A (halfhearted) defence of vandalizing campaign signs


On EDGE: Opinion

When I was seven years old, I brought the word “shit” home from the schoolyard. This, unsurprisingly, prompted a parental intervention.

My mother was deeply perturbed by this development. My father, who’d spent a great deal of time on ships and oil rigs, was far less alarmed. Though trying to be angry with me, he couldn’t help but laugh because, as anyone who’s heard a child blurt out a cussword for the first time can attest, it’s funny.

Of course parents still have to intervene to teach their kids they can’t run around swearing in mixed company. But the comedy of the act is inescapable, unless you’re like Chris Cooper’s character in American Beauty.

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So it was last week when Yukon Conservative candidate Ryan Leef posted a video to his Facebook page featuring one of his campaign signs modified to read “QUEEF.” (A female friend who’s a stand-up comic complained, “he stole my bit.”)

Leef stood in front of the altered sign, in high dudgeon, to complain about “this kind of interference with our democratic process. Join Team Leef… and tell everybody you’re tired of this.” Leef, of course, has had a bit of an issue with sign vandalism during this campaign.

First of all, I’m no campaign strategist (largely because I’m still capable of feeling shame), but I’m pretty sure it’s is a poor idea to compound the vandal’s offence by standing in front of a sign that says “Queef.”

As a former cop and prison guard, it’s not surprising Leef opted for a law-and-order response. To be fair, nobody wants their last name turned into a bodily function and yes, campaign signs cost time and money. Yes, vandalizing signs is a criminal offense. And yes, not every sign vandal is motivated by politics. Some people just want to smash stuff.

But it’s also worth noting the incident in which Leef handcuffed a woman he caught vandalising signs ended without charges and that police, while acknowledging Leef’s right of citizen’s arrest, basically urged him to just call the real cops next time.

And more importantly, Leef’s indignation ignores a reality about these campaign signs. Your standard campaign sign offers no meaningful information beyond the candidate’s name and party. The signs themselves express no ideas, offer no debate, contribute virtually nothing to public discourse.

Consider the current political climate we are in. Witness a BC Conservative candidate issuing fliers warning that ISIS will enter our bedrooms (it isn’t specified if they’ll behead us or merely rearrange our sock drawers). Or the Liberals’ rally signs that bear the single-word slogan “Plan.” Or the NDP’s federal minimum wage plan that ought to come with a huge asterisk.

Every party employs scores of people who are tasked with creating simplistic “messaging” that annihilates nuance, removing opponent statements from context, and presenting their side as “the only” party who cares about you. The other guys basically want to sell your kids to the soylent green factory. Or maybe they don’t, thinks the modern campaign strategist, but let’s make them deny it.

All parties are bad for this, but the Tories have turned it into a deliberate strategy, generally refusing to engage in any form of discourse over which they lack complete control. (If you want to make your head explode, read this.)

In a time when political parties seek to obliterate all competing ideas with torrents of bullshit and public debate is fully managed by self-appointed expert strategists and marketers, it’s hard to blame average, frustrated voters for resorting to toilet humour.

That’s not to excuse vandalism entirely. There are other ways for marginalized voices to force their way in. And it’s a general rule of civilized society that you don’t wreck stuff that’s not yours.

But as the Australian scholar Kurt Iveson, who studies the place of graffiti in public spaces, writes: “[F]or those policing the surfaces of the city, unauthorized graffiti writers do not have anything to say, even though their graffiti marks its many surfaces. There is no point talking to them about what they do, because they do not speak properly.”

Leef can call vandals “criminal thugs” because they don’t want to take part in the same “democratic process” that has absolutely no interest in what they have to say. They don’t speak “properly” in the neutered, evasive language of modern politics.

So yes, people should leave campaign signs alone. But when it comes to public debate, mere vandals are the least of our worries.

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