Saturday, May 12, 2012

A Healthy Society - Chapter 9 Discussion

In his conclusion to A Healthy Society, Ryan Meili sums up his overall message about how health can serve as the central theme for political organization, and notes that the message holds plenty of public appeal already (with further room to grow as people learn about the impact of policy on the broad definition of health):
The core idea of this book is not just that health should guide our policy decisions; it should also be the language of our politics. Because people care about health, they are more likely to respond to political messages that reflect that concern. This is about framing, not in a manipulative way, but in a way that connects diverse and complex issues to a core concern. It’s not an approach to advance the marketing success of one party, it’s a means of rehabilitating a sick political system. A focus on health, demanded by an increasingly aware population, can force every party to reconsider its decisions and positions in relation to the determinants. It can establish an environment in which, rather than bombarded shoppers in the marketplace of clashing ideas and conflicting priorities, people can see themselves as part of a common project, as working together toward the goal of a healthier society.
(P)eople 1) understand to a degree the role of the social determinants of health, 2) believe that large inequalities in health outcomes are unacceptable, and 3) think that something can and should be done about it. Despite this understanding and concern, for some reason the determinants of health and health inequality are not visible in much of the discourse of public policy.
If people want a healthy society they must identify that as their goal, and take the steps needed to make it happen. This means connecting with those who are engaged in civil society and social movements. It means jumping off from the starting point of this book to deeper learning and understanding. It means joining — or forming! — a political party and advocating from within that structure for greater accountability and democracy. It also means the difficult task of talking to those who don’t agree with you, of raising the uncomfortable issues of poverty and inequality and seeking common ground to address them. The idea of a healthy society, particularly one with greater equality, will certainly run up against many detractors. People will come up with all kinds of reasons why change is not possible, why we must only react to the economically inevitable, why citizens can’t be trusted to make wise decisions, why we’re stuck.

We’re not stuck. There is a lot that can be done, and successful examples abound. We need to first see that we are all in this together.
Following up on the quoted passage, though, I'll raise a few questions as to whether health is indeed the right core principle to define what we want to achieve in building a political future.

We certainly don't have a lack of competing alternatives: from the nurturing/empathetic model for progressive discourse favoured by George Lakoff to themes like equality, sustainability, security, liberty, collectivism and inclusion which regularly form the basis for political arguments against conservative counterparts. So I'll encourage readers to consider a few points for the above as well as other available central themes:
  • How consistent is the theme with both our innate understanding of the world, and our current cultural background?
  • Is the theme seen positively enough serve as a broadly unifying principle and focus for organization - both within a single party and in the general political scene?
  • Conversely, is the theme well enough defined that it gives rise to a coherent certain course of action? (Put another way, is it meaningful enough to pass Susan Delacourt's platitude test?)
My initial thought is that the "healthy" theme compares well to the other options on the first two points for the reasons pointed out by Meili.

That said, it may carry some weaknesses on the third. We'd rightly see it as absurd for any politician to argue against a healthier society - but that very lack of controversy also makes the term vulnerable to being co-opted (I presume the Healthy Oil Institute is being incorporated as you read this), rather than serving as a stable frame for organization and discussion. And there may be more work to be done in defining what we mean by a broad conception of "health", how we can measure it and how to contrast it against competing values before we can consider it a clearly superior organizing theme.

I'll close by thanking Ryan for allowing me the opportunity to review and discuss his book. And while I've found a few points to quibble with in my chapter reviews, there's plenty within A Healthy Society that should serve as a focus for progressive discussion in Saskatchewan and beyond.


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