Questions Without Answers

Wisdom is knowing that the worth of a question does not depend on there being an answer.


Social Model of Legal Disability

Disclaimer: I have not done sufficient research to see if this connection has been explored somewhere else. I put it here just to get it down on paper somewhere where I’ll remember it.

The Social Model of Disability

Disability theorists have long drawn the distinction between the medical model of disability and the social model of disability. The medical model of disability looks at disability exclusively as an individual condition, and solutions as primarily medical-technical therapies and assistive technology for that individual. The social model, while acknowledging there is some physical impairment, argues that it is the way society is organized that transforms this into a disability. For example, it may be that a person can’t climb stairs, but it is a social choice to build building that require this ability (e.g. by not having the entrance on the ground floor, not building an elevator, etc.).

Access to justice advocates could probably learn a lot by applying this theoretical model to marginalized people facing the justice system.

The Social Model of Legal Disability

It’s far more obvious that the accessibility of the justice system is the result of social decisions. Nevertheless, we still overwhelmingly favour clinical solutions that treat individualized problems to address access to justice. For instance, is a person’s lack of legal literacy solely a personal disability (e.g. their lack of legal information, education, etc.) or does it reflect something about the complexity of the system? Obviously both, and this is acknowledged by access to justice reports, but embedding this insight within a social model of disability offers a rallying framework to systematize the insight.

Is it really necessary?

I’m not sure if this already acknowledged insight really needs this theoretical framework to give it any more force. Nevertheless, an in-depth exploration of the analogy might reveal insights for both traditional accessibility advocates as well as access to justice advocates.

A Love Story–Because Why Not

A pair of thoughts wandered around fairgrounds. They walked gingerly past a sideshow of old gods to be laughed at. They skipped past an art show of dollar bills. They walked and walked and didn’t stop. They did not see and they did not care, but they felt and they knew. They knew what it was to be and the fairgrounds had not yet indoctrinated them. They heard screams of joy in the night. Somewhere in the distance, an economic rollercoaster and a fairy tale ride into the sun were amusing both adults and children alike. They had a better idea. That’s what thoughts do after all. They kept walking and with every step forward, they took two into each other. 

Thoughts make for good lovers as they are very much all meant to come together. As their metaphysiology commanded, they danced the night away in a motionless kind of away. As they did, everything blurred and began to resemble itself.  

They spoke softly and with the faint rhythm of a lullaby that a mother might sing to a child touched just enough to be happy later in life. They whispered the names of stars and caressed each other’s best and most honourable intentions. There was beauty in such moments, there is no doubt, but the thoughts did not know how to recognize love. That is what thoughts do best. Doubt became a spectre and the lovers came upon a cave. They figured there was a lesson to learn. Along the walls of the cave light danced heretically as gravity dripped off stalagmites. There were laws, but this corner of the world had decided that they were best left to human courts.  

The thoughts, whose hands were now slipping from one another, continued deeper into the cave. At the very end were a couple of historical figures laughing about the ease with which the world had been discovered. The hearts of the thoughts beat a little slower and a little faster. The thoughts felt naked as structure and purpose began to slide off their bare bodies.  

They appeared naked to each other and felt ashamed. 

They saw each other for the first time. The thoughts grew eyes and began to solidify. The overwhelming weight of identity began to weigh them down, but it weighed them down together. Soon they could not separate from each other. A lover’s cage replaced all doubt with a sad inward contempt. The laughing ancients took on a more studious look as one of the younger ones picked up the two lovers and placed them in his zoo.  

The thinkers then left the caged archetypes to their own devices. The lights flickered and sputtered and soon it was just the romance alongside every other academic subject in the dark. Tears were shed that night, needless to say, but they were not lonely. There was a change of heart half way through the night as a quiet young boy was struck by lightning in front of the two lovers. He was struck by lightning and blamed no one, but smiled slightly and asked them their names.  

Suddenly, the cage became adorned with potential. The two lovers considered the question and considered the answer. They spent many a minute kissing each other’s cheeks and laughing slightly at the taste of someone with a name. They finally settled on Henrietta and To-Be-Determined (the T B and D all capitalized). The child smiled as he took this new information into himself and became a new sort of him. Just like that, he collapsed and became a river. This was his final gift to them. They would have to cross and they would have to remember their names on the other side. 

They made their cage into a raft. They took the raft and pushed. The river pulled them. The winds and waters of this deep spontaneous cave were unchallengeable. The two lovers had hubris for a paddle, but it was a fight none the less. The push and pull was infinite and highly mortal. They began to admire their own strength and forgot to pay the same heed to the river and so lost ground. They paid the reverence due to the river and forgot their own and so felt weak. Long story short they made it.  

On the other side, they dried off and laughed at their adventure and could feel their newly formed arms begin to pulsate with will. They were beautiful and now loved the beauty (perhaps as much as they loved each other). They made their way to the nearest wall of the cave. By it, was a sharp stick. The lovers were curious. The eyes of the lovers, green and grey, crawled all over the stick. They took all of it into themselves. The sharpness of the stick pricked and broke the skin of the lovers. A drop of blood slowly made its way down the stick. Out of fear and anger, the green-eyed lover named Henrietta threw the stick at the wall. The blood smeared across the wall where it rests to this day.  

The Way of Angels

There is a jungle in her eyes.
It is growing on my mind like an existential spore.
There’s a neon moon out and it’s only helping the weeds grow in my unkempt soul.
The weeds and underbrush obscure those beautiful eyes.
I need to get out.
I need to know those eyes.
My arms become machetes and I push until I bleed.
I find that it is only my own heart through which I am cutting.
I fall back in a pool of blood.
It is mine.
I take a deep breath.
It becomes harder as the universe presses down on my chest.
She is on the other side.
I draw in deeply.
I lose myself in the flow of life and death.
She is on the other side.
That is the way of angels.

The People and the Experts: What Each Knows and What it Means for Politics

The Relationship of the Private Individual to the Expert

Consider the following situation: A private individual complains to a doctor of a headache and other symptoms. The doctor diagnoses her with a health issue she had never even heard of and prescribes a drug not covered by public insurance to be taken twice a day.

We can immediately note a few things:

  • Being an expert or a layman is not a class but a role: The private individual is a layman in this situation and the doctor an expert. If this were a different scenario, say, for example, the doctor is looking to invest money, the private individual might be the expert and the doctor the layman.
  • The layman is seeking something from the expert: The private individual initiates the process by complaining to the doctor, she is seeking advice, instruction, support, or something else. She need not engage the doctor but obviously thinks it best or at least worthwhile.
  • They collaborate to come to the ultimate result: The private individual explains her symptoms, something the doctor would not otherwise know about, and the doctor explains what they mean in medical terms. The doctor prescribes a course of action and it is ultimately up to the layman to carry it out.

It is clear that the ideal collaboration between the two occurs when each expresses what only they can know and each understands what the other is expressing. We must therefore ask: What is it that only the layman or the expert knows?


By what right does each participate in the decision-making process? The layman participates because it is her life on the line, or, to put it less dramatically, she is a stakeholder. The expert is there because there is a possibility they can help. This distinction is important because it means the layman’s involvement is necessary whereas the expert’s involvement is optional.

The Relationship of the Politician to the Civil Servant

Consider the following situation: Seeing that people are concerned, a politician seeks advice from civil servants about the treatment of a health condition. The civil servants present different options for public pharmaceutical schemes and delivery.

The politician and the civil servant imitate but do not mirror the relationship of the private individual and the expert, but they too are layman and expert.

What is the difference? In a democracy, the politician is meant to represent the people, but that does not make the politician one of them. Unlike the people, they do not necessarily experience the illnesses treated by the health policy they pass nor drive on those roads built by the infrastructure funding they approve. The civil servant, by the same token, despite being there because of their knowledge and merit, often lacks any deep knowledge of the subject matter they are working on. Despite these differences, the politician and civil servant do have a special kind of layman-expert relationship.

Capture 1

The similarities and differences between the politician and the private individual can be explained in terms of the political dimension of problems. For the layman, all kinds of a problems may be tangled up in a single event. The woman’s illness clearly has a health dimension, but it may also have an economic, legal, ecological, and psychological dimension. If we define politics broadly as how we choose to live together, and layers of politics a the group with whom we are trying to live, many (if not most) private issues have at least a small “p” political dimension. This is what is meant when people talk about family or church politics.

Given this definition, all politics is not local. A personal issue we are having may be shaped by how we “live together” with people we have never met and will never meet half way across the world. Because of the experiential character of the layman’s knowledge, therefore, this dimension of politics necessarily stays latent for the private individual.

The purpose of having politicians is to charge them with precisely the political dimension of problems that necessarily escape private individuals. The genius of having politicians is that their responsibility to decide gives them the vantage point to experience those political dimensions of the problem directly. That is, because they are the one who has to make the decision, a more or less wide variety of stakeholders comes to them with their perspective.


A brief aside: This gives us a much better understanding of representation than what we typically think. The conventional understanding of representation is that the politician expresses the majority’s views at the legislators. This understanding produces a contradiction with the politicians role as a representative of all constituents. Indeed, the very diversity and conflict of views that necessitates politics prevents such an understanding of representation from ever working. However, if we understand representation as a better or worse stand in for the diversity and conflicting pressures that make up the latent political dimension of all constituents shared reality, then the tensions and contradictions of the politicians role, however disappointing are much more understandable. 


Properly speaking, therefore, whether it is a matter of health policy, foreign trade, infrastructure, or employment standards, the problem that the politician faces is always a political one. This explains how the civil servant occupies the position of expert even when they have no expertise in the subject matter they are dealing with.

Just as the private individual went to the doctor to help with the medical dimension of her problem, but not necessarily the others, so too the politician goes to the civil servant for the policy dimension of their problem and not the others (e.g. electoral). It is in this dimension that the civil servant has specialized knowledge, and it is to this that their methods apply.

Poets and the Legislators of the World

“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

-Percy Shelley

To make their recommendations, policy makers sift through many different types of information. They look at data, reports, news article, industry submissions, academic articles, blogs, infographics, letters from ordinary submissions to name, and much more. What role should art play in all this? How should a policy maker’s analysis of an issue be affected by songs, films, television, paintings or poetry?

It seems to me ridiculous to ask Bob Dylan his opinion on any given policy issue, but it would have been equally foolish once upon a time not to listen to his songs. I think this is because a good song tells us at least as much about an issue as a good opinion editorial, it just doesn’t tell us the same kind of thing. Perhaps a more modest title for poets would be the “feel-tanks” of the world.

Like think-tanks, their appeal is their “independence” (and like think-tanks this is always worth questioning), and freedom to imagine things anew. Their methods ought to be just as rigorous in capturing the kind of feeling, both popular and concealed, of society. In releasing their “report” to the community, every artist poses the kind of question that could never fit in a scientifically valid survey. Policy makers would do well to understand both those questions and their answers.

A Balanced View

It is sometimes said that a balanced view takes the two sides of an argument and finds the middle ground. This is problematic because it seems to give equal weight to both sides when one side might be completely invalid and illegitimate.

In reality, a balanced view is one that accounts for all sides of an issue. This means it might perfectly agree with one side, or indeed take a completely different view from all the existing sides. What makes a view balanced is that it has some way to explain the various disagreements, i.e. where each view comes from. This may take the form of an alternative interpretation of the reasons one side gives, or it might be a sociological explanation of why those reasons, which are completely inadequate in and of themselves, still manage to be offered by people as justifications for their beliefs.

Now, just because a person offers an account does not make it a good account. To the extent that a person’s view is a reasonable and charitable explanation of why everyone holds the position they do, the resulting view will be balanced.

Progress Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Bill 62, Julie Payette and the Historic Bookends of the Religiously Neutral State

Bill 62 in Quebec and the recent comments of Governor-General Julie Payette to the Canada Science Policy Conference both provoke and answer the same question:

What does it mean to have a religiously neutral state?

Despite this fact, I have yet to find an analysis that treats them together. Yet it is worthwhile to consider these two events together, particularly from the perspective of one inclined to oppose the former and support the latter. Looking at these events from this perspective, we see an inevitable tension of a progressive government caught between the Enlightenment and post-modernity.

On the one hand, the so-called “superstitious” (i.e. those who believe in astrology, the Bible, etc.) have always been the great villains of the Enlightenment. Progress since the 17th century has self-consciously been about overcoming these people, or at least protecting the public sphere from them, thus the need for a religiously neutral state, and, in the French context, an explicitly secular state. What’s more, especially in its more radical form, this has been accomplished not solely, or even primarily, by rational argument, but through satire and mockery. Both this aspiration and feeling are succinctly captured in the content and tone of the Governor-General’s comments.

On the other hand, for the post-modern, the great villains of (lower-case “p”) progress have been the mechanistic and totalizing institutions of bureaucracy, industry, and war. These institutions have both been made possible by the advances of science, and purport, whether justly or otherwise, to reflect the scientific image of the world. That is, it’s important to remember that science has not only been a method, but as a set of ideals and institutions, a crucial pillar of modern Western cultures. The victims of these processes, according to its critics nearly from the beginning to today, have included among others: the spiritual life of the individual, the physical life of the soldier and civilian, and ultimately the victims of the Holocaust and the atomic bomb (see Arendt above). But most importantly for our discussion now, the post-colonial lens has sought to make clear what this violent objectivity had been doing (and continues to do) to people with other ways of knowing and going about the world. Bill 62 is a particularly stark example of how these “Others” are treated by bureaucracies claiming to be neutral.


Now, of course, in such a short space I am oversimplifying, but when it comes to day-to-day policy making, reaction to the news, and commenting on the internet, it is not in great nuanced tomes, but in, often unarticulated, assumptions and thoughts even shorter than this that these big ideas are expressed.


Now, on the face of it, there is no conflict between these two positions. A person can agree with the Governor-General and still think it is wrong to deprive somebody of government services because of their spiritual or cultural practices. This is a conventional position of tolerance, i.e. protection without agreement or even respect. The tension lies not so much in the acts themselves but in the attitudes behind them and how these come together in the context of our current government.

Consider the following. Recently, I have attended a number of events where Indigenous Elders and other communal leaders opened with prayers. At least a few times, these prayers have been to “The Creator”. While I know little about the spirituality of the nations these Elders came from, the title “Creator” suggests some kind of involvement in the origins of life. While I don’t know enough to understand whether these statements are meant to be taken empirically or some other way, I know that making the distinction is already presupposing a certain cultural lens.

In this light, what do the comments of the Governor-General then mean for a Government committed to new nation-to-nation relationships? As I recently heard Professor Douglas Sanderson argue, the residential schools were only possible because Indigenous ways of life and knowing were not valued so it only follows that reconciliation will not be possible until those ways of life and knowing are valued.

Now, you might be inclined to say that the tension I am presenting relies on a massive, and quite frankly offensive, equivocation between groups whose political positions have not only been vastly different but directly opposed (i.e. the Churches and the spiritualities of Muslims or Indigenous peoples). But if we remember that anyone’s spirituality is not merely a political posture but a serious claim about the world, we cannot so neatly contain the implications of our statements about the world or the tone in which we share them to the groups towards which we direct them. To state something and exempt some group from its harsh implications is as disingenuous as it is condescending. Supportive relativism is as patronizing as violent objectivity is dismissive.

But so what? All this has been said before, so why is it worth repeating? However the government chooses to ultimately manage our fundamental differences, it will need to be honest with itself and for the federal government that means grappling with this tension among others. I look forward to seeing that article.


Outcomes in the Service of Process

It has been said that there are two kinds of legitimacies involved in policy making: input and output. Input legitimacy is procedural legitimacy, i.e. do the people feel like they have a real say. Output legitimacy comes with the acceptability of outcomes. There is a fundamental tension between these kinds of legitimacy insofar as the one depends on the involvement of the people and the other depends on the involvement of experts.

There is a tendency to reconcile them by arguing that the people, like the experts have valuable knowledge and information to contribute (e.g. their lived experience). This may motivate us to invest more in input, but even at its best this will be input in the service of output. That is, at the end of the day we are still only motivated to pay attention to input only insofar as output is improved.

This might seem like it isn’t such a bad thing. After all, it does produce a coherent picture of policy making and it does lead to better policies (and isn’t that the point?). To understand why inputs in the service of outputs, even at their best, are always inadequate we need to understand the difference between a harm and a wrong.

Suppose for example that you have a fatal but curable illness. The thing is that the cure must come through a needle and you are deathly afraid of needles. Your doctor, upon learning this, waits until you fall asleep and while you are asleep injects you with the cure. Has he harmed you? He saved your life. Has he wronged you? Unquestionably. Rational or not, you had a right to consent to or refuse that medical treatment and the doctor disregarded that right (making what he did assault).

Output legitimacy, broadly speaking, is concerned with improving welfare and avoiding harm. Input legitimacy, however, is fundamentally concerned with rights (i.e. all those who have a right to be included ought to be included). If we only consult a patient for example insofar as it helps their health we are not respecting their rights.

The only time we can be absolutely sure that rights are being respected is when output serves input, an idea much harder to accept. Output serving input is where the ultimate policy, regardless of its success on any metric genuinely reflects and validates the involvement of those who made it.

In Canada, perhaps the most important example of where this needs to happen is in a genuine nation-nation relationship between the federal government and the hundreds of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit. Much well intentioned colonial policy has taken all decision-making power out of the hands of the people themselves in the name of outcomes for those people. Indeed, when funding or any decision-making authority is hesitantly given over, it is with the most possible oversights, which again are geared toward the outcomes. Ironically this has produced terrible results. Output serving input means that the government is quite willing to see a policy fail if it means guaranteeing the genuine ownership over the policy by the people.

Now, ideally, you want both output to serve input and input to serve input, but since the tendency of our era is to lean very heavily to one side I think much more emphasis should be placed on output serving input.