Opinion » Maxed Out

There is such a thing as a dumb question

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In one way or another, I've spent most of my life writing. In school, university, post-grad, professional and for the past several decades as a freelance writer. I'll admit up front to being a little pedantic when it comes to language and words. I have to be; it's how I've made my living.

The right words can enlighten; the wrong words can obfuscate, confuse and totally distort the meaning of a statement. Or question. Same with punctuation ... but let's not wade into that quagmire.

And so I found myself in a state of seething confusion last week, listening to what might have been, in other circumstances, interesting questions, but in this case were simply inane at the first all-candidates meeting on Sept. 26. When someone says, "I'm going to ask a dumb question," people often reply, "There's no such thing as a dumb question." Well, such was not the case last Wednesday. There were several dumb questions. I'm not suggesting the people asking those questions were dumb. But their questions, largely because they chose inaccurate, confusing or intentionally ambiguous words, were, well, dumb.

The winner of the Dumb Question of the Night award went to this meaningless query. "Do you support Whistler banning single-use plastics?"

The question, a complex, blunt instrument, was asked of the 17.5 people running for council who managed to turn up, or send a proxy. To make it even more meaningless, it was asked—ostensibly to save time—as a yes-no question. Show of hands, yes or no ...

So why is this environmental clarion call a dumb question? Lack of clarity and linguistic overreach. With no definition of what the term "single-use plastics" might sweep into its net, any answer, especially a yes-no answer, is pointless at best. If, as is often the case, the questioner meant plastic shopping bags, why not be specific, even though plastic shopping bags are one of the few plastic bags that are often reused?

Inconsequential? Nitpicking? Not at all. Think about it a minute.

Strolling into, say, Nesters—and I'm not picking on Nesters; it's just the grocery store I shop at most often—I would estimate somewhere in the neighbourhood of 80 per cent-plus of all items sold employ what could accurately be thought of as single-use plastic. If all were banned, shopping for food in Whistler would be a lot like foraging in a Sarajevo market during the height of the Bosnian war.

Even in the relatively benign produce section—benign in terms of packaging anyway—sacks of potatoes come in plastic bags. Used more than once? Those annoying plastic boxes of pre-washed salads, the ones I see people putting in recycling bins still intact, meaning the bins are picked up and emptied even though mostly filled with air? Gone. Bags of salad? Gone? Many herbs? Gone. Soft berries? Gone. Oh, and stop putting the bulk fruit and veggies in the ubiquitous rolls of plastic bags.

Carnivores would finally have to go vegetarian, assuming there was much left in the produce section. All the pre-packaged meat is wrapped in plastic. Even what we buy at the meat counter is wrapped in plastic-coated paper—not recyclable. Frozen meat? Wrapped in plastic.

Cookies, biscuits, chips, candy ... all gone.

Virtually everything in the freezers is wrapped in some form or another of plastic. Milk, cheese, tofu, all wrapped in plastic. Single-use. I guess we could live on eggs.

I haven't even come to the aisle where the real single-use plastic lives. The garbage bags, leaf bags, plastic wrap, and assorted other convenience plastics.

Now, as dumb as that question was, the saddest part was watching virtually every hand on stage rise, showing favour with the notion of such a ban. It was, of course, an exercise in peer pressure as opposed to critical thinking. Understandable, and I draw no conclusions from it—no harm, no foul. No one wanted to be the environmental criminal opposed to such a meaningless, confusing gesture. Especially with no opportunity to explain why no one in their right mind would actually support it.

And then we came to the much thornier yes-no question of whether the candidates would support the establishment of an emergency women's shelter in Whistler. At this moment in time, when the Me-Too movement is casting a harsh light on the inexcusable behaviour of men who take advantage of their professional and societal positions to visit abuse on women, what male candidate in his right mind would want to be seen on the wrong side of this issue?

The problem, in this case, was not so much in the form of the question than in the constricting nature of a yes-no answer. The question was imprecise in the sense it failed to describe the scope and nature of an emergency shelter but more fundamentally, reducing a complex question, asked with no context, to a for-or-against answer didn't do justice to the problem it sought to address.

While no one with a shred of humanity could be against providing secure shelter for women who find themselves in need, the form of that shelter and the scope of the need had to be a fundamental part of the question.

In the just-released Vital Signs report, the Community Foundation of Whistler tells us the Whistler Women's Centre referred eight (8) women to Howe Sound Women's Centre safe housing for a total of 131 nights in 2017, down from 2016's numbers of 14 women for 181 nights.

Would those numbers inform a more meaningful answer to the question? Would, for example, knitting together, say, half a dozen local hotels to provide rooms on a space-available basis provide the temporary safe housing as effectively as building and staffing something permanent? And, as a threshold question, should this be a municipal undertaking or is it something the municipality should be working in conjunction with provincial agencies to create?

I don't mean to criticize any of the questioners or the three very vital community groups that put on last week's forum. But with a choked field of 20 candidates for six council seats, the three all-candidates' meetings perform a vital function in giving voters insight into who these people are, what they believe and what kind of councillors they might make. To toss impossible questions at them does a disservice to both the candidates and the interested voters. To the extent those questions are weighted down with ideology, are imprecise or require in-depth context and answers, they are simply inappropriate.

All politics are, in the first instance, local. Municipal council, especially in a small, dynamic town, is where people hone their concept of civic responsibility. It is so much more important in our day-to-day lives than senior levels of government that it deserves our sharpest attention.

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