Opinion: ‘Committing sociology’ in fairy tale Canada

MONTREAL – As a sociologist, I have a confession to make: even though I know it may not be contributing to (and may even be detrimental to) my sons’ intellectual development, I have become enormously addicted to watching the fantasy-driven show ‘Once Upon a Time’ with them.

As a modern take on some of our most beloved and age-old fairy tales, characters such as Snow White, Cinderella, Rumpelstiltskin and the Evil Queen are still engaged in the epic battle between good and evil, but enact it while trapped in 21st century Storybrooke, Maine. Evil characters engage in acts of terror, attempt to use weapons of mass destruction, succeed in sowing fear, dissent and sometimes death, but are mostly thwarted by the forces of good in the end.

Herein lies the rub: though we see the Evil Queen Regina and her equally evil mother Cora engage in acts of terrorism and are justly condemned for those acts, we also learn that they were not always so – that their path to evil was wrought with trauma, heartbreak, bad relationships and bad choices. In other words, as the tales unfold, Regina succinctly tells us, “evil is not born, it is made.” One might argue that they are guilty of committing sociology, and on prime-time television, no less.

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The metaphor, while crude, here is apt. While many pundits and bloggers have taken aim at Justin Trudeau’s suggestion to explore the root causes of terrorism, Stephen Harper’s assertion that it is not the time to commit sociology, and/or the controversy as the newest exemplar of Conservative/Liberal Party posturing in the media, what I can’t quite get over is how a popular television show manages to tackle these questions and take its audience far more seriously than Harper seems capable of.

In other words, it is possible to pursue questions about root causes without (1) suggesting that asking such questions leads to any answers with explanatory weight or significance, (2) implying that perpetrators of violence should not be held responsible for their actions, or (3) suggesting that the acts that they engage in are not, in fact, evil. As Philip Zimbardo argues in The Lucifer Effect, his 2008 exploration and analysis of the social and psychological dynamics of evil, “psychology is not excusiology.”

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Committing sociology doesn’t mean that we excuse violence – it doesn’t even mean that we can necessarily explain it. It does mean that asking the “why” question is necessary, if only to understand the world a bit better.

Committing sociology, if I can use an expression, doesn’t mean that we excuse violence – it doesn’t even mean that we can necessarily explain it. It does mean that asking the “why” question is necessary, if only to understand the world a bit better. Hell, in this case it might help to prevent future violence. This is not academic posturing; it’s common sense.

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What Harper suggests, instead, is that “committing sociology” is an ignorant position to occupy and an infantile pursuit when it comes to terrorism.

Harper’s fairy tale Canada
As a modern-day fairy tale, his narrative would go something like this: Once upon a time there was a beautiful and blessed land called Canada. Its citizens and government prided themselves on their ability to welcome those seeking refuge or work in their land, capacity to include and appreciate those who made a home within their borders, and munificence in the exercise of justice and law such that peace and happiness reigned. To a visitor, this was immediately evident; after all, the people were so damn polite.

There were still those, however, who hated this happiness and sought only to sow terror and fear to destroy it. Evil, hatred, and violence dominated their souls; they engaged in sinister plots to inflict pain and suffering on anyone who said “please”, “thank you” or insisted on waiting patiently in line at Tim Horton’s. The wise and just leaders of this land worked tirelessly to root out and punish these evildoers before they could inflict harm on the innocent and good people of the land.

In this world – the world Harper inhabits, evildoers who hate Western values and who want to destroy Canada are responsible for terror; or in Pierre Poiliavre’s words, “terrorism is caused by terrorists”. Terrorists are not home-grown and certainly not human. This narrative is compelling and just in many ways: it shifts our attention to the suffering of the victims rather than the motive of the perpetrators, emphasizes the need to police and prosecute evil acts, and hopefully provides a path to some semblance of justice for victims. This world is more black and white, where it doesn’t matter what someone’s motivation is, it matters only whether and how they are caught and brought to justice. What is disturbing, however, is that this world seems to be the end of the line in Harper-land. What the Boston bombings and recent arrests demonstrate, more than anything, is that the fuzzy “global” threat of a foreign terrorist bent on destroying Canadian values is a fairy tale even my kids wouldn’t buy.

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An American perspective
As an American transplant who came of age in the Reagan-era, I was steeped in a world of strong fairy tales and heightened Cold War narratives. I believed the stories when I was young – hell, the U.S. won all those gold medals at the Olympics and we bested the big, bad Soviet Union. Reagan was my hero because he was the leader of the free world and still liked candy (he kept a big jar of jelly beans on his desk, which were my favourite).

Then I grew up. I learned that the Reagan Administration sold drugs (in violation of the U.S. Constitution) to fund illegal wars in the third world. I learned that the Cold War ideology of the “fight for freedom and democracy” roughly translated in some cases to CIA support and funding for oppressive dictators and financing for groups to overthrow democratic governments. I also became conscious of just how much advantage I had simply by virtue of where I was born. Most importantly, by exploring critiques and complications of those narratives, I engaged more critically in discussions and debates about policy or political life; I voted, participated in collective action, and pursued a degree in public policy.

The cost of living in a fairy tale
What it meant, ultimately, is that I became a more engaged citizen. This is the biggest cost of Harper’s admonition to avoid “academic pondering” and “committing sociology.” For a generation increasingly detached and disaffected by democratic politics, one which participates less and less in political life, we need to more actively and openly encourage inquiry, critique and debate, to complicate the childhood fairy tales about Canada, and to hopefully foster a more engaged citizenry. We need to commit more, rather than less, pondering and sociological thinking.

One of the unintended and beneficial consequences of watching ‘Once Upon a Time’ with my sons has been the long parent-child conversations about the road towards hatred, evil and violence that the Evil Queen embarks upon – a road that is entirely related to the very human experiences of disappointment, anger, humiliation, and pain. It has enriched and deepened their understanding of the choices that lay before them as a result. If prime time television can deal with such complicated issues, I think Canadians can handle committing a little sociology.

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Anna-Liisa Aunio is a professor in the Department of Sociology at Dawson College in Montreal. 

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