Men In Suits

Two days ago, at the Green Party of Ontario‘s Annual Policy Conference, someone approached me from across the lobby.

“Hi Chris. Look, no suit!”

It was David Chernushenko, Green Party of Canada leadership contestant and, apparently, a Chris Tindal Blog reader.

It took me a second to realize that David was referring to a post I’d made just two days earlier explaining why I’m supporting Elizabeth May for leader, in which I’d described David as (among other things) “a man in a suit.”

It took me a few more seconds to realize that he’d been genuinely offended by the comment. I matched that with some genuine surprise; I had not intended the comment to be an attack. David explained that he felt like I was accusing him of being boring, and someone who “would toe the corporate line instead of towing corporations into line.” (Good soundbite!) I apologized–David is not those things, nor do I have anything bad to say about him–and after a constructive conversation he accepted my apology.

That left me to think about the harder question: what specifically did I mean, and why did I think the comment was worth saying?

Just so there’s no confusion, I’m a man, and I own a suit, which I have occasionally worn — most notably, when I’m politicking. And after David walked away, I realized that I’d felt targeted by very similar comments in the recent past. During the election campaign, the Green candidate from Montcalm, PQ, Wendy Gorchinsky, posted a two-part, 3000 word email called “Boy! Was I mad…It needs to be an All Women’s Party” to a Green Party mailing list.

It’s a difficult letter to summarize, in part because of how personal and nuanced it is. For example, I could selectively quote things like her description of a scrutiner’s meeting as a “Cock’s Den” full of “carefully groomed, greased up and tailored men.” Or I could only focus on her descriptions of “wonderful men, doing courageous and admirable work for the Earth Mother.” You can see how you’d get a pretty different idea of what she was trying to say.

Either way, after describing a day full of bumping up against “men in grey business suits” who didn’t take her seriously, Wendy ultimately concludes that, “there is NO WAY in hell that Jim Harris or any other man for that matter, in the Green Party, will ever be able to win an election,” and calls for men in the Green Party “to step aside and let women take their place for awhile” in order to realize “an All Women’s Party.”

I was personally offended. I felt stereotyped and trivialized. Thinking back, it became much easier to understand why David had reacted that way to my comments.

The key difference, of course, is that when I identified David in that way, I wasn’t listing it as a reason not to vote for him. On the contrary; I was giving voice (much to my embarrassment and shame) to the part of me that’s more accustomed to seeing men in charge, as opposed to women. In my post, I linked the words “man in a suit” to the Google cache for a Wikipedia article that no longer exists about the term “Homo politicus” (even the cached version has now been overwritten). I first learned those words from June Macdonald at a Fair Vote Canada seminar on electoral reform. She used them to describe the kind of candidates that tend to be favoured by our electoral system: namely wealthy, white men. I was applying it to David because, as he explained to me, he has successfully learned how to talk to that world. I did not mean to suggest he’d been co-opted by it.

In the 2006 Federal Election, 7/8 of the Toronto Centre candidates were white, and 7/8 of us were men. When challenged at our first debate in St. James Town, I responded that while I wasn’t ashamed of the colour of my skin, I wasn’t proud of the lack of ethnic and gender balance at that head table.

Does that mean I’m going to “step aside” as Wendy suggests? No. Still, I do recognize that I’m part of an unjust statistic, and need to be aware of how I play the game, and how I need to help change it. Wendy’s other challenges to men (“Are you capable of working for a woman?; of supporting a woman candidate?; of being their secretary?”) are more helpful, and are good questions for us to consider. Without speaking for David, I suspect he feels the same way.

The point is, I don’t think David’s a boring guy in a suit. I think he’s a great, interesting guy who just happens to own a suit or two.

ps. At the sake of ending up back where I started, I’ll add this last thought. Whoever wins the leadership race is (hopefully) going to have the challenge of going up against 3 other men in suits in the next televised leaders’ debates. The job of the Green Party leader will be to not sound like just another politician with the same focus-grouped one-liners and polished, perfected dullness. In other words, to sound like more than just a suit with a man in it. Both David and Elizabeth are fully capable of doing that, I just happen to think Elizabeth will do it better. There are lots reasons. Her obvious head-start is only one of them.

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