Behind the Numbers

How the Anglo punditocracy demonizes Quebec’s student protests

May 29th, 2012 Ellen Russell · 2 Comments · Education, Quebec, Satire, Youth

Anglo Canada is sticking its fingers in its ears and humming a happy song. Many in the English-speaking punditocracy and media (or perhaps mediocracy?) are doing their best to persuade us that student protests in Quebec are nothing of any consequence.

This is getting a little harder to do, now that so many other folks are joining the students. But it is not too late to jump on the bandwagon to ridicule or demonize the protesters. Just follow these simple steps. (Steps can be rearranged and amplified for dramatic effect.)

Step 1: Set the stage with a dismissive tone.  Many like to scorn protesters as naïve over-entitled brats. If you really get huffing and puffing, brand students as anti-social radicals. This leads nicely into step 2.

Step 2: Suggest a sinister undertone. Highlight any behaviour suggesting that protesters are undisciplined violent thugs. (Take care to frame this in a way that denies the possibility that the noble police force ever provokes any unpleasantness).

Step 3: Explain WHAT IS REALLY GOING ON. This is your chance to look like you are magnanimously enlightening those poor confused students. Remember, it is your job to reassure English Canada that the status quo is entirely reasonable and the forces of authority radiate with the glow of legitimacy.

Now that you have concluded that protesters are in the wrong, find some evidence

Steps 1 and 2 can usually work just by evoking appropriate stereotypes, but in step 3 you will likely have to introduce something that passes as evidence. Naturally you will want to select evidence that supports your point of view. But at all times, maintain your stature as the paragon of enlightened rationality. This will position your favourably next to the depictions of protesters as an unreasonable and possibly dangerous mob (see steps 1 and 2).

My personal recommendation is to cherry-pick economic information to provide your evidence. Economics has that lovely reputation for rational objectivity. One can almost feel the credibility pouring forth from economic statistics. Special bonus: if you can situate the issue solely as a dollars and sense matter, you have effectively changed the channel on any arguments that speak to moral or democratic legitimacy.

Please Note: You probably don’t want to go down the road of moral or democratic legitimacy. Just a suggestion.

Back to the need for evidence to legitimate your conclusions. If you are going to rely on economic arguments to really nail your case, there are some favourites making the rounds.

Feel free to mix and match decontextualized economic factoids as you see fit. Just cite some impressive-sounding numbers, without venturing into any deep analysis. Everyone will probably be so dazzled that you have cited economic tidbits, they won’t focus too heavily on whether they are assembled into some kind of persuasive rationale.

A popular choice is to cite statistics about the costs of tuition in Quebec relative to other places in Canada or wherever.  You could start with this fancy-schmancy map. As you see, Quebec students pay lower tuition than students in other provinces.

This is a slam dunk! Those selfish Quebec students are already getting a good deal! What is their problem?

So far this approach has not backfired (much) by provoking students elsewhere to ask why they should put up with higher tuition that Quebec students pay. We don’t want students to conclude that the reason that tuition fees in Quebec are lower is because politicized student and social movements are willing to take to the streets.

I cannot state this more urgently: it is of utmost importance to keep statistics decontextualized. Any discussion of tuition fees must ignore other aspects of student’s lives. Do not put tuition fees in the context of such issues as the debt loads carried by students and their job prospects. By all means stay away from the very scary-looking student debt clock published by the Canadian Federation of Students. If you start considering the overall situation facing students, you might end up writing something like the Globe and Mail’s personal finance columnist, Rob Carrick did in his “Young Adults Have A Right To Be Up In Arms.”

Keep in mind, there are potential hazards in telling students to suck it up. You may look like a selfish crank who benefited from lower tuition and more generous social programs in your youth while cracking down on this generation. As I said, watch out for that nasty moral legitimacy pitfall.

You might consider shifting the focus to provincial finances. This allows you to position yourself as someone who doesn’t have any ill will towards the students. Heavens no!  You are merely obliged to point out the unfortunate fact that Quebec as a profligate province that needs to wake up to fiscal reality. Austerity is inevitable.

Patiently, but firmly, explain that students must sacrifice along with everyone else.  If students object to this, accuse them of defending their own privilege. (Return to step 1)

The benefit of this approach is that it contributes to a larger objective: the people of Quebec must be persuaded to abandon their quaint ideas about collectively paying for the collective good. The notion that they might choose higher taxes to be able to afford accessible education or other social objectives must be squelched. That route opens a whole Pandora’s box about whether people can democratically chose some way other than neoliberal model.

To legitimize austerity as an unquestionable necessity, use every opportunity to create the impression that Quebec is a fiscal basket case. Try citing a few decontextualized statistics about Quebec’s debt and deficit. A favourite is the debt/GDP ratio. This ratio compares government’s debt to the size of their economy.

Pay close attention to this next part. There are different ways to cite debt/GDP, and one looks much worse than the other. Choose the “gross” debt/GDP number, which is 55%.

The gross debt statistic ignores the fact that governments have assets as well as liabilities. If the government’s assets are subtracted from its gross debt/GPP, you get their “accumulated deficit” of 35.2% of GDP. This number sounds more manageable and thus should be ignored.

My advice is just to cite the higher debt/GDP statistic, and run for cover. Do not enter into a discussion that may inadvertently encourage your audience to rethink the interpretation of government debt and deficits. Forget anything I ever wrote about neoliberal governments welcoming debt “problems” as the pretext to disentitle citizens.

All kinds of trouble may result if your audience gets distracted by issues that may lead them to question neoliberalism. Before long people may be using concepts that the students popularized. Under no circumstances should you even acknowledge the word “class”. I understand it is difficult to avoid, given the debates ignited in Quebec. But trust me, if you start pondering tuition and the role of government more generally in class terms, you are in trouble.

Good luck to all of you who are shouldering the heavy responsibility of explaining why the protests in Quebec can be dismissed. Admittedly, you will face challenges in this heroic mission. But by all means, persevere! You, too, will experience the rewards of being oblivious to what a whole generation of people is saying loud and clear.

Ellen Russell is an economist and professor of journalism at Wilfrid Laurier University. This article was originally published in her column, which comes out every two months over at rabble.ca.

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