A DISCIPLINE NO ONE SHOULD COMMIT

“I think, though, this is not a time to commit sociology, if I can use an expression.” — Prime Minister Harper, April 25, when asked about the alleged terrorist plot against a VIA rail train.

I remember how the addiction began. In my late teens I signed up for a sociology course to top up a liberal arts semester in college. I recall two instructors; a woman who stood front of the class reading from Time magazine, and some guy from Kenya whose voice broke into a falsetto whenever he got worked up about class divisions.

Even though the course barely produced a buzz in yours truly, it turned out to be the gateway drug for harder stuff. I began to roam the streets on my free time, haunting used bookstores and hauling my finds back home to my bedroom, safe from my parents’ prying eyes. “Are you committing sociology in there?!” my mother would demand from outside the door as I mainlined a paperback copy of Neil Postman’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity. “No ma,” I yelled back. “I’m just abusing myself, honest!”

“Alright dear, just be careful with the books,” she trilled. “You could go blind from all that reading.”

ImageI had a serious “thinking problem” even in my late teens, and my parents knew it. (They encouraged me to take up editorial cartooning, a profession that involved less mental strain.) In any case, I soon discovered the work of Eliot Aronson, the scholar who came up with the concept of cognitive dissonance. I read his 1972 treatise The Social Animal from end to end and my mind was seriously blown. To date, Aronson’s book has gone through 11 editions, expanding each time like a red giant star with additional research about why humans behave the way we do. It’s the kind of information that some Tories would probably prefer we ignore, about power relations, mob psychology, and whatnot.

In my 20s, I started committing sociology more openly. On dates I would pepper conversations with asides about resource mobilization and demographic models. I was like an unfunny standup comic stealing colleagues’ material to win approval — and I had a serious jones for more material.

I soon discovered MIT media critic Noam Chomsky and started getting into the heavy stuff. But huffing hardcore sociology/political science texts without spotters felt risky. Luckily, I was able to connect with other overeducated junkies in Kitsilano who introduced me to their favourite brands, like Sapir-Whorf, Durkheim, and Reisman. We’d host all-night bull sessions where the beer and content analysis flowed, with only slight damage to the walls, floors and ceilings.

It wasn’t enough. In my 30s I wanted to commit sociology in deed as well as word. I fantasized heading out into the mean streets of Vancouver with a ring binder and cassette recorder to interview squatters and conduct victimization surveys. Alas, without a postgraduate degree there was more chance of me perishing than publishing. I was a dabbler, a dilettante, although I knew my way well enough around the indentured, student-for-life crowd to get into trouble.

One night at the Fraser Arms pub, some no-neck McGill undergrad challenged me to a duel. He led with Marxist-Leninist boilerplate, calling me a “reactionary bourgeois sentimentalist.” This oaf didn’t know that I had these sorts of moves down backwards. “Material, historical forces are responsible for false consciousness phantoms like you, hoser,” I growled back. He staggered back against the bar, took a deep breath, and then came at me spouting German philosopher Walter Benjamin, which I wasn’t expecting. Followed by Lacan, Derrida, Foucault and Marcuse. I was doubled up in agony when he dropped the bomb: Adorno. I was in way over my head with critical theory and just managed to escape out the side door with my damaged ring binder and bloodied ego.

I can’t say I learned my lesson from that bruising exchange; I was still young and there were more bar fights in my future. But today as a middle-aged man I recognize my mental limits. I commit sociology only indoors and on weekends with a few aging friends who like a little Howard Zinn with their Zinfandel.

My mother was right, and so is the Prime Minister. Thinking is dangerous.

The Vancouver Courier, May 17

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