Dawson shooting

Romancing the Riot

I’ve been posting about the Montreal student strike for a few days now. I’m doing this because I feel the need to get a more balanced view out there. It seems there is a very strong tendency, on the part of people inspired by the “We are the 99%” movement, to believe any protest is legitimate.

This is disheartening for those of us who try to approach conflict ethically. I recently read, on a very admirable person’s blog, that innovation takes humility. I agree. There’s nothing more humbling than working hard on something and then stepping back and evaluating it honestly. It’s harder still to admit failure, either in part or in whole.

Managing disappointment is one of the hardest emotional skills to learn, but it is, arguably, one that most successful people have mastered. It keeps us from trying too hard for too long, from throwing good money after bad, from focusing too exclusively on “the one” when there are a lot of “ones” out there for us. It provides the support for that most useful of tools, the coup de grâce, and allows us to know when to say “enough.”

I really wish the student strikers, and their largely uninformed supporters, would just get there already. I’m tempted to throw out that famous feminist question, “What part of NO don’t you understand?” when I see people from outside of Montreal supporting the strike, people who have no idea of the extent of the disruption. It has gone on for over three months now, shows no sign of stopping and yet the government, largely supported by the public, has been saying no to the students all along.

For all the momentum the “99%” are inspiring with their Occupy Movements, there is a downside. It seems to be a movement without brakes. For example, there are times in life when we need to fight our resistance to change and that can mean resisting our need to be right. It can mean taking an honest look at what is going on around us and deciding, for ourselves, if our actions are creative or destructive. Sometimes, it will mean that taking no for an answer really is the best option.

One thing I demand from my students is that when they analyze a text they must practice absolute fidelity to it. What I mean is that they cannot, under any circumstances, draw conclusions beyond the information an author or poet or playwright gives us. So when Alice Munro creates her wonderful character Liza, in “Vandals”, and we later see Liza trashing her neighbour’s home, we can take into account that she is a) a victim of sexual abuse; b) a born-again Christian with flexible morals and c) a young woman who understands the value of getting even.

What we cannot say is that she is deeply scarred and will go on to live a desperate and unhappy life. We might want to believe that, we might even see the sense in saying it, but that “fact” is just not in the story. On the contrary, the hushed but triumphant ending seems to belie such a cynical outcome. It’s precisely Liza’s potential for greatness that makes the story so memorable.

So as I sit and grade papers, and I see my students making over-drawn conclusions, I get out my pencil and write, “not in the story,” over and over again. And I do it over and over again because I believe it’s part of the human condition to make a happy ending happier, a tragic ending more tragic. It comes out of our deep need to embroider, to create, to magnify.

And most of the time, that impulse is a good thing. King Lear falls from such a great height because, simply put, Shakespeare knew how to dramatize the pitfalls of self-deception. In his hands, Lear’s resistance to the truth instructs and moves us.

But even Shakespeare made Lear face facts in the end. And it’s the romanticizing of a movement—that “falling in love with love” dynamic—that I feel needs to be faced here in Montreal. The student strike is just not working –it seems to be running on sheer momentum and nothing else — and the cost/benefit ratio is speaking to us loud and clear. The city is already 1 billion dollars in debt at a time when we really can’t afford it.

That message is being lost, however, amid the righteous yearnings of a roaring crowd.


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