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Alain Giguère

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21% of Canadians believe it’s okay to disobey laws they think are stupid! (And Siegfried by Richard Wagner)

Categories: On my radar this week

Posted on 05-01-17 at 1:51 p.m.

Fantasies of civil disobedience!

One in every five Canadians indulges in this kind of thinking. What's more, the numbers have been on a continuous uptick for the last 13 years! It's as if these individuals see a progressively fraying "social contract," which legitimizes disobeying laws and contravening the basic rules of civil society. However, we are not suggesting that this indicates a systematic path to anarchy. These citizens don't spend their time breaking the law. But this fantasy is undoubtedly an expression of their frustration with what they believe life has in store for them.

It is interesting to note that we find little significant variation on a regional level. This "defiance" is found in similar proportions from coast to coast, with the exception of Québec, where the proportion of people in agreement with this notion, at 25%, is significantly higher.

Specifically, we asked people in a survey representative of the entire adult Canadian population (18+ years of age) whether they agreed with the following statement: "When you think a law is stupid, it's OK not to obey it."

To this same question in 2004, 12% of Canadians agreed. Since then, we've witnessed a nearly 10-point rise (9%). People are getting bolder and bolder!

Young people and harsh socio-economic conditions

The demographic and socio-economic profile of these "potential lawbreakers" provides some context. We find a clear over-representation of this attitude among young people (under 35), the lowest-income earners in society, as well as among labourers and blue-collar workers. We can easily imagine how financial pressures lead these groups to feel this way.


But what we find most troubling about these results is the rise since 2004. If deteriorating socio-economic conditions are stoking this defiance, it's not all that surprising that, in our post-2008 world, the fantasy of civil disobedience on the rise.

Repeatedly, our research results have clearly indicated that the Great Recession of 2008 was unlike recessions before it. In the past, people expected the economy to recover after a recession. After the Great Recession, Canadians saw the world as infinitely more uncertain, complex and risky, and became convinced that this new world order was here to stay.

It is in this context that we need to interpret this fantasy of civil disobedience. People have the impression that they are facing an increasingly difficult world and that society simply isn't there for them. Hence, for them, the social contract is broken.

Feeling excluded

When we analyze the personal values and mentalities of these potential lawbreakers, what motivates this kind of attitude becomes even clearer.

Fundamentally, these people feel excluded from society. They are unable to find a place, goals or meaning there. They feel powerless, as if they have no control over their lives. They feel left behind, that no one gives a damn about them. Therefore, if society has abandoned them, why should they fulfill their societal obligations? More proof of a broken social contract.

They are also very cynical about the establishment, the business and political elites. They think everyone is lying to them. They trust no one. They are very pessimistic about today's world. The youngest have a jaundiced impression of the world left to them by earlier generations. In this kind of environment, disobedience becomes a legitimate way to adapt to today's society.


A social project

I can almost hear my marketing colleagues concluding that the answer is more rebellious, irreverent and politically incorrect brand marketing platforms. Indeed, for certain target groups, such a strategy when properly executed will definitely pay off.

But the issue here goes beyond marketing opportunities. Our findings indicate the way that our society and our governments have been "managing" this exclusion. To curb it, our institutions and companies, via their social engagement, need to put their resources into programs that promote inclusivity, mutual aid and social integration.

The Ontario government is launching a pilot project in a few municipalities that will provide a basic minimum income to try supporting vulnerable workers and giving people the security and opportunity they need to achieve their potential. This could help them retrain or go back to school. Other similar initiatives should be put in place to halt the rise in fantasies of civil disobedience-and even stop them from becoming reality!

The Talented Mr. Robot: The Impact of Automation on Canada's Workforce, a recent report by the Brookfield Institute at Toronto's Ryerson University, concludes that nearly 42% of the Canadian labour force is at high risk of being affected by automation in the next 10-20 years!

If this scenario materializes, even minimally, we, as a society, will need a lot of creativity to fight the exclusion and civil disobedience it could engender (though, we hope, not anything as extreme as the world of "Mad Max"!).

Richard Wagner's Siegfried

Viewed from a more philosophical perspective, all eras undergo movements of civil disobedience. Youth tend to be critical of the preceding generation's regime and want to be rid of it, to take their rightful place. In their analyses of primitive societies, anthropologists talk about "symbolic castration," symbolic patricide-the father being the author of the laws and rules.

This is precisely the theme of the third act of Siegfried, the third opera in Wagner's four-part Ring cycle (The Ring of the Nibelung). Siegfried meets his grandfather, Wotan, the supreme god, who carries a spear engraved with the laws and rules governing the world. Wotan protects access to his daughter (Siegfried's aunt), who sleeps within a ring of fire. Siegfried breaks the spear, defeats Wotan (castration) and makes off with his aunt! When Wagner created this work in 1876, Freud's psychoanalytical texts had yet to be written!

The extract here is the overture to the third act, a magnificent orchestral foreshadowing of the drama to come (the castration, the aunt, everything!).

Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen - Complete Ring Cycle (James Levine, Metropolitan Opera), Siegfried Jerusalem, Hildegard Behrens, James Morris, Brian Large (Director), Deutsche Grammophon, New York, 2002.