Don Cherry’s recent Archie Bunker-inspired tirade revealed an alienating view of new and, by implication, racialized Canadians. Cherry inflamed the Canadian culture wars revealing deep ruptures in Canada’s social landscape we can’t seem to bridge.
The work of Harvard University professor Robert Putnam can help us understand the implications of what the Cherry fiasco unveiled. Putnam argued that Americans are less civic minded and socially connected compared to generations past.
He highlights a myriad of reasons for this such as generational differences, demographic shifts, the rise of individualized media, suburbanization and urban sprawl, which have resulted in longer commutes, growing time constraints, and greater class and racial neighbourhood segregation. He also says economic decline and restructuring have left people with less money for social activities.
These phenomena have led to social divisions and a general decline in socializing, especially with people and communities beyond the boundaries of our usual social milieus.
Putnam used the term social capital to refer to the social ties and bonds of trust that are essential to human existence. He contrasted two types. There is bridging capital when we connect with people outside our social circles. The other is called bonding capital: those connections we make within our communities.
Bonding social capital often encompasses an “us-versus-them” outlook. Ideally that attitude is mitigated by bridging capital. Putnam said that “bonding social capital constitutes a kind of sociological superglue, whereas bridging social capital provides a sociological WD-40.”
Putnam laments the historical erosion of bridging social capital in the U.S., which he argues has, for many Americans, resulted in a lack of connectedness to the wider society and a depletion of overall reservoirs of social trust. Broad-based social capital, asserts Putnam, expands our opportunities, helps to broaden our perspectives, and, in general, “makes us smarter, healthier, safer, richer and better able to govern a just and stable democracy.”
The Don Cherry fallout illustrates that Putnam’s thesis is equally applicable to Canada.
Canada’s Archie Bunker
When Cherry, 85, used his venerable “Coach’s Corner” segment on a November Hockey Night in Canada telecast to demand, in the most offensive of ways and with the nuanced subtly of a Dustin Byfuglien body check, that everyone wear poppies, he may have been promoting his version of bridging social capital. By encouraging everyone to wear a poppy and admonishing those, particularly new Canadians, who don’t, Cherry’s aim may have been to bring Canadians of all ethnoracial backgrounds together using collective support for veterans as a rallying point.
This, at least, would be the most generous interpretation of his tirade. But he situated immigrants as a digression from a normative Canadian whiteness (“you people”) who pillage the nation’s treasure chest (they “enjoy our milk and honey”) while offering little or nothing in return — of course, an absurd notion given the vast economic benefits immigrants bring to a nation with a declining birthrate and aging population.
While some have debated Cherry’s intent, unbridled racism and xenophobia was what many inferred. His perspective at best was ethnocentric and condescendingly assimilationist. If this was an attempt on Cherry’s part to foster bridging capital, that bridge quickly collapsed.
The swift public reaction vividly brought to light escalating divisions in Canada.
Fervent and polarized debates on the merits and detriments of free speech and cancel culture took centre stage. Accusations of “snowflake,” “toxic masculinity” and “fascist” were flung. In a nation increasingly divided by intersections of race, class and regional differences, the turbulent reaction to Cherry’s comments and cancelled TV segment illuminated the widening rupture between urban progressivism and “old stock” (read: older, white and conservative) small-town Canadians to whom Cherry has long appealed.
In short, the Cherry debacle revealed that while there is a fair degree of intra-tribal bonding Canadians aren’t doing a lot of bridging. The 2019 “CanTrustIndex” revealed a sharp and alarming decline in overall levels of trust among Canadians. We’re losing trust in our leaders, dominant institutions, information sources and each other. Research shows that a lack of trust in those who govern us reflects a shortage of bridging social capital.
Persisting inequalities and injustices have spurred the proliferation of identity politics over the past few decades. Such activist pursuits may also provide individuals with a sense of belonging when wider social ties have broken down. Progressive identity-based movements like Black Lives Matter have promoted awareness of prevailing inequities and combated social biases of the sort reflected in Cherry’s remarks. Those social biases punctuate daily the lives of Canadians who aren’t white, heterosexual, middle-class, cis-males.
But, as events like Cherry’s downfall remind us, inevitable right-wing political backlash and resultant polarization and divisions will seemingly forever frustrate efforts to nurture bridging social capital. This is unfortunate, as mutually created bridging capital allows for inter-communal trust, collaboration and healthy dialogue.
When there’s a dearth of bridging ties and trust, stereotypical assumptions dictate how we interact with people outside of our identity groups. We assume worst intentions on the part of those with whom we disagree.
Bridging social chasms would enable us to collectively and rationally decide how to equitably and inclusively welcome newcomers into the Canadian social fabric, and how to treat fairly those who run afoul of present day values intended to promote equity and inclusivity.
Without implying that Cherry is necessarily deserving of a second chance given his cumulative track record, it wouldn’t be a bad thing if bridged differences and enhanced social trust resulted in a more forgiving society that defaults to redemption over cancellation.
That beats yelling at each other across divides and fuelling a perpetual impasse.
In the introduction of his book, Putnam suggests that Americans “need to reconnect with each other.” We Canadians need to do the same. In terms of making that happen, the fallout from Don Cherry’s latest antics shows we have a lot of work to do.