12 September 2010

Conditioned Response

Political dog-whistling is something your humble e-scribbler has talked about before.

Basically it is using words that means certain things to certain segments of the population, usually things that touch on deeply held beliefs and core values. To others, those same words have little or no meaning beyond the plain English. in politics it is a way of saying two things at once as a way of mobilising different segments of the population without alienating one, both or others.

What it plays on are responses to certain prompts that each of us learns over time.  In its crudest form, this conditioned response we are talking about is the old example of teaching a dog to connect the ringing of a bell with food.  When the bell rings, the dog drools for the bowl of yummies it thinks is coming even if there is no food around.

Conditioned responses in humans bypass the parts of the brain involving conscious thought and effort. You’ll find that in any activity where seconds count or a moment of hesitation can have deadly consequences – like firefighting or some branches of the military - training usually works to build up a set of nearly automatic responses.  The training – the conditioning  - can be extremely effective.  After an incident, the individuals involved may not even remember what happened.

In politics, the people often remember exactly what is going on, but the disconnection from thought  - from critical analysis – is absolutely real.

Consider for example, anything connected to Quebec and Labrador hydro-electric power.  The responses are so strongly conditioned in huge numbers of people that they respond instinctively to any suggestion that some vague entity called “Quebec” is doing something evil:  people are ready to man the barricades.

There are two fine examples of conditioned response in the weekend Telegram. Two hard-nosed, hard-headed editors – neither of them lacking in the brains department – wrote on the same subject:  the Premier’s dog-whistle speech to the Board of Trade this past week.

Here’s Bob Wakeham:

So when Danny Williams lets Quebec have it square in the noggin for putting up still more obstacles to the Lower Churchill development, or continuing with its entrenchment on that disgraceful Upper Churchill contract, the Newfoundland sector of my skull calls for applause, while the journalistic neurons demand I let everyone know that the premier’s stance will play well in every nook and cranny of the province, that he’s abundantly aware that the we-against-them form of politicking will provide another feather in his cap of popularity.

Here’s Russell Wangersky:

But let’s get right to the nub of the argument.

Is it fair that a province with natural resources to sell — say, hydroelectricity or fish — should be held to ransom by another province because the producing province wants to get its product to a lucrative market? Should one province get to skim profits from the other, just because it can?

If you read both columns you will certainly have a very rich plate of ideas to devour.  Both make powerful points and both are conscious of the fact that politicians like the Premier use political issues to garner support.

But what we are talking about here is something a hair’s breadth below the surface of what both Wakeham and Wangersky are writing about.  Both writers accept that “Quebec” is “putting up still more obstacles”, to use Wakeham’s version or that “a province with natural resources to sell” is being “held ransom by another province” to take Wangersky’s.

In other words, even though they are conscious of the fact it is just a bell, they still accept the bell’s tinkling is tied to food.  They accept that what the Premier said last week about Quebec’s obstructionism was absolutely correct because, as we all know, that’s what Quebec and Labrador hydroelectricity is all about.

The point is not to slag off either Wakeham or Wangersky.  Take their columns, on this point, as evidence of just how deeply rooted, just how powerful is the basic political mythology about Labrador and Quebec built up over the course of 35 years of relentless effort by one politician after another. Even with mounds of evidence that the Premier’s latest tirade against the “Quebec” bogeyman is based on fiction, the two editors just carried on from the starting point of what every assumes to be true. 

On another level though, you can see the early stages of something else and that’s where the current administration needs to watch out.  Russell Wangersky ends his column with the warning that the story is getting boring to voters.  And Wakeham, who evidently loves Danny, despite wanting to needle the Old Man about his marital problems every now and again, knows full well that Danny the Politician is just blowing the whistle in order to put “another feather in his cap of popularity.”

Those acknowledgements mean that the conditioning is starting to lose its grip. As long as the current administration keeps blowing the same whistle, it’s really only a matter of time before fewer and fewer dogs drool on the carpet in anticipation of the Scoobie snacks that never ever show up. 

- srbp -