacob Froese #

    Ryan, That was a guarded secret, was it? I remember several occasions coming from Texas or California, seeking a familial coffee with my clergy friend across the street. No luck, and not even a hint there might be an extra tale or two. I guess during those years you were still in the early stages of pastoral denial, thinking you were beyond that early career? No? 🤨😲

    In spite of all these misgivings, I’ll say this much. I knew it all along; something extra special about this guy. Question: Is there a midlife reason why the class 1 is looking mighty attractive in your wallet?


    Sent from my iPhone


    February 8, 2022
    • No secrets here, Jake. 🙂 I wish it would have worked to have coffee on one of your trips through town!

      Re: the class 1, well, I can think of very few people in any position of public leadership who didn’t at least occasionally look over the fence during this pandemic!

      February 9, 2022
  5. Chris #

    I’ve heard that our brains literally label and generalize constantly–people, things, events, everything. Labeling and generalizing is the only way our minds can sort and simplify the chaotic mass of sensory data we encounter moment by moment. And most of this labeling and generalizing is a good and necessary thing. It’s the only way we could ever function. I suppose the challenge is to know that we naturally do this, and to know when to hit the ‘pause’ button, so to speak–when to wait, suspend the process, and open up a space where we might learn something new, a space where we can develop more clarity and empathy.

    February 8, 2022
    • Yeah, part of it is certainly how we’re wired. We have limited bandwidth for complexity and some generalizations are necessary just to get through the day. Like you say, the challenge is knowing when to press “pause.”

      I would also say that it’s also vitally important to be at least somewhat self-critical and develop the capacity to recognize when our generalizations are being undertaken in deliberate ways and for self-serving purposes. A lot of what’s going on here in Canada at the moment, on both edges of a bitter debate, is labelling and generalizing in some pretty dishonest and nakedly political ways. This is the kind of stuff that I think Lightbound was entirely correct to criticize.

      February 9, 2022
  6. “How desperately our cultural moment is in need of more listening and less labeling.”

    Good Message,Ryan.

    Thanks for posting the Joel lightbound link

    February 8, 2022
  7. So you don’t think this is how we should behave in a democracy? Look around you. We don’t have a democracy. We have tyranny and you prattle on about, “listening and not labelling”

    If only you coulda been there to ask history’s dictators to just listen and not label. Everything woulda been swell, everybody woulda just held hands, shared a coca-cola and some apple pie and ice cream…

    What the trucker movement is offering could well be the last chance to end this peacefully, before violence erupts all over the world.

    I’ll tell you one type of person you’ve never been around. People with insatiable appetites for power and priviledge and sociopathic indifference to the suffering their choices inflict.

    The saddest irony of your prodigeous and mostly wasted talent that is that even though you are a pastor, you refuse to see, much less confront the reality of evil.

    February 11, 2022

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