I discovered YouTube in the foggy dawn of the Trump era. Never having experienced the immediacy and relentless, breathless chatter of cable news before the then-candidate came down his bedazzled escalator, I became mesmerized by the talkers and debaters, optimists, Cassandras, and prophets on my computer screen. In the fractious aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election, it seemed prudent to consider fresh ideas—even if many of these new ideas were being wielded like cudgels to annihilate opposing propositions, with partisans so loyal to their respective teams that they seemed almost to call into question their opponents’ humanity. Such were the times.
I was pitching in as best I could, adding my voice to the rationalists pointing out how the freewheeling civil libertarians of the 1960s, who brought us anti-discrimination laws, equal rights for women and a belief in the importance of self-actualization, had given way to humorless schoolmarms enforcing stifling social mores, backed up by Twitter’s pitchfork-wielding villagers. Meanwhile, so-called conservatives seemed to be embracing moral anarchy, tossing away their corsets and corsages the better to elbow their way to the Donald Trump’s humid banquet hall.
Kim Manning, then a progressive candidate for the Liberal Party of Canada nomination in Outremont, came into my life around the same time. An academic and activist who had testified in front of the senate on behalf of Canada’s proposed Bill C-16 (a bill designed to protect the rights of trans and gender-nonconforming people under human rights and hate speech laws) she seemed to be literally and figuratively the antithesis of so many of the figures I was following who were gaining traction on social media—the personalities that would come to be associated with the Intellectual Dark Web. Where they were pushing back against many of the bromides that had filtered down through the academy and the media to become policy and social dogma, Kim was a happy warrior for progressive social change.
My first, and as I would learn, mistaken impression of the indefatigably optimistic Manning was of an attractive, intelligent Pollyanna. As a longtime Liberal Party supporter who wanted to get behind a good candidate for the nomination, I was cautious, reluctant to throw my support behind a political naïf. But she possessed an intriguing charisma, and we ran in the same circles, and we found ourselves talking it out over several evenings and just as many bottles of wine as we watched the summer sunsets from my rooftop deck. She knew I respected some of the public intellectuals who were arguing against ideas she championed, but she laid out her positions with eloquence and humility, happy to concede certain points and cheerfully sticking to her guns on others. By the end of July, despite my soft spot for people like Jordan Peterson and the rest of the anti-PC brigade, we had become fast friends.
Kim Manning was the Principal of the Simone de Beauvoir Institute at Concordia University, where she was instrumental in formulating a plan to modify the university’s mission to take it in a more explicitly social-justice direction. Kim was a co-founder of Gender Creative Kids of Canada, a support network for trans children and their families. Her academic specialty was the role of women in Chinese political history. She was, at least on paper, a left-wing academic poster child. In real life, she was complex, interesting, open-minded and fun. As I would come to learn, her interest in social justice was considerably more human and practical than it was theoretical, and she had little time for the cobwebby nooks and crannies of ideology. She had a substantial intellect, but she was also a woman of action, preparing to dive into federal politics.
Jordan Peterson and his opposition to Bill C-16 had alerted me to trans issues before I met Kim and got to know her personal connection to the subject. But Peterson’s tectonic collision with gender activism and the new linguistic norms developing around transgender people’s nascent political mobilization didn’t interest me that much; what moved me much more than the particulars of gender ideology was the fact of Peterson’s lonely stance against authoritarianism. Who doesn’t love a contrarian? I certainly do, and so do the history textbooks, which would be bereft of narrative without the oddballs and stand-takers who provide much of the plot. I never quite bought his argument that being required to use transgender peoples’ preferred pronouns would bring about the nuclear winter of mass political correctness on pain of the Gulag, but I appreciated his passionate defense of individual moral choice.
At the same time, Peterson’s message exposed some weaknesses in contemporary discourse around sex, biology and gendered virtues, and it stepped on the feet of academia and traditional media, which had been operating in loco parentis for a long time.
Kim had been one of Jordan Peterson’s antagonists in the Bill C-16 debate—the very issue that had propelled him to fame and set off a million conversations around the world about gender roles, the proper role of the individual versus the state, the merits of capitalism (again), religion and evolutionary psychology. “Trans” had become a household term, a hot topic on Twitter and Facebook, and a lightning rod for debates about identity politics, woke culture and fashionable morality. In Kim’s family there was no debate, only a profound, spiritual and practical reckoning with the reality that sometimes, a kid is something very different from what you first thought they were, and that to deny their reality is to sacrifice truth on the altar of social acceptance. Meanwhile, she needed a campaign manager in her quest to secure the Liberal nomination, and asked me to fill the role. I had some reservations about the merits of the Liberal Party’s embrace of many hot-button progressive ideals; I worried that progressivism was demanding too much of ordinary people and was to some degree contributing to the growing popularity of far-right reactionaries. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be working with an avatar of radicalism, but for a thoughtful, even-keeled friend.
Over the course of the next several months we met with hundreds of citizens in our riding. Filipinos, Africans, French Canadians, a handful of English Canadians. We threw fundraisers with hipster musicians and squeezed into tiny shops where we handed out cookies and listened to the concerns, hopes and fears of newly arrived immigrants from all around the world. We went door to door to explain the nomination process. We met with municipal, provincial and federal politicians. Kim wrote op-eds, chatted with podcasters, strode onto stages and cultivated community leaders. The work was intense, unrelenting, and always, always personal. There was little time for philosophizing. It was all about strategy and human connection.
Kim Manning’s message to voters—and their friends, family, co-worshippers and fellow employees—was about the transcendent power of community to advance the needs of individuals. She connected people to each other in an effort to create enduring bridges to education, employment and political participation. She attended dance classes all over the riding, where she inspired her fellow Zumba enthusiasts to become indispensable members of the campaign team. She drew on her belief in a universal grounding of spirituality that transcends locale to sit in prayer with congregations of different faiths. But, as with Jordan Peterson, what gained her a rapturous following was her ability to make interlocutors feel cared about.
I learned that the overwhelming majority of the working-class people and immigrants in our riding simply wanted help navigating the road from education to prosperity, and virtually none of them were following the rancorous debates on social media. Indeed, everyone just seemed to be trying to figure out how to join Canada’s promised meritocracy. This was hardly surprising, but it did put some of the more esoteric arguments I had been following into perspective. The riding of Outremont contains a large, densely populated part of town called Côte-des-Neiges, half of whose population is comprised of immigrants from scores of countries, including a number of refugees. Many of them desperately wanted better conditions for their children’s run-down schools. Others needed help understanding bureaucratic documents. Quite a few lived in poorly maintained apartments owned by landlords who took advantage of their tenants’ shaky understanding of their rights. All of them were delighted to be solicited by a political candidate, and for a variety of reasons, some charming and others less so.
The hipsters of Mile End, and the rich who lived on the Mountain (as in many other cities, Montreal’s wealthy have the best views), were a different story. They were, for the most part, less dazzled by democracy. The academics, artists, event organizers and small business owners of Outremont who fell within shouting distance of the political centre tended to be only marginally interested in their democratic prerogatives as citizens, viewing the big existential questions of the day (climate change, human rights) as too big and too pressing to entrust to the current government. The rich were more likely to vote Liberal, and large business owners had a more acute interest in who their Parliamentary representative would be, but they too lacked the emotional connection with democracy that we saw among the poor and the newer Canadians.
It was dispiriting, if not terribly surprising, to see the lack of commitment to democratic responsibility on the part of so many of my peers among the educated, intellectually engaged middle class, especially as it contrasted with the sense of urgency and partisanship that was flooding the airwaves and social media. Climate change was indeed bearing its awful fruit all around the world, from the forest fires of California to mass die-offs of coral reefs in Australia and flooding in Pakistan. Mulish superstition and ignorance were being celebrated from Brazil to the United States to Hungary and Russia. Respect, tolerance and civility were under assault. Xenophobia and nationalism were on the rise. Massive numbers of migrants were in a dangerous holding pattern in Africa and the Middle East. Profound humanitarian and philosophical questions had been asked and answered via terrible suffering in the previous century, yet people were already forgetting. The Left had all but abandoned the principle of universalism—which in Canada had given us one of our greatest gifts, universal health care—and shifted its focus to race and gender issues. The Right was making room for a new breed of race-theory-curious nationalists and authoritarians. “Never again”? Who could say anymore?
Still, my work with Kim Manning was exhilarating, allowing me to enter homes and worlds I would never have known otherwise. As our friendship developed and I got to know her family, I learned far more about trans issues than I would have had I been constrained to what was being said on Twitter and YouTube. Indeed, my conversations with Kim and my interactions with people out on the campaign trail were a reminder that the issues that are so hotly debated on social media, particularly immigration, gender, race and the role of government, are being lived, every day, by our fellow citizens, and that we all have a duty to remember the consequences of winning any given debate. Real people will be affected by the decisions we take based on these arguments.
There is, indeed, a lot at stake, and we all have a great deal of responsibility for the outcome. Collectively, we need to remember that not everyone in society can be a winner. If we wish to be decent people living in a good society, we need to find a way to help our fellow citizens. Some need immediate assistance, and here in the West, our governments are in a position to do that. Let’s celebrate that fact, and ensure that we preserve our humanistic impulses. At the same time, there is a great deal of dependency in our cultures, and the current trend of elevating victimhood in the guise of unmasking bigotry seems to be jamming the airwaves when we could be advancing our planet’s—and humanity’s—chances much faster if we focused more of our resources on the creative potential of individual genius to solve existential problems.
Both the left and the right wings of contemporary political discourse are focused on the supremacy of the individual. Although the Right fears social anarchy, in which individual freedoms might be trampled, and the Left fears the stifling effects of conformity and authoritarianism on individual self-expression and self-actualization. Elections in Europe and North America are illustrating just how polarized our societies are, and just how much mutual distrust and suspicion are skewing political outcomes to favour extremists. We’re at risk of forgetting that to be a person is to contain multitudes, and that to take ethical, rather than political, positions on life’s million questions and conundrums must be our shared goal if we are to survive as a species, never mind as civilized beings.
Both sides need more Jordan Petersons, more tetchy prophets of individual responsibility who mobilize the despondent, the pissed-off and the curious, and prod us out of our comfortable ruts, reminding us to preserve that which is good in our hard-won cultural inheritance. And we all need as many Kim Mannings as we can get, too. These are the missionaries in the field, doing the work of friendship, love and representation for our fellow beings, insisting on extending the rights, freedoms and obligations we enjoy to the greatest number of people. We should insist on our right to preserve our pluralistic, open societies, including their discontents, and resist the urge to demonize those who hold views that are inimical to our own, lest we lose the right to listen to anyone at all.