‘Committing Sociology’ and the Roots of Radicalism: How Harper Narrows the Political Centre

Stephen Harper is not interested in root causes or academic debates. When Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau suggested in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings that acts of terrorism are best seen in the context of their social causes, Harper swiftly rejected the idea.

At a press conference in Ottawa, Harper responded to Trudeau by declaring that now is not the time to “commit sociology.” As a counter-proposal, Harper said that terrorists are simply “people who have agendas of violence that are deep and abiding threats to all the values that our society stands for.”

It was a familiar piece of rhetoric straight out of the George W. Bush playbook. Terrorists are enemies of freedom who only understand the language of violence. Politicians need to be strong leaders who can cut through the complexity of the modern world with decisive action. Politics is merely the act of choosing sides.

But Harper’s strange linguistic turn of describing sociology as something that one “commits” (what else collocates with that verb?) wasn’t just the return of stale War on Terror posturing. It points beyond anti-terrorism legislation and partisan spats to the deeper roots of Conservative strategy.

His aversion to critical thought aside, Prime Minister Harper is correct in saying that acts of terrorism are an affront to Canadian values. Violence against civilians should have no place in Canadian politics, either domestically or internationally. But it isn’t just terrorists who are excluded from Canada’s imagined community

In working to build support for the Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipelines, the Conservatives have repeatedly described opponents of pipeline development as radicals. The implication is that these activists are so unhinged in their opposition to fossil fuels that they have placed themselves beyond the pale of Canadian public discourse. In Conservative parlance, a radical is someone blindly given over to some niche ideology, with no understanding of common sense or the good of the nation.

There’s a considerable amount of overlap between radicals and terrorists in popular usage of the two terms. The mention of radicals conjures images of black bloc tactics, property destruction and pipeline bombings. Terrorists are said to have undergone a process of radicalization, in which they transformed from normal citizens into murderous villains. 

In the United States, where a wave of prosecutions against environmental activists has been labeled a “green scare,” the line between political radicals and terrorists is even more blurred. Members of groups such as the Earth Liberation Front have been prosecuted as domestic terrorists for acts of sabotage and property destruction, although they were deliberately calculated to avoid harming human beings.

In a further abuse of language, American activists who film deplorable conditions in slaughterhouses have been labeled “animal rights terrorists.” New legislation called “ag-gag” laws threatens to criminalize the simple act of filming animal abuse in factory farms.

The end result is that the terms radical environmentalist and eco-terrorist become interchangeable. By equating radicalism with extremism and violence, the political center grows narrower, and those whose views are not represented in government find themselves outside the borders of the body politic.

But when we trace the meaning of radical to its Latin origins, we find something completely different. Radical comes from the Latin radicalis, meaning “of or having roots.” In English, the term originally describes going to the origins or root causes of something, and in its political sense refers to “change from the roots.”

Seen in this light, Stephen Harper’s response to Trudeau’s comments begins to make a little more sense. Though he’s far from being a radical himself, Trudeau’s interest in finding the root causes of terrorism places him in the radical tradition. That tradition sees society as something that we have constructed, and therefore as something that we can collectively transform and improve.

The Conservative tradition, on the other hand, sees the social order as a victory over chaos, and something that must be preserved. It is not interested in looking at scientific evidence, participating in genuine debate, or hearing the voices of the oppressed.

The basic strategy of Harper’s Conservatives is to maintain the injustices and errors of Canadian society by making the social order seem timeless, universal and normal. To that end, they cut funding for science, shut down democratic debate and build a constituency through regular appeals to common sense.

Examples of this abound in Conservative policy. Since common sense tells us that criminals are bad people, we need to build more prisons and issue tougher sentences—despite mountains of evidence on the greater effectiveness of rehabilitation programs. Since oil is a valuable commodity, we need to extract it—even if the resulting wealth goes to a tiny minority, while the rest of us face the ballooning costs of adapting to climate change.

When confronted with threats to the social order, whether from terrorism or imminent climate change, Conservatives react by doing more of the same: more police powers, more oil extraction, more common sense.

Contrary to what Prime Minister Harper thinks, now is the perfect time to commit sociology—to go to the roots. To solve the problems of growing inequality and the ecological limits of growth, we need more than advertising campaigns extolling flimsy economic actions plans. To confront the reality of climate change, we need to draw on scientific evidence as well as democratic debate to transform the way we produce, consume and distribute wealth. Above all, we need to see society not only as something to be defended, but as something that we can radically improve.

Image Credit: PMO photogallery.

David Ravensbergen’s writing has appeared in Discorder, The Tyee, the Montreal Review of Books and the Montreal Mirror. Originally from…

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