OPINION: Wagging finger far easier than rectifying social ills

Re: “Health sermon thinly veiled poor-bashing.” I read with anticipation Gail Lethbridge’s column in your July 28 edition. This was in response to the Chester-St. Margaret’s MLA’s recent controversial comments linking chronic disease to lifestyle choices.

I was hopeful I’d find words of wisdom about our collective responsibility to address systematic inequalities in our province. Unfortunately, Ms. Lethbridge simply reinforced biases of gender and inequality in 1,000 words or less. In fact, I argue her words actually further supported shaming and blaming, and did more damage than the MLA.

In Ms. Lethbridge’s scenario, Steve, a middle-class male, works hard, owns a home, is married with children and makes good choices, while Clara, a “poor” female becomes an obese, chain-smoking single mother of three who is a burden on hard-working taxpayers. The Claras of our world must have felt a sense of doom and gloom for their future after reading this column — however, if we follow Ms. Lethbridge’s argument, they are probably unable to read while drowning in despair over their life, with no hope of ever being successful. All because they didn’t eat breakfast before going to school as a child.

If given the same opportunity as Ms. Lethbridge to reach out to a broad audience on a Saturday morning, I would have said the following:

MLA Hugh MacKay’s recent post regarding chronic disease was short-sighted in understanding a complex problem in our province. He argues that there need to be “tough words for a tough problem,” which is what he believes he was elected to deliver.

Sadly, in my experience, his words reflect the opinion of the broader electorate. We are horribly unkind as a society. We focus a lot of energy on assigning blame to others instead of taking responsibility and demanding action. It is much easier to blame people for their circumstance and chalk up their lived experiences to the fact that they are making bad choices — instead of recognizing that simply because of our gender, race or social circumstances, we have an advantage that has not been given to others. We often use this advantage to assign blame for choices and to justify the mess our province is in.

My message to our MLAs is simple: please use your advantage and tough words

  • to address the growing social and economic divide in our province;
  • to talk about why we have food banks with permanent structures to deal with food insecurity instead of providing a basic, guaranteed income to families;
  • to question why we have people living in rat-infested, unsafe housing without access to basic necessities such as heat and safe drinking water;
  • to address why transition houses are filled to capacity while families wait for access to safe and clean housing;
  • to ask why adults in our community cannot eat or work because of chronic pain when they cannot afford basic dental care;
  • to question why we live in a province where we have stopped caring for our neighbours and blame people for not meeting the standards we have set for a healthy lifestyle, instead of questioning our own responsibility in taking away their ability to make healthy choices.

I am invoking the same argument as Mr. MacKay and using my tough words. It is easy for all of us to simply sit in judgment of another person’s circumstances, be critical of their choices, and believe we do not have the power to change systems — the very ones that are designed intrinsically to create disadvantages.

It takes courage to stand up and say we are not going to tolerate these systems any longer and fight for change that is real and will result in tangible differences in the lives of all our citizens. I challenge you to take the unpopular and uncomfortable path of recognizing our unearned advantage and using this to bring about real transformation.

However, if at this point in your life this is not possible, can you at least simply be kind to others and get out of the way of those who are ready and welcome the opportunity for change?

Michelle Ward (BSW, RSW), Westville

This op-ed originally appeared in The Chronicle Herald here

One thought on “OPINION: Wagging finger far easier than rectifying social ills

  1. The thing is that people from middle and upper classes have privileges that the poor do not. They are more able to access better and higher education, health services, housing, jobs and socially desirable living circumstances. Their sense of hope for the future is usually higher. Living in poverty is depressing and there are many factors that conspire to make it hard to move out of poverty. Some people do, and some don’t.

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