Quebec election: The politics of exaggeration are at play

From a rambling analogy presented by Janette Bertrand at a recent PQ event, to the sparring between Pauline Marois, François Legault and Philippe Couillard, desperate times in the Quebec election campaign have triggered the use of desperate measures, writes Andrew Chang.

Desperate times in Quebec election campaign have triggered desperate measures, writes Andrew Chang

François Legault, Philippe Couillard, Pauline Marois and Françoise David have been sparring over topics ranging from social policies and governance, the economy and public finances, to identity and sovereignty. (TVA)

Give religious fundamentalists an inch, and they'll take a mile.

That's the takeaway from what was ultimately a rambling, logically incoherent analogy heard at a recent Parti Québécois event, billed as a "secular brunch." It's a prime example of the politics of exaggeration being employed in the Quebec election campaign right now.

The argument, as given by author, actress and feminist Janette Bertrand, was as follows:

Suppose two women are swimming in a pool. 

Some male foreigners, unwilling to tolerate women swimming in a pool, complain to the pool's owner. They persuade the owner to set aside one day a week where women are not allowed at the pool.

And — aha! — from there it's pretty much just a matter of time until all women are banned, and only men can swim in the pool.

That escalated quickly, didn't it?

It was actually a first-person account — with some "imagine-if's" thrown in — of Bertrand, who co-founded a pro-Charter group called Les Janette.

But the logical fallacies therein are about as transparent as the motivations behind them.

The underlying premise is questionable: that women's (or anybody's) rights would be so wantonly and readily trampled in the name of reasonable accommodation.

Accommodations and rights aren't automatically mutually exclusive. Allowing a daycare worker to wear a cross or a hijab doesn't infringe on the rights of others in the same way instituting a "men-only" rule at the pool unavoidably excludes women.

It is a rather naive bit of induction to assume that the granting of one accommodation necessarily forces the granting of another ad infinitum, doomed to forever spiral out of control, with no possible way of changing course.

There's also the fact that the analogy doesn't even attempt to illustrate the mechanism by which the end result — all women being banned from the pool — follows inevitably from the aggravating condition — that women are banned from the pool once a week. 

It is a rather naive bit of induction to assume that the granting of one accommodation necessarily forces the granting of another ad infinitum, doomed to forever spiral out of control, with no possible way of changing course.

After all, to be equally reductive, does celebrating Christmas once a year necessarily open the floodgates for those wanting to celebrate Christmas every day?

But none of this appears to bother the PQ's partisan base, nor should it; that's the name of the game.

The Parade of Horribles

It's an old trick, really.

Persuade somebody to take a course of action by listing all the horrible things that will happen otherwise.

"That's the chipping away [at our rights]," Bertrand said, following her pool analogy, "that's what we're afraid of and that's what will happen if there's no Charter."

Four bold assumptions are being made here:

  1. That creeping religious fundamentalism is already happening.
  2. That the PQ's proposed Secular Charter will stop it. 
  3. That there are no alternatives.
  4. That inaction will lead to the erosion of everything we hold dear.

If you're afraid of 1, then do 2, because 3, or else 4. It's an incredibly linear approach to thinking that undercuts any possibility of there being a middle ground. But politically, it works.

PQ leader Pauline Marois and CAQ leader François Legault have used it to great effect against Liberal leader Philippe Couillard in recent days.

Marois spun Couillard's defence of bilingualism into an indifference towards the French language, ignoring the possibility that Couillard could be both in favour of bilingualism, and of protecting French.

Couillard's refusal to give a yes-or-no answer to the question of whether a police officer should be allowed to wear a religious symbol received similar treatment. Legault's take: that Couillard is unable and/or unwilling to take a stand in the defence of Quebec values.

Never mind that his actual position is that it's none of the government's business. He considers it a police matter and believes they should get first crack at resolving the issue on their own terms.

But don't feel too sorry for the Liberal leader. He gives as good as he gets.

Pauline Marois' position on holding a referendum has been a prickly point, with her unofficial position essentially being "let's wait and see."

In all fairness, when pressed on an exact sovereignty timetable, Marois likely isn't giving a firm answer ... because she doesn't have one. The only real certainty is that she doesn't want to hold a referendum and lose.

So what Couillard is deliberately misunderstanding is that the triggering condition for a referendum isn't a specific calendar date — it's whether or not a referendum is actually winnable.

In political circles, most advisers would simply call that sound strategy.

But Couillard has successfully twisted Marois' ambiguity into this: "You don't have the honesty to tell people you're going to trap them into a referendum the moment you arrive in government."

Couillard's suggestion that there is, in fact, a clandestine, prearranged date for a referendum belies what is actually quite a nuanced, albeit precarious, PQ position: We'll get there when we get there. Sorry, I don't have a crystal ball!

And you can expect the rhetoric to ratchet up a few more notches before this is all over.

The politics of exaggeration are already at play. And with the PQ trailing in the polls, and the Liberals worried they've shot themselves in the foot over language, the old adage may ring truer than ever: desperate times call for desperate measures.

About the Author

Andrew Chang


Andrew Chang co-hosts The National. Chang was the Canadian Screen Award-winning host of CBC Vancouver News at 6. He has also spent time in the host chair for other network shows such as CBC Radio One's The Current, CBC News' The National and CBC News Now.


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