National Column: Ben Harper has time to change

by Emma Teitel

The fallout from Ontario’s minimum wage increase this year – most notably the cynical stripping away of benefits and paid breaks for a number of Tim Hortons employees in Cobourg, Ont. – has revealed that Tims, a brand synonymous with community warmth may also be synonymous with corporate greed.

But the minimum wage debate has revealed something else too, not about our beloved doughnut chain but about us: we pay way too much attention to the half-baked opinions of university students.

It turns out that among those to weigh in on the minimum wage increase in recent days was Ben Harper – not the American songwriter, but the university-aged son of former prime minister Stephen Harper.

The Queen’s University student whose Twitter bio reads “Queen’s University, Bachelor of Commerce ’19, Bachelor of Economics ’19,” took to social media last week to offer his own snarky, disapproving thoughts about the wage hike. He tweeted:

“Why not just make the minimum wage $1,000,000. Then everyone could be rich. All problems solved. Hmmmmmmmmmm…..”

Needless to say, many people older and wiser than the former PM’s son shot back, criticizing Harper’s politics and his flippant tone. But they got personal too. Here’s Bruce Anderson, the chairman of Abacus Data, a marketing research firm, responding to the Queen’s student this weekend: “Making light of the challenges faced by people trying to get by on very little money is an unfortunate way to approach this debate. Especially if you grew up living in taxpayer paid housing & on taxpayer paid income.”

It’s a fair point, one Ben Harper would do well to consider, but, at the risk of rushing to the aid of a young man who needs none, I have to ask: is debating B.H. on social media a worthwhile exercise for some of our nation’s brightest thinkers? And is the persistent backlash to his tweet not just a little overblown?

Apparently not for a culture like ours, one increasingly obsessed with the opinions of university students. This obsession doesn’t concern itself only with the sensational, ill-formed musings of a former Conservative PM’s son, but the sensational, ill-formed musings of students on both sides of the political spectrum. Students, for example, who write op-eds in their school newspapers or make statements on social media declaring that it’s sexist to raise money for prostate cancer; that there is no such thing as white privilege; that it’s racist for white women to wear hoop earrings, etc., etc., etc. Every incident of this order, whether right-wing-themed or evidence of “PC-culture-run-amok,” winds up in mainstream news and contributes to a now profound anxiety about the radical sensibilities and loony ideas of undergraduate college students.

It’s as though those of us who went have forgotten what it was like to be in university, a space for ideological experimentation, where more often than not students who expressed really dumb opinions one month came to severely regret them the next.

This isn’t intended as a full-blown defence of Ben Harper, who may very well be opposed to a fair minimum wage as long as he lives (and who has used his position to advance conservative ideas in media). Rather, it’s a much-needed reminder that university students, even those who appear the most stalwart and fringe in their beliefs, are brand-new adults in a state of near-constant flux. This is a reality made obvious by the fact that they change their majors, often more than once. According to the New York Times in 2012, “At Penn State, 80 per cent of freshmen – even those who have declared a major – say they are uncertain about their major, and half will change their minds after they declare, sometimes more than once.”

But they also change their minds. I don’t stand for half the things I stood for in college, among them: a 6 a.m. last call at bars, microwaving eggs, and the Conservative Party of Canada. Give it a few years, or months, and neither might Ben – nor any other college kid whose fiery opinions make you fear for the future.

Emma Teitel is a national affairs columnist.
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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