Exposing Ford's Doug-whistle sex ed agenda
I started high school in 1998. During sex ed I “learned” that one tablespoon is the maximum amount of blood a woman menstruates each month. I was a confident enough kid to know — and say to the teacher — that I had been regularly producing more than that since my first period at 12, but she told me I was wrong and it must just seem like that.
The underlying message — a far too common one given to children, opening the door for abusers — was that I must be exaggerating, dramatic, “crazy,” that I couldn’t possibly be a reliable witness to what happened to my own body.
It wasn’t until menstruation cups with their handy measuring lines that I could quantifiably prove how wrong that “information” was — to the tune of almost two tablespoons of blood in a single night.
If that precision about my teenaged menstruation strikes you as “TMI,” fair enough; but in this political climate, too much information is far superior to too little. Information is power — but the sort of power that means a lot more to the otherwise powerless.
Premier Doug Ford got the power he currently holds not from information but from the distinct lack of it: he had no costed platform — no platform at all, really — and in the absence of concrete policies, appealed to voter emotions. And it worked.
During the campaign there was some rather smug commentary about how the process was just so civil — how Ontario’s populist politician wasn’t nearly as bad as Donald Trump; how all-in-all we were doing A-OK because Ford wasn’t blatantly and repeatedly insulting women and minorities.
No — he was saying subtle and insidious and perfectly civil things about them instead. Rather than providing facts about the content of the 2015 curriculum and the process used to develop it and then pointing out its flaws, the Ford campaign relied on insinuating phrases.
One in particular stands out: “Kathleen Wynne’s ideological sex-ed curriculum.” Ford adopted this directly from far-right groups who are openly discriminatory against LGBTQ people; they regularly referred to the health education overhaul as “Kathleen Wynne’s radical sex-ed curriculum.”
This phrase is very cleverly constructed. Without directly saying anything offensive, it nevertheless strongly implies that Wynne, the first openly gay premier of this province, unilaterally created the sex ed curriculum, and that she did so based on some vague ideological agenda. Leaving the “ideology” or “radicalism” unspecified puts the burden of meaning on what can be implied from those words — words that are loaded with homophobic connotations about a “gay agenda” aiming to somehow seduce children into homosexuality.
It is such a backward and hateful notion that it would be laughable if it weren’t taken so seriously by a very vocal minority — a minority that now has the ear of Ontario’s premier. It is part of the same phobic discourse that has long linked homosexuality with pedophilia, both covertly and explicitly, and it’s what social conservatives fear from their phantasmagoric “gay agenda.”
Ford didn’t need to go full-Trump and say “I’m for the people who don’t want this lesbian teaching their kids how to be gay.” He could be civil and oh-so Canadian while using a phrase that acted like a dog-whistle to the homophobic.
This kind of nasty tactic is effective only in the absence of factual debate, and it’s how populism works: by avoiding information and taking advantage of general voter dissatisfaction — first preying on their fears and then saying something vague and comforting to soothe those fears.
So we shouldn’t be surprised that one of this government’s first moves is to slash education — not just sex ed, but school repairs and badly needed Indigenous content. Good, up-to-date public education that teaches young people how to acquire and assess comprehensive and relevant information is specifically not in the best interests of this governing party.
“It’s irresponsible that this government has left everything in such disarray that educators in our province aren’t even aware of what’s going to happen come September,” said Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath, but disarray and lack of awareness are exactly the point. They are the most effective tools in the populist kit, and we need to pay attention to them now more than ever.
Mandy Pipher is a Toronto-based writer and educator. She can be reached through her website at www.mandypipher.com.