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Patrick Lagacé June 14, 2012
The further we settle in to this maple spring that’s slowly turning to vinegar, the more I feel I understand how entire societies can be sucked into heinous spirals. I understand more and more how a the Irish, Palestinians, and Israelis can think the things they do.
Quebec isn’t Northern Ireland; our springtime hubbub is not an intifada. What we call a social crisis is not the same as a fight over religion or territory, it’s still just, at its base, a matter concerning tuition hikes.
But it’s caused polarization so strong that one might think that this is about our fundamental identity. The ambient climate has been dirtied with verbal pollutant of a sort rarely heard in Quebec, where we’re normally so peaceful and even-tempered.
It’s if as though everything these days is up for discussion, as though insult is now a completely permissible form of normal discourse. The feeling in the air is a toxic one, these days.
And for this reason, a band website can spell out KILL MARTINEAU in Scrabble letters on its website, referring to Richard Martineau, the Journal de Montréal columnist and LCN broadcast personality. His wife, Sophie Durocher, can be called all sorts of names. It’s now okay to suggest on the radio that Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, CLASSE’s omnipresent co-spokesperson, deserves “a slap in the face”, as Réjean Breton, ex-professor at Laval University, did on CHOI in Quebec City (he has since apologized).
It’s also the reason that demonstrators can mock the Montreal police force in the middle of a protest by giving a Nazi salute. They’re comparing - and I know you’ll say I’m only getting this information second-hand and that I don’t understand - regular cops to the SS. Red square, yellow star, same thing.
There are a thousand other examples. The point is, we’ve gotten here, to the point at which, all a little crazy and disoriented, we let the true weight and meaning of the words and metaphors we use escape us.
Watching the news from this part of the world, its easy to think that people in one or another corner of the globe are just crazy, what with their arguments and wars and extortion. That they’d better fix all that, like sensible people.
But the only difference between them and us, it’s that our issues are a bit less existential. I have a five-cent theory to explain- in part- how and why we’ve gotten this bad, tearing other Quebecers into little pieces, like a family violently insulting each other in public, in front of company.
The tectonic plates of Quebec society are shifting. Since the sixties, the dividing line was always that sovreigntist-federalist axis, Quebec vs. Canada, YES or NO.
It’s often the case that when a society changes, it’s a discreet change, a slow one, done on tiptoes. So much so that we don’t even notice the transformation.
This spring, a new dividing line is under construction, right under our eyes. The Canada- Quebec axis is being erased, a new one, a left-right axis, is taking its place.
Opposition between the left (a strong state, bridling the all-powerful market, working for equality of opportunity) and the right (a discrete state, who lets the all-powerful market do what it will, who believes that people have whatever they have because it’s what they deserve) is the backbone of political debate everywhere else. Here, the question of Quebec’s future always left this question in shadow. The duality was between YES or NO, not left or right.
Over decades of debating the national question and tearing at each other’s throats over the national question, Quebecers have learned how to behave ourselves. Most of us understand that our sovereigntist or federalist sparring partner isn’t actually a Nazi, a Rhodesian, or a Castro-loving communist dreaming of revolution. Everyone knew that each side had its leaders, official or otherwise, incapable of controlling their rowdier members.
None of this in the new left-right argument, as the student strike has brutally revealed. None of our contemporaries have truly participated in collective debate of this nature. We have no points of reference to guide us in this brave new world. The rulebook hasn’t been published yet.
So what we get is heated discussion suggesting violence. We get each side believing with complete certainty that it is absolutely and completely right. Anyone wishing to compromise is seen as impure. No captain, no guidelines: anything may be said, anything may be insinuated, any insult is permitted.
It all leads to a bit of a wacky climate this 2012, where everywhere you look someone is holding a placard, having at it on Twitter, or doing an interview designed to make him look crazy.
And it’s making the rest of us look crazy too.
Translated from the original French by Translating the printemps érable.
*Translating the printemps érable is a volunteer collective attempting to balance the English media’s extremely poor coverage of the student conflict in Québec by translating media that has been published in French into English. These are amateur translations; we have done our best to translate these pieces fairly and coherently, but the final texts may still leave something to be desired. If you find any important errors in any of these texts, we would be very grateful if you would share them with us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please read and distribute these texts in the spirit in which they were intended; that of solidarity and the sharing of information.