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OPINION: In praise of incrementalism and the unsatisfying middle of the road

There is only one way to eat an elephant
Before running for mayor of Chilliwack, tow truck company owner Dave Rowan drove around in 2017 with a sign on his truck that said “Give em all fentanyl.” (Chilliwack Progress file)

“If elected, I promise to completely eliminate property crime/climate change/homelessness/whatever.”

This type of political posturing, to pledge to deliver the undeliverable, is at least part of what drives cynicism in the electorate.

At the same time, people do want to see things get done.

Voters want results.

One of the great challenges those in government have is keeping the “git-‘er-done” crowd happy on the one hand, while dealing on the other hand with the reality of incrementalism.

There is an impatient desire many of us have, much of the time, to see sweeping change when almost all real change in society, beyond revolution, comes about slowly, step by step.

Here’s an example: A month ago in the House of Commons, a Conservative Saskatchewan MP rose, like so many Conservatives, to speak against the carbon tax.

“What is perplexing about ‘carbon pricing,’ or the carbon tax, is this: What is it doing to prevent disasters?” Battleford-Lloydminster MP Rosemarie Falk asked, with a straight face.

“How come it did not prevent hurricane Fiona?”

The fact that Fiona rocked Atlantic Canada and this MP from the middle of the country chose to politicize a coastal tragedy was shocking, sure, but it was the ignorance of the question that was the most face-palming.

Here’s another, more abstract example, closer to home: Five years ago before he ran for mayor in 2018, tow-truck company owner Dave Rowan drove around the city with a sign on his vehicle that said “Give em all fentanyl.”

I criticized it at the time as both insensitive and perplexing. The latter because if street-entrenched drug users are the “them” Rowan so despised, giving them fentanyl makes no sense because fentanyl is what they are using. It’s exactly what they want (and need).

Of course the real meaning behind the sign, given the opioid crisis that had already seen skyrocketing deaths fuelled by toxic drugs often tainted with fentanyl without users knowing, was, by implication, “Kill ‘em all.”

The statement was staggering in its insensitivity but also simply ridiculous in its simplicity, as if killing all the drug users seen on the streets would solve the opioid crisis.

READ MORE: OPINION: ‘Give-em-all-fentanyl’ mentality is insensitive and makes no sense

Some people want to “give em all fentanyl” and some wonder why the carbon tax didn’t prevent a hurricane.

Both are like signing up for a gym membership one day and complaining the next day that you haven’t lost weight.

All this is easy to mock as populist gibberish, but how are political leaders and government officials and scientific advisors meant to do their jobs when there are questions this dumb coming not just from folks who put signs on their vehicles but also elected Members of Parliament?

We’ve long been impatient as an electorate feeding off the quick and tasty promises from politicians needing to at least feign the ability to fulfill those promises amid tight election cycles.

Real change on issues that matter – affordability, homelessness, the opioid crisis, climate change – isn’t fast or exciting. It’s slow and small and boring.

This type of simplistic, all-or-none thinking is also what we saw, and still see, during the COVID-19 pandemic. A parallel practical philosophy to incrementalism in this regard might be called middle-of-the-road-ism. Proper, scientifically backed public health measures were implemented to try to balance liberty with public safety.

Many say that public health officials got it wrong and went too far shutting down certain activities.

Many say they didn’t go far enough with safety in schools, and opening up the economy too soon.

All or none sounds great in a tweet or on a billboard but it does not represent how things actually change.

There is a whole world of social and political theory devoted to so-called incrementalism much more nuanced than what I present here.

But there is a commonly stolen refrain used by self-help gurus, sometimes attributed to Bishop Desmond Tutu, that “there is only one way to eat an elephant, and that is one bite at a time.”

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