The Deceptive Charade of Social License

Article in the Star today has a discussion about the extent to which “social license” should be obtained from government and industry before going ahead with major projects that affect the environment. The chair of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, Michael Binnion recently remarked that the Harper government has done a terrible job at getting social license.(1) I personally was not familiar with the term social license, although the gist seems straightforward – companies need popular support to go ahead with projects that may impact a broader group. The first result of a Google search turned up an internet site dedicated to social license defines it similarly “Social License has been defined as existing when a project has the ongoing approval within the local community and other stakeholders, ongoing approval or broad social acceptance and, most frequently, as ongoing acceptance.”(2) Upon looking a little further, this site is run by a Oil Industry consultancy in Vancouver that offers “socially enhancement” strategies for the energy industry.(3) They specialize in putting a socially responsible face on inherently violent and exploitative activities. What they do is a charade – doing in order to pretend something is true when it is not really true.(4)

Social license seems like a way to put greater onus on industry and government (frequent bedfellows) to seek out and take into consideration public opinion, but it starts from the premise that everything is on the table so long as enough people endorse it. Who is consulted? Why should people be forced to do violence to other people, to the land, to themselves? Also, the disproportionate amount of funding from the oil and mining industry for propaganda and bribery make claims of having obtained social license extremely dubious at best. Social license and other similar concepts rely on the language of informed consent and community consultation, using these terms they seek to validate the underlying processes of mass resource extraction, militarism and disregard for indigenous rights. Where does social license get it’s legitimacy? The people? The concept is a public relations tactic of groups such as the Harperite-Oil Industry alliance and is being used to carve out some kind of positive social narrative in which to cloak despicable deeds.

This strategy is on display in the Star article linked to here, in which Joe Oliver – former Minister of Natural Resources, and current Finance minister (obviously Canadian resource and finances go hand in hand) – announces to a bunch of people at the (Preston) Manning Institute that Canada should be less concerned with obtaining social license. Of course, Oliver sounds like the cold hearted industrialist that he is, and an immediate response (at least my immediate reaction) is to reject his callous greedy position. So then, do I endorse the position of the need for more social license? That would seem to be the alternative to Oliver’s position the article presents. Making this social license seem like the progressive alternative to crass extractionism is the dangerous move that is made by the social license discourse. It stays with in the bounds of the logic of colonial capitalism, in which the tar sands and the pipelines must and inevitably will go ahead. I reject this position and social license is a sham way of trying to get people to play by these rigged rules.

1. http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2015/03/06/oliver-ups-ante-in-conflict-with-environmental-movement.html
2. http://socialicense.com
3. http://oncommonground.ca/?page_id=1503
4. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/charade.

Managing the message: Managing emotions

Over four years ago, it was revealed that the Conservative government was taking steps to micro-manage and streamline the government’s messaging at all levels of bureaucracy. By using what are called “message event proposals” or MEPs, the government has been able to influence what topics are covered by the press. MEPs also give the government the advantage of staging performances, carefully planned spectacles, that are sympathetic to particular political positioning within announcements. This extends all the way from high-profile events to local level government officials appearing at community events. All events require an MEP and requests are run through the Privy Council Office to be vetted.1 Although not all events are heavily staged, others are. Like in a theatre piece, the MEPs allow for extensive intervention so that events are designed in ways that elicit particular emotional responses and prepares the audience to receive a particular message – both intellectually and emotionally. Perception management is built into the very delivery of the information content itself, and this is achieved through exercising meticulous control. For instance, “An MEP template typically includes the following subtitles: Event, Event type, Desired headline, Key messages, Media lines, Strategic objectives, Desired soundbite, Ideal speaking backdrop, Ideal event photograph, Tone, Attire, Rollout materials, Background, and Strategic considerations”2. The intentional use of such tactics go far beyond managing straightforward information. The fact that these strategies attend to very subtle aspects of messaging (backdrop, tone etc) speaks to how carefully considered emotional portrayals are taken in this process. The use of such strategies provides a window in to the level of emotional manipulation involved in governmental narratives, and the techniques that are deployed in political messaging campaigns. Examples of MEP forms for a number of issues are included in the CBC article here 3.

1. http://www.pco-bcp.gc.ca/index.asp?lang=eng
http://www.pco-bcp.gc.ca/index.asp?lang=eng
2.http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2010/06/06/documents_expose_harpers_obsession_with_control.html

3. http://www.cbc.ca/newsblogs/politics/inside-politics-blog/2010/06/from-the-cp-access-to-info-files-the-medium-is-the-message-event-proposal.html

Harper Capitalizes on the Emotionality and Rhetoric of Anti-Terrorism

In the wake of recent the shootings at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, Stephen Harper has announced that “We are looking at additional powers to make sure that our security agencies have the range of tools available to them to identify potential terror threats and to …[undertake] detentions and arrests and other actions where necessary.”1 This use of highly-emotional discourses centred on terrorism is being used to justify increased exceptional powers to the state – a trend that has been extremely evident in the West since the events of September 11th 2001. The tenor of the global media coverage and the emotional outpourings related to the recent incidents in Paris have contributed to an emotional climate where laws aimed at “preventing such atrocities in the future” are accepted with very little scrutiny. The timing of such political moves relies largely on the work done by public emotions to fuse a perceived need for such laws with the threat of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism. It is more likely, however, that these laws will be used to criminalize and suppress domestic dissent among indigenous Peoples and Canadians opposed to clandestine trade pacts (http://canadians.org/tpp) that will increase Tar Sands production and lead to more and more pipeline expansions and other dangerous forms of transporting bitumen. The government’s desire to align the opponents of its domestic policies with terrorism is evidenced by the 2012 “Canadian Terrorism Strategy” that focuses on “eco-terrorist” threats (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/ottawas-new-anti-terrorism-strategy-lists-eco-extremists-as-threats/article533522/) and the RCMP’s belief that environmentalists are more of a threat than religious-based fundamentalism (http://www.vancouverobserver.com/news/canada-more-risk-environmentalists-religiously-inspired-terrorists-rcmp).

The variants of “emergency law” that Harper is proposing will make it easier for any persons or groups determined to be associated with the (vaguely defined) threat of terrorism to be immediately detained and deprived of rights under the law. This same legal logic, at its extreme conclusion, has been and continues to be used to create numerous US “black sites” where detainees with no formal charges are tortured and in some cases killed (http://ccrjustice.org/learn-more/faqs/faqs%3A-what-are-ghost-detentions-and-black-sites).

It is unsurprising to see Harper’s media team deploying the well-worn rhetoric of security to justify the progressive deterioration of individual rights. “We want to make sure that we get a balance – that we protect the rights of Canadians and also the security of Canadians. We must protect both,” he said. “I anticipate that we will be moving forward very early in the new sessions with additional legislative proposals.” Among the legislation proposed is lowering the threshold for preventive arrests. This degradation of rights goes hand-in-hand with the Canadian government’s increased involvement in spying on its own citizens through the Canadian Security Establishment of Canada (CSEC) in collaboration with their American counterpart the National Security Agency (NSA)  (http://www.globalresearch.ca/csec-and-harper-government-assert-right-to-spy-on-canadians/5367380) and other members of the Five-Eyes security alliance (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/02/history-of-5-eyes-explainer).

The combination of increasingly broad and invasive surveillance technologies with laws that enable the criminalization in a country increasingly catering to corporate interests, gives me a very a dystopian feeling. They call to mind Orwell’s concept of thoughtcrime and Phillip K. Dyck’s portrayal of pre-crime policing as portrayed in his novel and Ridley Scott’s film adaptation in Bladerunner. A question that is seldom involved in the mainstream discourses regarding terrorism is why is the active role played by the Canadian government in creating the conditions that make violent acts not being challenged? This is a question I will discuss further in my next post.

1. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/more-anti-terror-legislation-coming-harper-says/article22363887/