What Justin Trudeau's blind spots can teach us about social change

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Image: Adam Scotti/PMO

When I first entered "progressive" -- whatever you mean by that -- politics, people often said some version of: if we can't change our own lives, how can we change the world? I thought even then that it was probably easier to change the world -- though it's extremely hard -- than ourselves. But I'm not sure I could've said -- until listening to Justin Trudeau talk about blind spots -- why it's so hard. Maybe I had a blind spot about blind spots.

The blackface issue isn't new here. In 1840, African-Canadians in Toronto wanted it banned in performances for obvious reasons. When I was a kid at Holy Blossom Temple in 1958, our confirmation service(!) included a classmate in blackface singing Al Jolson's "Mammy" in Hebrew. When our rabbi found out, he cancelled it (the blackface, not Mammy). So there has been fitful progress. Was Justin totally unaware when he did it, or did he just not fully get it?

We really should've seen it coming since that manic Trudeau family trip to India. It made the Griswolds' National Lampoon Vacations look understated. The guy can't resist dressup. He says he's always been more enthusiastic about costumes than is appropriate. No kidding. He leaps into roles, including, now, the penitent. (Though acting isn't lying; it has to draw on some truth, to work.) I picture people going out this Halloween in sackcloth, as Justin.

Yet his apology -- and we've all grown more adroit at evaluating apologies -- rang fairly true to me. It definitely beat his defensive, evasive rejection of the ethics commissioner's rebuke on the Wilson-Raybould matter.

He grants having been "blinded" by his own "privilege," then concealing it because, "I was embarrassed." That doesn't have the ring of avoidance or denial. "I didn't know how hurtful this is to people who live with discrimination every day." How could he not? Because that's what privilege does: blinds you to the obvious. So "wanting to do good isn't enough" and he must acknowledge "mistakes that hurt people who thought I was an ally." He "let a lot of people down" and requests "forgiveness."

Will they give it? Some will and some won't. David Akin of Global News told him, "The prime minister's job was not created so you could work through your issues" and suggested stepping down. Fair enough. Being PM isn't about on-the-job therapy. Yet that's what we got, sort of.

People often talk about having an adult conversation about race and this may qualify, though it's largely JT talking to himself: the recently emerged adult to the juvenile. I think most non-journalists are more forgiving than Akin and understand that change comes haltingly, with multiple apologies, though there's a limit. Someone said he'd been waiting all his life to hear an apology like that from a public figure.

This leaves the separate issue of who you want in power. The Liberals are, and forever will remain, IMO, appallingly slothful about what they call urgent moral issues like climate or Indigenous rights. Others, like electoral reform, they simply ditch. The only thing that galvanizes them is pressure from corporations like SNC-Lavalin. The question is, what's the alternative? Over to you on that.

But, reverting to the personal angle, what is there to learn here? That there's a difference between embracing abstract progressive principles, which people mean when they say they're socialists, feminists or anti-racists and grasping in depth what's involved, including your own privilege and blind spots.

The #MeToo movement has had that kind of invaluable impact on men who've considered themselves sympathetic to feminism for decades. All these areas are difficult for people on the privileged side to rightly comprehend but race may be the most intractable, for reasons which the blackface issue underlines.

Blind spot is actually a traffic metaphor. The driver moving up from behind can see everything clearly; the driver ahead, doesn't. It can be infuriating for those not blinded and those ahead should look around, damn it. But that's blind spots for you. You have to hope they eventually look, often in response to the noise being made by those behind, get some clarity, and react properly. That's how positive social change, for the most part, perhaps regrettably, happens.

Rick Salutin writes about current affairs and politics. This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Image: Adam Scotti/PMO

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