Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The hostage metaphor.

I'm still pondering issues related to labour unions and freedom. But here's a half-thought that occurred to me during that pondering. Often, strikes are referred to as "taking someone hostage", where the "someone" can be a city (e.g., transit strike), a student population (e.g., teachers' strike) or some such. I have two problems with this metaphor.

First, it's offensive to genuine hostages. People who are taken hostage have no ability to control their own destinies and are frequently in danger of losing their lives. (Indeed, hostages are actually killed with frightening regularity.) Strikes rarely threaten anyone with death or serious physical harm. In cases where they might, essential services legislation is appropriate (so, police and physicians, for example). Furthermore, people who are affected by a strike often have options to alleviate their inconveniences. Students can withdraw from universities or occupy their time in non-academic ways (e.g., work or learning a new skill). Persons affected by transit strikes can use other transportation (e.g., taxis, bikes, carpooling, walking) or simply stay home.

The point is not that there are no harms associated with strikes; the point is that these harms fall far short of the level needed to justify using the metaphor of a hostage taking. And the use of the metaphor offends against those who truly have been taken hostage. If you like, this is parallel to the way overusing the Nazi metaphor (e.g., a "soup nazi") offends against those who suffered under the Nazi regime.

Second, it speaks to a certain level of narcissism on the part of the so-called hostages. Missing a few months of school or slipping and sliding through snow for a few months is really not that important. Yes, it's not fun. Yes, it means plans have to be changed. Yes, it means life becomes very inconvenient and unpleasant. These, and similar, are all true claims. But they don't matter that much.

I've lived through teachers' strikes, transit strikes (3 months-plus in Vancouver), TA strikes, even a physicians' strike (in BC), and, somehow, I have survived. I am well. My life plans continue more or less apace. Strikes are a problem that needs to be accommodated, not a crime against natural law or whatever the argument is supposed to be. (That the argument derived from the hostage metaphor is never made clear also speaks, I think, to its weakness.) Failing a university course is a problem that needs to be accommodated, not the end of the world; I've done it, I'm still here. Losing important documents and office equipment is a problem that needs to be accommodated; I've done that, too, and am still here.

The point is that no one has a right not to have bad things happen to them. They may, arguably, have a right not to have bad things done to them, but the effects of strikes are not done to any of the supposed hostages -- instead, they happen to such people. (As a way of catching the distinction: it's bad for a hundred people to die in a hurricane, but no one has a right not to die in a hurricane; it's monstrous for a hundred people to be killed by a single murderer, and a case can be made that everyone has a right not to be murdered. When something happens, we can judge it bad on the grounds that it produces bad consequences, but we speak nonsense if we call it wrong; for an action to be wrong it must be done by someone against us.) To elevate what happens to us to the level of what is done to us is to treat our sufferings as necessarily the fault of the world (or society), and thus is to claim that we are sufficiently important that the world (or society) should ensure that bad things don't happen to us. This is an obvious kind of narcissism or egotism: the world (or society) could be faulted for doing bad things to us, or for not giving us sufficient opportunities to prevent bad things from happening to us, but none of us is important enough that we have a right to be protected from having bad things happen to us.

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