The word “mean” is typical of the glorious clusterfuck that is the English language, insofar as that it wears many hats. Generally speaking, our first encounter with the word was probably to sound a note of wounded complaint: someone was being mean to us. “Stop being mean!” “He’s such a meanie.” And so on. As our vocabularies grew, we developed a more nuanced quiver of words that spelled out the spectrum of what being “mean” might be, distinguishing between thoughtlessness, selfishness, cruelty, spite, or just general assholery.
But “mean” has its own subtleties as well, connoting not just cruelty but a certain kind of small-mindedness. To be a mean person can entail a sense of willful ignorance, especially ignorance of the value of the intangible or ephemeral. It can also connote a lack of generosity or compassion, the short-sightedness of NIMBYism or the inability to see value in anything that does not yield immediate benefit. To be mean is to dislike seeing others benefit. To be mean is to lack empathy.
I’m ruminating on this semantic question because it helps articulate something about our present moment, which is a moment in which the politics of meanness threatens to become the status quo.
I lived in Ontario for the first thirty-three years of my life; I went to university and grad school there, and now work as an educator. Which means that a significant proportion of people with whom I’m friends on social media live in Ontario and work in education at all levels, from grade school through high school, at colleges and universities and in libraries. What this further means is that for the past year my news feed on Facebook has consistently featured friends’ anger, incredulity, and despair at whatever indignities Doug Ford’s government has recently inflicted on Ontario’s education system.
To many who lived through the 1990s, it feels like déjà vu, a terrible throwback to the Mike Harris years and the assault perpetrated on the educational system by his minister of education John Snobelen—a man who had no background in the field, and came into the job determined to “create a crisis in education.” I felt very keenly the effects of Snobelen’s high-handed and contemptuous treatment of teachers and schools, as my father was a grade school principal at the time. What was worst to watch was my father’s mounting bafflement as Harris and Snobelen went through the education budgets like buzzsaws, with little to no concern for the effect their cuts had on students. It was particularly hurtful for my dad because he and my mom had both voted conservative in that election, buying into the rhetoric of Harris’ “Common Sense Revolution” and the promise to right the fiscal ship after what they saw as the New Democrats’ feckless mismanagement. I’m probably cutting myself out of the will by revealing this, as the years of Harris’ regime cured them of their conservative leanings, which had at any rate always been more about financial conservatism. Their conservative party had always been that of Bill Davis and Joe Clark, the sort of avuncular Tories whose politics a left-wing type might disagree with, but whose compassion and public-spiritedness was not in doubt. What my parents didn’t grasp until it was too late—what my father learned particularly acutely—was that Harris and his ilk embodied a politics of meanness. My dad’s bafflement at John Snobelen’s evisceration of the educational system was the confusion of a dedicated educator who could not understand the rationale behind the cruelty of the cuts. It was only after months of the Harris government’s sustained assault that he came to understand that the cruelty was the point. Harris and Snobelen hated teachers, were in fact antagonistic to the very idea of education more broadly, and the “Common Sense Revolution’s” project of budget-slashing austerity was a very blunt tool for carrying out a mean-spirited revenge, and ultimately drove my father into early retirement.
Fast-forward to the present moment. Doug Ford is basically Mike Harris on steroids, but lacks even the patina of ideological veneer that informed Harris. Everything he has done since taking office has had the quality of a bully’s taunt. Like Donald Trump, he revels in being antagonistic, and his most devoted followers love nothing better than enraging liberals, leftists, and “elites”—this last term which has come to connote not social status but a kind of attitude, in which a millennial with an MFA in creative writing earning minimum wage qualifies, but not the premier who was born heir to millions and spent the better part of his professional life in the corridors of political power. Ford and his followers really might as well change his slogan from “For the People” to “NERRRRRRDS!” That would at least be more honest in terms of his policy preoccupations, to say nothing of his general disposition, personality-wise.
Whatever complaints one may have about the Liberals’ long tenure from 2003 to 2018 under Dalton McGuinty and then Kathleen Wynne, the province’s investment in education during this period saw great dividends, with high school graduation rates rising from 68% to 86.5%. That fifteen-year interval tells its own story, namely that these changes take time and diligence, and also that the greater effects are likely always going to be intangible. Speaking as a professor in the humanities, I’m all about the intangibles: getting a degree in English or languages or philosophy or history doesn’t train you for a specific job, necessarily, but there is an innate value to learning to read and write critically. There is an innate value, also, to taking drama in high school, or learning an instrument, exploring your creativity, or just opening your mind up to new ideas and stories.
Unfortunately, it is always these programs—music, art, drama—that tend to be the first on the chopping block when budgets are slashed, as they are not seen as “useful” topics. I often ask my students how many of them, when they answer “English” to the question “what are you majoring in?” receive one of two responses: either “what kind of job are you going to get with that?” or “so … you’re going to be a teacher?” The response is pretty much always 100%. Since I first started grad school, there have been more and more articles, columns, and think-pieces by prominent businesspeople, tech moguls, and the like, all pleading with universities to stop cutting humanities programs, as these courses of study produce graduates with precisely the kind of communicative skills and creativity otherwise lacking in industry (most recently it was Mark Cuban, predicting that a degree in philosophy will soon enough be more valuable than one in computer science). And yet the predominant administrative priority, both in secondary and postsecondary education, resides in expanding STEM programs.
Which brings us back to the politics of meanness. Doug Ford and his ilk may be mean in that original sense we all learned as children when someone was cruel to us, but they have also weaponized the sense of the word as “miserly, stingy; not generous” (as denoted in the Oxford English Dictionary), both literally and spiritually. Perhaps the epitome of this sensibility was the absurd claim made by Ford’s education minister Lisa Thompson when she announced that average class sizes in Ontario would increase from 22 to 28. When asked about the deleterious effects of larger classes, Thompson suggested that it would make the students “more resilient,” as if a smaller fraction of the teacher’s attention taught toughness of spirit.
I remember quite vividly a question posed by someone during the worst depredations of Mike Harris’ government: do you remember who your MPP was when you were ten years old? Or do you remember who your teacher was? Our education system isn’t perfect—what would that even look like?—but it has a profound effect on literally everyone. Starving it of resources is, well, mean, both in the sense of being short-sighted, and being and cruel.