Sunday, February 28, 2010

Am I a Progressive?

I did the inconceivable this weekend and took two days off to attend the REBOOT 2.0 conference at the Delta Kananaskis. Me taking time off work except for being too sick to get out of bed or because of a family emergency is rarer than the USA beating Canada in an Olympic gold medal game. Yet, I drove 400 km to a very plush hotel and attended a conference of self-described "progressives" to consider what that label actually means... and if it does mean anything, what sort of agenda can we collectively pursue to make Alberta a more "progressive" province.

Reflecting on my own perceptions, I've always felt myself to be a small 'l' liberal... yet for reasons of convenience, I've always labelled myself a small 'c' conservative... not that labels matter that much. Still, I always plopped myself in the Red Tory category when labels were needed. It's just easier... and until the Ralph Klein, Stephen Harper and Ed Stelmach eras, I had no real feelings of conflict between the way I felt and what I called myself.

This weekend I found myself among more than 100 people who it might be said share a similar set of values with me. For the most part I wasn't surprised by much of what anyone said, or the directions of the conversations I was involved in. It seems all of us want a more inclusive society with more social justice and an insurance that the most vulnerable in society will not suffer. We accept that modern problems require complex solutions and that decisions made by government need to be made based on research and evidence rather than on specific ideologies.

This was a room full of articulate, intelligent folks who (for the most part) had no trouble with communication. This was a group who I quite closely identified with when we talked about values and policies we would like to see. The vision that most people in the room had for the future of the province was much closer to my own than the one I see the province now pursuing.

Yet I can't say I was entirely comfortable at the conference. While the group espoused values that I think could be sold to 80% of Albertans because the basis of those values is one that most caring people share. Still, I couldn't help feel that if some of the folks who spoke up at the conference lived and worked in my everyday world... if they had to engage the same down-to-earth neighbours and colleagues that I meet every day, there would be friction.

I'm not all together why I felt it... but I did. I think there were simply too many four-syllable words and phrases like, "social dichotomy," and "parallel planes of reference" that wouldn't wash in my world. I wasn't even sure at times what the hell some people meant.

We all recognise that we want more time with our families and our neighbours. We all want to feel secure that as we grow old, we will not be abandoned. We all seek justice. We all want integrity from our elected officials. I have no doubt that the values of the people I met with this weekend are the same values as the people I meet at the arena... the guys and gals I work with and the majority of the rest of the people I meet on a daily basis in rural Alberta.

Yet I'm nagged by a feeling that if some of the people who were acting as spokespersons used the same way of talking out here in the country, the ideas we all share wouldn't even get a hearing. There would be no listening because of the patterns of speech and words employed.

This is not to say that I did not meet a handful of people I want to stay in touch with. Some of those I spoke to moved me greatly with their stories and their passion. There were people in that room who will be able to connect the values we shared this weekend with whoever they come into contact with. There were lots of them, actually. It's just that it wasn't everyone.

It was a profound realisation that while we share values... and a vision of a better province... there really is a difference in the way we talk in the city and the way we talk in the country.


  1. Good post and it was great to meet you this weekend!

    In terms of the disconnect that you felt between the frames of reference of some of the Reboot participants and your rural perspective - this is an important dicsussion to have...and is one of the reasons that it was so great to have you at Reboot 2.0!

    Reboot doesn't belong to people that took poli sci classes in university - as far as I'm concerned, the more people from different perspectives the better! Diverse opinions and view points force everyone to elevate their game and adjust their perceptions.

    From a personal perspective, I sincerely enjoyed talking to you! You were one of the first people that I spoke to at 2.0 and I remember thinking "wow, I'm so happy that he came!"


  2. Great point! Same problem at the university, and just unfortunate. Sometimes you need $10 words to get an important idea across, but not nearly as often as some people think! It's easy to get in the habit of speaking a given way; that needs to be challenged/considered if we're going to communicate across different communities.

  3. Ten dollar words! I like that.

    One of the best essays I ever read was George Orwell's "The Importance of the English Language..." or something like that.

    The point of the essay was... whenever possible to use the simplest words to explain things and only reach for the $10 ones when nothing else works.

  4. My only criticism or disagreement I have with your post is the assumption this is a reflection of a rural urban divide. My opinion, or assumption, would summarize your analysis as being indicative, or applicable, to that of a class divide.

    I hate using the word “class”, but a single syllable word is appropriate here.

    Working people, regardless of education, particularly those involved in physical labour speak a common language. It is not a language limited to dialect. The sense of accomplishment for a labourer is the attainment of a goal that can only be achieved through a combination of aches, pains, and sweat. A scholar (regardless of education) can achieve nothing less than the same sense of accomplishment through tireless and exhaustive efforts of research or some other academic endeavour. The fact is these are two different languages.

    Most people understand both languages, but whether by choice, environment, or necessity people gravitate to one language or the other. In terms of human behaviour it is where we get our identity.

    My own personal theory subscribes to the belief that the more a labourer gravitates to their language, the more they tend to identify with the physical toil of starting at point “A” and experience real change taking effect most often before point “B” is reached. For example: building a bridge or ploughing a field to grow crops, both provide the labourer with measurable results along the way. Working for the railroad or working in a greenhouse serves the same purpose. Labourers are not just results oriented; they effect results; see the results, and take responsibility for making the results. Most all the results are physical changes.

    Scholars on the other hand may see and effect results in the similar ways, but those results are rarely visible to the rest of society, particularly in the short-term. As scholars gravitate to their language for example, their accomplishments can virtually be obtained with the development of a theory. The sense of accomplishment is no less satisfying, but a theory to a labourer is something you contemplate while sitting on the toilet. Labourers would call it multi-tasking!
    I wonder how many people at Reboot achieved a sense of satisfaction because they were impressed with their input in the conversation.

    The language for a labourer is a difference in attitude not necessarily dialect. It is an action language and those who speak it fluently don’t want to think about what needs to be done or visualize the results. They only want to know what needs to be done and then they want to do it! In summary, there are plenty of labourers in the urban area, but clearly people of all academic abilities living in the rural areas, tend to participate in labour. Labourers want to see action, and once knowing what needs to be done, they are ready to get to it! It is the time we call, “getting our hands dirty” – otherwise known as action.

  5. Interesting points, Joe... and I think you may be right. There were definitely more scholars at Reboot than labourers. Perhaps I fell into the idea that since most people in the country are workers (as in physical), they tend to speak in the ways you defined.

    I didn't really allow that there are lots of people in cities who speak that same language.