When everything is open to individual interpretation
This post originally appeared in my weekly newsletter, “The Missive” on Aug.15, 2021. Subscribe for free at: https://jodymacpherson.substack.com/ or access background info and special content with a paid subscription.
As we all know by now, a growing list of UCP MLA’s and senior staff were travelling and vacationing internationally over Christmas, including to and from the UK, where a new coronavirus variant has led to a ban on travel.
The MLA’s including the minister responsible for emergency management, Tracy Allard, were travelling to and from the United States despite the fact that the border is closed. The closure is an attempt to slow the spread from a country where the virus is raging out of control.
The Alberta government’s own website states “Avoid non-essential travel outside Canada until further notice. The Canada/U.S. border remains closed to non-essential travel.”
Like everyone else, I was upset by this whole thing and posted a number of tweets, including this one:
So, it was startling to read one Twitter user challenge me on one of my tweets with this: “what does ‘avoid’ mean to you?”
To which I say – it doesn’t really matter what a word “means to me,” what matters is what most people understand the word to mean. A good way to determine this is to look it up in a reputable source, like the dictionary. According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary: “to keep away from, shun.” If Dictionary.com is more to your liking: “to keep away from; keep clear of; shun.” It is generally understood what the word, “avoid” means.
Although I say it was startling, after the past four years, the idea that there might be an alternate definition of the word “avoid” circulating about in some political bubbles should not be surprising.
We’ve reached a point where everything is up for interpretation. It’s individualism taken to the extreme, where some believe you can come up with your own personal meaning, apply it to any situation and elude responsibility.
That was reinforced in this latest debacle by the Premier of Alberta, Jason Kenney when he excused the behaviour of his cabinet and caucus by stating he was the one who made an error by “not issuing a clear directive earlier urging them to remain in the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The implication here is that it doesn’t matter that the rest of us fully understood the meaning of “avoid” and “non-essential” travel, what matters is what he himself directed his cabinet and caucus to do (or not do, in this case).
Kenney seemingly believes his individual directions are sacrosanct, which is just one of the disturbing aspects of this whole controversy.
Once you convince people that everything is open to interpretation, the next step is convincing them that one individual’s interpretation is more true than another’s. In its ultimate implementation, unscrupulous leaders will try to upend an entire community’s interpretation in favour of their own.
It’s a dangerous pattern of deferring to individual authority figures for direction or meaning. Also known as authoritarianism.
But back to the Twitter user at the beginning of this essay. They further reminded me that there is no sanction (or ticket) for international travel. It’s not like speeding where you can get a ticket. The implication was – it’s no big deal unless there’s a penalty issued.
This reflects a view of the world where individuals are guided in decisions by avoiding punishment or sanctions. A disturbing and dark view of humanity. People don’t do things purely out of compassion or the greater good in this hellscape interpretation.
Is this Twitter user Kenney’s alter ego?
In his news conference, Kenney said those in public positions should be held to a higher standard in their personal conduct but then pivoted quickly and said he wouldn’t “sanction” them. Kenney wants to quickly to establish authority. He’s less interested in dwelling on the obvious – what they did was wrong – for so many reasons This has already been explained in a good many editorials, so I won’t focus on that here.
During the news conference, what’s incredible is that he only briefly acknowledges the harm caused by their actions to the wider community. Kenney doesn’t empathize with the sacrifices made by Albertans far and wide – how much everyone else gave up to protect others – he’s only focused on the individuals under his control and whether he is going to punish them. It’s an embarassing spectacle with strong “Father Knows Best” vibes.
Of course, since he likely approved the travel in the first place, he is faced with a conundrum of every authoritarian leader – what to do when he makes a mistake or those closest to him make a mistake. As we know, authoritarian leaders make a lot of mistakes.
But to paraphrase Kenney’s immediate reaction to the controversy – “they didn’t really do much wrong in my opinion and it’s actually only my opinion that counts in this case because I’m in charge here. Can we move on, now?”
Are we going to let him get away with this?
Jody MacPherson is a professional communicator, commuting cyclist (currently working from home), and practices avoidance regularly (not always a good thing).