Commentary | Celebrating stagnation

When burnout drives us to accept symbolic progress

In an age where we are constantly inundated with information about world events and widespread injustices, it is understandable that one of our natural reactions is to eagerly embrace tokenistic events to convince ourselves that progress is taking place. So, Justin Trudeau was the first Prime Minister to wear an Indigenous ceremonial headdress? Wow, incredible – colonialism is over, progress is happening! Meanwhile, the Liberal government continues break their promises, in approving pipelines and failing spend the money they promised to Indigenous communities in March 2016.

One might argue that the fact that Canadians feel that the government is doing well — thanks to Trudeau’s impeccable PR team and his many “casual and spontaneous” photo-ops appearing shirtless in the woods with a family and helping a man in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs — is an objectively good thing. How could a large population generally feeling more content be a bad thing?

While on the one hand, there’s the argument that the average person would vote for a political leader they find ‘relatable’ and ‘cool’, there is also another crucial component: compassion fatigue. While this term originates largely from care professions (for example, paramedics, therapists, animal welfare workers etc.), it also applies to the way in which we all take in information: there are limits to our capacity to care for every issue that rushes past our eyes and through our ears as we scroll through our news feeds or half-listen to the news on the radio or television. With the amount of information available to us today, it seems nearly inevitable that at a certain point, the emotional burden of investing our time or money in these issues becomes too much. The articles come to feel commonplace, as though it would be more shocking if there wasn’t a mass shooting, or flood, or humanitarian crisis happening every sixty seconds, somewhere in the world.

For many people, the degree to which the suffering of others is broadcasted routinely over social media can seriously impact our mental health. It’s important to be mindful of this when consuming information, and to reach out for help if it’s affecting your everyday life.

All of this is very reasonable, but the issue with compassion fatigue is that as a result, we all-too-eagerly seek to embrace notions of progress, which are nothing more than half-hearted attempts at making ourselves feel better about the state of the world. Let’s consider the case for racism in Canada: for many of us who have lived in Canada, or even heard about it in other parts of the world, we are taught that Canada is a multicultural utopia and that we should vigorously celebrate this and avoid taking it for granted. After all, our southern neighbours appear to be far behind us in terms of tackling systemic racism. While aiming to make us feel better about our lives is a noble cause, much like Trudeau’s wonderful public image, they often allow us to overlook harsh realities. For instance, having been spoon-fed the notion that racism does not exist in Canada since we were young makes having authentic conversations about how communities of colour are treated differently in Canada today much more difficult, because it involves rejecting the idea that Canada serves as a utopia for marginalized peoples. While it is certainly important to recognize how Canada can serve as an example for other countries whose anti-racist efforts are much less significant, we cannot allow these brief celebrations to substitute our critical thinking skills when asking ourselves: is this progress worth celebrating, or is it simply virtue signalling or showmanship?

While it is important to remain optimistic throughout this process, we cannot repeat the mistakes of our predecessors. Look at Brexit, or the election of Trump – didn’t we all think that it wasn’t going to happen? “How could this possibly happen in the rosy world of today, where bigotry is no more?” thought many, presumably. For some, this was obvious, like those who were not surprised by Trump’s election. If we continue to satiate our emotional needs by buying into false notions of progress without thinking critically about their efficacy, we will be feeding into our own stagnation. Oh, so a Black man was elected as President of the United States? This must mean that we have made huge strides regarding anti-racist efforts. Meanwhile, people of colour in the US make up 30 per cent of the population, and 60 per cent of the prison population, and one in three African-American men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime.

Although it is important to seek out remedies to our often-disheartened worldviews, including self-care and reaching out to loved ones, relying on largely symbolic events to convince ourselves of overly optimistic interpretations of public affairs can be dangerous, especially when we aren’t being given the truth in its entirety. Who is in newsrooms, deciding that the violent death of a Toronto trans woman of colour, or several death threats faced by a fleeing trans woman, do not deserve to be broadcasted, while we have heard many times over about the pandas our Prime Minister met last March. It is clear that many of our media outlets are forced to choose more “profitable” stories with the potential to go viral, over important stories which remind Canadians of the uncomfortable realities we and many of our neighbours face.

For example, celebrating International Women’s Day is important, but we can’t forget that the wage gap in Canada between men and women has slightly increased in recent years, despite our efforts to recognize women and the challenges they face.

Additionally, we must make our questions heard loud and clear when we ask what is missing from law enforcement training which facilitates the murder of a 37-year-old mentally ill Black man in Ottawa by police officers, or when we ask what needs to change in our prison system when an Indigenous man is held in solitary confinement for 1,560 days, something which is apparently common practice, despite the United Nations ruling that any longer than 15 days constitutes torture. Or, why do police dismiss one in five sexual assault claims, as was found in a twenty-month-long investigation into how police handle sexual assault allegations?

All this is not to say that feel-good memes and light-hearted articles have no place in our news feeds and in the media; after all, compassion fatigue is very real and we won’t be very helpful when burnt out and disenchanted. Nonetheless, it is important to hold our institutions accountable to values that they claim to stand by: inclusion and transparency. We cannot allow ourselves to be tricked into thinking that these issues have been resolved, with flashy events and symbolic initiatives, when in fact, we have a long way to go. Let’s think more critically.


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