Friday, December 06, 2013

What was Brian Pallister thinking?

Brian Pallister, leader of the Manitoba Progressive Conservative party and head of the provincial official opposition, created quite the stir in some circles when the following video was widely circulated online on Monday, December 2 2013:

Many self-identified "infidel atheists" were incensed by his remarks. I fail to see what the hubbub is about. 

Here is a basic breakdown of what Mr. Pallister focuses on during the 23-second video:
  • 5 seconds wishing folks a Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah
  • 15 seconds talking about how he doesn't understand unbelievers, and how that's fine with him
  • 3 seconds wishing everyone all the best
Atheists got top billing in terms of air time.

Of course, I have no access to the inner workings of Mr. Pallister's mind, but the following seems to me to be a reasonable guess.

Mr. Pallister was speaking off the cuff on a topic he is rather uncomfortable with - hence the stumbling, almost stuttering delivery. He is probably aware of atheists and religiously unaffiliated Canadians in a way he wouldn't have been even ten years ago.

So while saying "Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah," he possibly thought, without preparing an answer, "What about the nonbelievers? I can't appear to be excluding them, and I don't want controversy." And so he started his sentence, and another part of his brain interrupted with, "Don't be too accommodating; you don't want to alienate your religious constituents."

Thus the strange mix of inclusiveness, wishing everyone all the best, with terminology ("atheist infidels") most often used in a pejorative manner.

Mr. Pallister inadvertently drew attention to the fact that a large and growing number of Canadians do not view Christmas as a religious holiday in any way. Canadians generally view the end of the calendar year as a time to embrace family, feasts, gifts, trees, lights, retail discounts, and three statutory holidays within one week. The religious nature of December 25th matters to an ever-shrinking percentage of the population. "Keep the Christ in Christmas" was quaint twenty years ago. It is not as obsolete as abacuses or monocles, but still a reminder of times past, like cathode ray tube television sets or people wearing wristwatches. Mr. Pallister clearly recognizes this on some level, even if it doesn't apply to him personally.

In my view, this is a tempest in a teapot. He spent most of his time saying how he wanted everyone to enjoy this time of year, and was clearly grasping at straws to find a way to do so. Yes, he employed a poor choice of words. But rather than criticise him for that, freethinkers should thank him for explicitly mentioning the community and his desire for all to appreciate the season. Instead, request that Mr. Pallister accept the invitation to speak with a representative of Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba so he can extend warm wishes in the future to a significant part of his electorate in a more diplomatic, appropriate manner. If he accepts, it would demonstrate genuine good faith, and his message will be received with the warmth and compassion with which it was (presumably) intended.

Citing this as an example of anti-atheist bias in elected officials is inappropriate and will dilute warranted criticism when other public figures make far more egregious, explicit attacks on atheists' legal rights and physical well-being. Save outrage for truly outrageous acts.

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