The ideal (and extremely rare) Queen’s Park family

TheStar.com – News/Ontario
Published On Fri Nov 26 2010.    By Jim Coyle Queen’s Park

If words could howl for mercy, you’d need industrial earplugs to come anywhere near the Ontario legislature.

Messaging, endlessly repeated, is the modus operandi in modern politics. Words carry the message. And politicians pound the living daylights out of a selected few.

For instance, the only upside to the Liberal government’s new obsession with the merits of having an energy “plan” — crowing endlessly about theirs, taunting opposition parties for lack of same — is that it might give the word “families” a break.

For more than a year, PC Leader Tim Hudak has harped on and on about “Ontario families.” It must be making an impact. Because the government has recently joined the chorus.

In fact, a person risks repetitive strain injury highlighting the word “families” in any day’s Hansard. What’s amusing (if as excruciating as the relentless drip of a leaky faucet) is that the term — as used — is almost meaningless.

Hudak talks as if there were some model of a family that was, in every way, statistically average and had, in all things, common challenges and needs.

No distinction is ever drawn between rich families, poor families, single-parent families, immigrant families, establishment families.

It’s as if Hudak has no acquaintance with Long Day’s Journey Into Night, or Death of a Salesman, or Kramer vs. Kramer, or The Corrections. There’s no family breakdown, no family poverty, no family violence, no families addled by drugs or alcohol.

But as the Vanier Institute of the Family said in its recent report Families Count, “History teaches us that family has never been one thing to all people.”

The report said there are now more unmarried than married people in Canada, couples without children now outnumber those with children, and nearly one in five Canadian children lives in a lone-parent household.

It’s with a purpose that Hudak, and others, prefer a cookie-cutter image of a Cleaver-like family.

They’re less interested in reality — the alternating drudgery, tragedy and comedy that family life can be — than they are in conjuring a feeling, a nostalgic association with ideal images, Kodak moments, Christmas ads.

Yet, as overbooked therapists and counsellors (not to mention the works of Tolstoy) attest, families are rarely idyllic and each family form has its own sort of problems.

The idea that “Ontario families” have a common interest on any given issue is as naive as the proposition that there’s a “black community,” or “gay community,” or “faith community” of uniform view.

When politicians use the term “Ontario families,” they are engaging in what the British writer Steven Pool calls “unspeak.”

In his book Unspeak: How Words Become Weapons, How Weapons Become a Message, and How That Message Becomes a Reality, Pool says words like “pro-life” and “tax relief” can carry an entire unspoken argument.

“These precision-engineered packages of language are launched by politicians and campaigners . . . (dispensing) their payload of persuasion into the public consciousness.

“It represents an attempt to say something without saying it, without getting into an argument and so having to justify itself.

“At the same time, it tries to unspeak — in the sense of erasing, or silencing — any possible opposing point of view, by laying a claim right at the start to only one way of looking at a problem.”

As the Vanier Institute said: “Our ability to understand the constantly shifting dynamics and characteristics of family life is central to our capacity as a nation to respond to the many opportunities and challenges facing families today.”

The first step might be to stop using the cherished word “family” as a partisan weapon and meaningless political catchphrase.

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