Recently I made a big mistake.
Now that statement in itself is not terribly remarkable (or even that unusual). Unfortunately, it was a mistake that (in my opinion) was more about forgetting to accommodate the vindictive nature of those around me, than me actually screwing up.
On March 20, a motion from NDP MLA Kennedy Stewart was rejected by the Conservative majority in the Canadian parliament. The motion read like this:
“That, in the opinion of the House:
(a) public science, basic research and the free and open exchange of scientific information are essential to evidence-based policy-making;
(b) federal government scientists must be enabled to discuss openly their findings with their colleagues and the public; and
(c) the federal government should maintain support for its basic scientific capacity across Canada, including immediately extending funding, until a new operator is found, to the world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area Research Facility to pursue its unique research program.”
A week later, a colleague of mine wrote an article title “[Local MP] votes “nay” to science”. It began with the suggestion that the party in power “doesn’t need science”, proposed that they were showing “contempt for … common sense”, and accused them of taking a “stand” against science.
Needless to say, as a person who is essentially apolitical (yet has some familiarity with the political system) I was confused by the general assumptions of this article. I have a good relationship with the colleague who wrote the piece, and I wasn’t looking to shame or embarrass her, yet I saw an opportunity to do some fact-checking (and perhaps create a good story to tell to any potential grand-kids).
So I called up my local MP (who just happened to actually be in his local office), and asked him if he did indeed “hate science.” He asked me where I’d heard that he did, and I told him about the article in our local student paper (without disclosing that I worked for the paper in question). He laughed, and said…
“Well you know how student papers are, they get almost everything wrong anyway.”
Somehow I managed to end the conversation without dissolving into a spastic ball of laughter, and, thinking myself quite the prankster, I posted about the incident on Facebook. I mentioned the article in question, the quote, and promised (somewhat sarcastically) that the MP could count on my vote for life since he’d given me the best laugh I’d had for months.
What I’d forgotten was that my office is not a democratic space (but instead essentially an Orange zone), that many of my colleagues work for the NDP, and that, when it comes to politics, it’s dangerous to have a sense of humour.
I got hacked and slashed, sliced and diced, accused of misogyny (since the original article’s writer happened to be female), and accused of criticizing my place of employment. I, of course, had simply wanted us all to have a good laugh, and I was surprised (and hurt) at the reaction.
Now it would be hard for me to argue that I’m blameless in the matter. I was irritated by the article and I found a cheeky way to address my irritation in what I hoped would let the writer, myself, and our colleagues laugh about it. I took a risk and it bit me on a tender portion of my anatomy. I should have ‘flown under the radar’ (as my father says), kept my research between myself and my close friends, and not trusted to the charity of the wider audience.
But then again, it’s hard to admit that I work for a student paper which so blatantly allows political propaganda from its employees. Our main political writer works for the NDP and is helping out in the campaign. Two of our four sectional editors are actively anti-Harper and make this clear in any column they write which touches on political. Of course, political involvement is healthy and to be expected from student journalists, but so is a certain level of professional objectivity.
Something which our paper has historically lacked.
It was clear to me, within ten seconds of reading the motion above, that the first two points are essentially useless. They are statements of principle rather than action, and they would be instantly agreed to by any politician worth his or her salt. The only concrete action being proposed by the motion is the continued operation of the Experimental Lakes Facility, which is being closed down by Harper and the Conservatives.
The first two points, by contrast, are the equivalent of adding a section stating “Whereas babies are cute” to the beginning of a budget motion; likewise, my colleague’s article is the equivalent of accusing the naysayers of thinking babies are ugly when that same motion gets rejected. Whether or not we think babies are cute (or science is great) has no real relevance to the meat of the motion. In fact, the cynic might say that such points are only added to provide the seeds for public outrage among individuals who do not understand the system.
The important question is not whether the Conservatives hate science, but whether the Experimental Lakes Facility should be shut down. That could be the basis for a very interesting, critical article.
On a separate tangent, I was grimly amused by some of my other colleagues who expressed deep disappointment with our local MP for devaluing the incredibly important role of student newspapers in articulating (and creating debate around) student perspectives. I of course believe this is true and found my MP’s derogatory comments a little insulting, but I could help but compare my colleague’s words to some of the less-reasoned pieced he’s written in the past.
After all, one cannot appropriate the student newspaper as a platform for the dissemination (primarily) of one’s personal agenda, and then turn around and defend it as an essential forum of student discussion. In other words, one cannot have cake and eat it too. If we, as journalists, want to be taken seriously by the larger audience, including those involved in politics, we have to create content that is not simply a regurgitation of our personal biases but instead a careful, balanced, charitable summary of the debate. We cannot simply create straw men to knock over, nor settle for riding our favourite hobby horses at the expense of all other issues. If we do, our product will be marginalized, ignored, mocked, and scorned, and we (as the producers of the product) will be very much to blame.
The institution of student journalism may be sacred, but its product is very often profane, and that needs to be recognized. A legendary Canadian opinions columnist once told me that, in opinion writing, all you have is your credibility. If people don’t trust your ethics, if they don’t respect the critical process behind your articles, you might as well stop writing or get used to preaching only to the choir. While I have a great love for student journalism, I wish student journalists would take their job seriously enough to place their work first and their personal agendas second.
And I wish I would learn that I’m not funny, and I need to stop trying to be. 🙂