Skip to content

The Munk Debates and the Perfect Safety of Young White Men

In the 1960s and 70s, Pierre Eliot Trudeau won the hearts of many socially conservative Western Canadians by rejecting a new politics of haute-bourgeois male emotionalism. When an interviewer suggested that Trudeau was dismissive of the “deep personal need” of many Quebeckers to “exist as an independent cultural entity,” he agreed. “Go feel your own way. I’ll feel mine,” was his response to those who felt that their emotional experience should be a basis on which public policy was decided. Defending his War Measures Act, he famously responded, “well, there’s a lot of bleeding hearts out there. All I can say is ‘go on and bleed.’ It’s more important to keep public order than pander to the feelings of a bunch of weak-kneed people who are afraid of men with helmets and guns.”

Most importantly, when Trudeau was attacked by rock- and bottle-throwing demonstrators during the 1968 election campaign, he refused to be whisked to safety by security and chose, instead, to hold his ground and endure the risk of projectiles striking him. Some see this as what clinched the first majority government in four elections.

As I have written previously, one of the things that makes Francophone Quebecois leaders appealing to male Anglo voters is the very fact that they are associated with a more conventionally manly cultural accommodation with violence. Justin Trudeau’s public boxing match against Patrick Brazeau, Tom Mulcair’s physically threatening confrontation with Peter van Loan fit into a grand tradition, leading back through Jean Chretien’s chokeholds and beatings, of repressed Anglos cheering on violence in Francophone leaders that they would not tolerate in one of their own.

That’s why I was initially so surprised by Justin Trudeau’s sudden pivot, echoed in pre-rehearsed, stage-ready tweets and Facebook posts from campaign surrogates, to immediately assert that his continued feelings of bereavement surrounding his father’s death a decade and a half ago required some kind of disability accommodation by everyone else in Canada. Gerald Butts and other Liberal surrogates instantaneously reacted to Tom Mulcair’s assertion that the NDP’s multi-generation track record of standing up for Canadians’ liberty was demonstrated in their opposition to the War Measures Act in 1971. Apparently, this implied criticism of Trudeau’s dad was dirty pool and had hurt the prospective Prime Minister’s feelings. The recent emergence of medically invalid but nevertheless popular “trigger warnings” on US college campuses had, somehow, leapt across the border and now, fifteen of the past fifty years of Canadian politics were off-limits for fear of causing one rich white man to experience hurt feelings.

But I am no longer surprised. This bullshit is totally working. All kinds of random people, veterans struggling with amputations and PTSD, precariously employed minimum wage workers, racialized populations being stripped of their citizenship rights—these people, ordinary Canadians, are getting really concerned about how Mulcair was insufficiently considerate of Trudeau’s hurt feelings. How is it that the feelings of one attractive, privileged, successful, white adult male could become the object of so much sympathy that the entire narrative of the campaign changed in one day? How could Butts and the other Liberal strategists have calculated that so many Canadians whose easiest day is tougher than Trudeau’s hardest would have become so concerned about another national leader being inconsiderate of his feelings?

I think it comes from their superior understanding of the politics of expected safety and anticipated vulnerability, a politics about which I have already written, at some length, in my posts about Jian Ghomeshi, a politics that is arising from the modern inversion of a long-held patriarchal tradition.

If we understand patriarchal society to be a society dominated by older, wealthier men, we must recognize that the main threat faced by such societies is not the transition to gender-equal or matricentric societies but is, instead, the reversion to a social structure dominated by younger, violent men. Indeed, it is the threat of politically empowering young, violent men that makes patriarchal social order so secure; given a binary choice between rule by old, rich men and rule by young, violent men, most women would, very reasonably, choose the former.

For this reason, patriarchal societies must, by definition, seek to disempower and diminish younger, more violent men, in favour of empowering old, rich guys. Young men are encouraged in risk-seeking behaviour, conscripted into war, taught dangerous sports and passtimes, etc., yielding a young, male population perpetrating most of their violence on one another. In the first phases of the post-Enlightenment modern world, these aspects of patriarchal society were intensified through new social technologies like conscription, producing an enormous body-count but also, paradoxically, through the increasing empowerment and enfranchisement of young women in the world outside the home, transferring jobs like teaching and secretarial work from young men to young women.

And this sort of thing has worked to keep our society’s basically patriarchal structure intact: the young men who survived the winnowing process of driving fast, shooting guns and drinking hard were accepted and promoted through what they understood to be an earned position as a major or minor patriarch. Older men, even if not rich, gained new forms of social power, acceptance and security having survived young adulthood and looked approvingly on institutions like conscription the way one does upon a hazing ritual through which one has passed.

But something has been changing in the past half-century, fifteen years of which we’re not to mention for fear of hurting Mr. Trudeau’s feelings. Today, while younger and more violent men remain disempowered in crucial ways, the character of this disempowerment has changed in some striking respects. Instead of our society thinking of young men’s teens and twenties as times to cull the herd, the opposite impulse has taken hold: the teens and twenties are such a dangerous time that privileged lineages want to make sure that their sons come to no harm whatsoever. Today’s young men must be warehoused in something akin to a state of suspended animation, lest even a minor harm come to their precious bodies and minds. And we see this from the outset, with the development of playgrounds on which no child should ever be able to fall onto anything hard.

When every iota of the Affordable Care Act that actually helps anyone get healthcare is stripped away, all that will be left of Barack Obama’s great reform will be that it makes the effective age of majority for middle- and upper middle-class people twenty-six instead of twenty-one. Of course, you should be on your parents’ health insurance at twenty-six like the dependent you are, working that unpaid internship or getting that graduate degree while you wait for the older men to age out of the job that is waiting for you.

Of course, not all young people are supposed to experience this perfect safety. In fact, most are not. Working class youth, young people of colour are having their age of majority chipped-away, with successive law reforms first permitting children to be tried as adults and then applying mandatory minimum sentences to them. Whether working legally or illicitly, remittance migrants face increasingly dangerous working conditions and fewer and fewer legal tools to address them. Girls and young women are also having their expectations of safety adjusted with constant reminders that the wrong decisions about their clothing, their etiquette, their recreation will place them directly in the path of inevitable sexual violence. And, even if one behaves just right, the risk of gender-based violence is presented as normative, a reality like the weather to which everyone must simply adapt. Privileged white boys, something Mr. Trudeau is still presented as being, are to expect perfect safety, to live in a world where no object, no person, no word, no emotion can interfere with their pristine state while this future elite is being warehoused. Just as we are taught to expect young black and aboriginal men to be in prison being raped and abused, just as we are taught to expect young women to be negotiating a dangerous and narrow path through omnipresent gender-based violence, we are taught to expect that, if our social order is functioning properly, nothing even slightly hurtful should ever happen to a rich, young white boy.

What we are seeing in Canadian politics right now is people responding with anxiety to the sense that the social order in which they make plans, form expectations and negotiate power is under threat, that if Mr. Mulcair does not know how to treat young Mr. Trudeau, how can he be trusted to maintain an ordered Canadian society, one with a place for everyone and everyone in his place? While it might be all very well for him to debate Mr. Trudeau, to engage in the dancing, parrying formalities of parliamentary debate, it is clearly off-limits for him to trigger his opponent, so to speak. Like sensitivity to depictions or descriptions of certain kinds of violence, bereavement has been transformed from a universal human experience to a permanent disability that everyone around a privileged young man must alter their speech and actions to accommodate, like the emotional equivalent of a nut allergy.

This belief in the perfect safety of the privileged, young, white man has become so natural, so normative, so much a part of our mental furniture that Canadians really did feel a sense of genuine sense of emotional outrage at that pivotal moment in the Munk foreign policy debate. And this group included people who would never experience the same outrage if the identical thing happened to them, because they, unlike Mr. Trudeau, are not understood to be deserving of perfect safety.

Next post, I will link this back to the rape culture posts with which this article is converging.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.