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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.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Empathy and The Mind of EzraLEvant

There's an assumption here on Keenan's part that there's a compartmentalization between whatever Ezra Levant's personal views are and the frame he chose to present with his Remembrance Day Rant.  In other words, in the perspective Keenan presents, Levant and co. intentionally hit the racist button because 1) they think that's what they're audience wants or 2) to generate controversy and get Levant some broader attention, which given his viewership numbers he kinda needs.
Given the brand hits, staff hours lost to damage control and probably billable consulting hours by high-priced lawyers, I would question the cost/benefit analysis of a cynical play like this, but there's no evidence to conclude the Sun News team do or don't do this kind of prefrontal analysis.
What we do know, however, is that people make choices, including the choice not to think through consequences.  The impetus for these choices has to come from somewhere.
So if we want to understand the root cause of these Levant rants, we have to dig a little deeper. 
Levant regularly and vindictively targets people not like him - "lefties," Sinti-Roma, Muslims.  These are people he apparently sees as a threat to Canada, rather than reflective of Canada's diversity. 
He does not vindictively target people he perceives as like him - they're the true patriots. 
How he rationalizes this to himself is his business, but looking at his actual though process is revealing.
Here's the quote that got Levant started:
"Please note that meaningful alternate activities should be provided at the schools for those families who do not wish their children to participate in any Remembrance Day ceremonies.”
I read this, I see "not participate in ceremonies" and "meaningful alternate activities should be provided."  The message I took from this was that, should families not want kids to participate in Remembrance Day ceremonies, they will be provided related alternatives.  Perhaps it should have read meaningful alternate Remembrance Day activities" for clarity, but for the intended audience of the memo, educators, the meaning was probably clear.  If not, they could always ask.
The references at the bottom emphasize Canada's diversity and how that diversity is reflected in our military.  I would imagine this was intentional - part of an educator's job is to encourage critical thinking and careful reflection, which is the opposite of emotional generalizations.  We want youth to recognize that not all Muslims are terrorists from villages in Pakistan.  We want all people, regardless of their faith, skin colour, sexuality or other factor recognized as individuals, not zombies.
Asked by a Sun editor if this policy was directed at/requested by specific groups (instead of straight-up question asking what the impetus was), the Board's PR guy Scott Scantlebury took the questions asked and tried to provide an answer he felt reflected the demand.  I think his answer wasn't helpful - the memo didn't touch on religious exemptions, so answering with reference to such a policy wasn't actually answering the question in its context.  This is a good teachable moment for him.
Levant, clearly, took the matter in a whole different direction.
By his own admission, when he read the bit about alternative activities, he jumped to the conclusion that this meant parents were being given an opportunity for their kids not to recognize Remembrance Day.  Further, when he saw the reference to Muslims, what stood out to him was not an emphasis of diversity, but a religious reference.
When Scantlebury did reference the religious exemption policy, he refers to faith "where pacifism is a tenant", which can be read as a subtle reference to Jehovah's Witnesses.  This isn't what Levant took away:
Levant either overlooked or didn't register the mention of pacifism.  Instead, his focus became Muslim, Immigrant, Canada-hater.
Again - whether he did this because he saw a potential narrative to exploit or whether he felt incensed is for him to sort out, but I would suggest the fact he was capable of thinking that way was particularly telling.
Levant makes a valid point when he says the memo - which wasn't directed at the media - didn't overtly mention safety issues.  It also didn't say anything about immigrant Muslims seeking exemptions because they don't believe in Canada.
That was a frame Team Levant constructed for themselves, completely ignoring all evidence to the contrary.
Think about that for a second; the memo was about providing children meaningful alternatives to ceremonies, which are public events.  It could just as easily be a child with social anxiety as one with religious motivations.  When religion came up, the reference made by Scantlebury was to pacificst intent, not Canada-hating. 
It's a massive leap from meaningful alternatives to backwoods bigots from Pakistan or Somalia, but that is exactly where Levant's mind went to.  Which kinda implies this is what he was looking for.
You know the expression "if you go looking for trouble, you're sure to find it?"  There's neurological basis for this.  We are hard-wired to be attracted to things which feel good for us and avoid things we see as threatening.  Emotions are tools that motivate us to respond to our environment.
To avoid potential threats, we need to know what and where they are.  This requires a bit of proactive threat identification.  In the same way wild animals will be wary of and keep their distance from people, we will try to be aware of and stay away from (or fight against) what we perceive as threats to us.
How do we categorize what's a threat from what isn't, especially in real time?
We do this through generalizations.  Certain sensual cues serve as markers that let us know where a threat is - something that looks like a tiger is threatening, and should therefore be avoided.  A car that's going too fast in our vicinity will set off alarm bells.  By the same token, if you have been abused by a person with certain characteristics in your life, you may develop a sense of wariness towards all people with similar characteristics.  These sorts of fears can even be learned.
Which brings us back to Levant.  In a memo that had nothing to do with Somali/Pakistani terrorists that that are distinctly un-Canadian, that's exactly where his mind went.  When he saw a picture of a Muslim, an alarm bell went off.  Conclusions were reached that facts don't back.
Of course, Levant himself would reject this notion.  He's not a bigot, after all, nor do his fears of the Other control his perception of the world.  He's a rational actor - it's the other guys who are all reactive, who don't do their homework.  All of 'em, together.
Like, say, those lefties in the media party.
To clarify - there's no possibility that multiple independent parties individually came to the same conclusions about Levant being a fearful bigot.  In fact, the more logical argument is that they convened through murmuration and made poor Ezra the target of their attacks.
A statement which, I'm sure, Levant carefully researched for accuracy before uttering.
In seconds, Levant has dehumanized and generalized people that challenge his views (geese), suggested they are reactive rather than thoughtful and, therefore, a collective threat.  Best of all - he's suggested that he, rather than his statements, is now being targeted by this flock.
It's a conspiracy theory that not only isn't evidence-based, it doesn't even make logical sense.
But the emotional frame doesn't end there, either.  Levant talks about the Board throwing Scantlebury under the bus (betrayal, abuse of authority, THREAT!) then plays a video where nothing of the kind happens.  What purpose does that bit serve?
By concluding that he would "go with the Superintendent's" version, Levant was backing away from his rant.  He couldn't admit that he'd overreacted, though, as that implies he's not as in control as he wants to believe himself to be, so he needed someone else to put in the penalty box.
Then Levant took a moment to talk about miscommunication, as in the Board's miscommunication to him.  Communication, of course, isn't a one-way exercise; it requires involved parties to focus on the other person; what they mean and what they're receiving.  You can't have communication without empathy; we tend not to empathize with those we fear as threats.
How do we bridge the gap between people with such different lived experiences, though?  What provides the common ground on which we can see each other not as threats, but as peers?
National identities do this; so do rituals and symbols.  These are things designed to transcend individuals and tribes to build communities. 
Canada is a multicultural country that believes in peace, order and good government.  None of these things are possible without collaboration, which doesn't happen without empathy.
Something Ezra Levant should keep in mind.

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