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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Cognitive Dissonance and Neutral Ethnicity: A Bank Note Bafflegab

What does a traditional Canadian look like?  What is traditional Canadian iconography?  While there is absolutely value in having a consistent national identity that nurtures common ground and fosters a society comfortable with collaboration, there's a big risk in trying to present that image as static. 
Of course we know that Aboriginal people predated Europeans - but how often do we stop to think about migration patterns since then?  The first Europeans to settle Upper and Lower Canada were not the same that settled, say, Newfoundland or the Prairies.  The customs, culture and languages of the regions that became Canada were different from the outset.
You could argue that whatever the country looked like at Confederation is how it should remain - a notion perhaps alluded to by Conservatives who feel the need to "undo the damage" done by Pierre Elliot Trudeau to their authentic Canadian ideal.  Alas, the world has changed a bit since Confederation and the socio-cultural equivalent of horses and bayonets simply aren't sufficient to meet the modern need. 
Even when you look at the developmental tastes of our society over time, they have changed independently of what government does.  I don't feel that immutable tradition is being desecrated by Tories who depict a Santa dressed in blue - but then I know how the whole Jolly Elf thing started in the first place.
The very idea of an unwavering "national" tradition or a static "national" identity is fabricated.  Even within families, traditions are modified over time to match the tastes of new generations and the availability of resources at hand.  It's a fascinating thing to see traditions that stemmed out of practicalities (superstitions like holding one's breath while walking past a cemetery or customs like the Korean show of respect in touching one's wrist while shaking hands or pouring tea) carry on long after their original purpose has been lost.
What's even more fascinating, though discouraging, is the related trend of solving cognitive dissonance (the holding of two opposing views, such as "I'm not racist" but "I don't take a South Asian male seriously as a leadership candidate") with confabulation.  Case in point - if seeing a non-Caucasian female doctor on a bank note makes you feel uncomfortable, but you don't want to believe it's because the notion of an ethnic other taking over a piece of official iconography feels threatening, you can simply say it's "non-traditional" and revert to a "neutral ethnicity" like your own.  Think I'm exaggerating?  Look at Fox and Friend's response to Crayola introducing varied skin-tone coloured markers.
Or, look at the whole Barack Obama birther movement, now apparently the anti-Colin Powell movement, too.  Here's the ironic bit - as society has increasingly stigmatized stigma, we've put increased pressure on people to not identify themselves as a perceived negative, such as being stigmatic.  But we all stigmatize, to some degree; it's a natural limbic response to external stimuli.  Hating haters is a form of stigmatisim itself.
Like any phobia, stigma can be overcome, but only when you recognize you have it, like a medical condition.  Fear is no different than vision impairment or asthma; natural but manageable, with the right tools of accommodation.
Which is why I think that Kathleen Wynne, herself a breaker of traditional models, has it right:
"I want to thank all of those who have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of equality ... and everyone who has contributed to this moment and others like it, by refusing to be guided by prejudice or by doubt."
Change, like age, is not a choice; even our own tastes will vary over time.  We can try to deny it and cling to traditions, but scratch the surface a bit and you'll find those traditions aren't as solid as you think they are, either.  Reacting to uncertainty with fear is natural, but how we respond to that fear is entirely up to us - when we're conscious of how and why it exists.
What can lie in our control is how we respond to change - but only when we're conscious of how those responses are shaped.  When you refuse to give in to fear, you push it out of the driver's seat.  Like going to the gym, though, emotional control is something you constantly have to work at.
And that, I think, is something worth noting.

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