This is not an armchair psychoanalysis of Rob Ford

One of my favourite advice websites, Captain Awkward, has a commenting rule: no remote diagnoses. No matter how much the letter writer’s annoying aunt reminds you of your mother, you can’t diagnose someone with Borderline Personality Disorder based on the description of a biased third party.

This is good advice, but rarely followed (even on Captain Awkward). Unless you’re living under a rock – and if you are, I might come join you for a weekend just to get away – you will have by now heard of Toronto’s mayor trouble. For the journalists of Toronto, Rob Ford and his antics have been the gift that keeps giving, as the man continues to reach new highs or new lows or just new levels of weirdness. It’s easy to treat the story as entertainment, and it’s difficult for those of us who are not fans of the mayor to react with anything other than schadenfreude. Or, to repeat a phrase coined all the way back in 2008, Schadenford (Noun: Perverse pleasure derived from observing the foibles of Toronto mayor Rob Ford).

But I am going to attempt to follow the good Captain’s advice and keep my itchy fingers off the DSM. I mean, it is pretty obvious that Rob Ford has psychological problems ranging from addictions to rage issues to some reeeaaally dysfunctional family dynamics – I hope if I am ever caught smoking crack my mother doesn’t take the opportunity to appear on national TV and call me fat! – but let’s leave the specifics up to the trained professionals when he finally makes contact with them. Plus that article’s been done already.

More interesting is the psychological profile not of the man himself but of the city which elected him. A brief history for the outsiders:

In 1998 the Conservative provincial government, which indulged in pretty typical anti-urban rhetoric, forcibly amalgamated the old city of Toronto with its inner suburbs, folding the communities of North York, York, East York, Etobicoke, and Scarborough into the city. This was not done well, leaving bad feelings all around. Since then Toronto has followed a fairly typical North American large urban centre pattern of intensification, urbanisation, and gentrification. This revitalized huge sections of the downtown core, but pushed out more and more lower and lower-middle income people to the former suburbs. Gentrification also pushed newcomers and ethnic enclaves into the suburbs, reversing Toronto’s previous “white flight” situation – former suburbs North York and Scarborough are now majority minority, while Old Toronto remains about 70% white. This adds an ugly racial wrinkle to the downtown-suburban conlict that, in true Canadian fashion, we do our best to pretend doesn’t exist. Those former suburbs were all built in the post-WW2 car culture, so lack infrastructure and are poorly served by transit, forcing many of those people to drive. (Traffic and transit congestion are huge problems in Toronto, with our transit system severely overcrowded and in need of expansion and repair, and our roads not much better.) As environmentalism and anti-car sentiment has increased over the past decade those people have come to feel more and more embattled.

Enter Rob Ford, who built up a good reputation in his own community of Etobicoke as a “fixer”, a city councillor who would take your call, listen to your problem, and help you fix it. He campaigned against a very reasonable $60/year car tax, vowed to get streetcars off the streets (“Subways subways subways!”), and spoke with apparent sincerity of a “war against the car”. Now, this is patent nonsense – driving infrastructure is actually heavily subsidized in Ontario as it is throughout North America – but it struck an emotional chord with those who found themselves stuck in the inner ring suburbs with no option but driving. His anti-government (“Stop the gravy train!”) and anti-welfare comments didn’t hurt, and his…colourful history of racist remarks and substance abuse didn’t seem to matter.

So Rob Ford, capitalizing on this resentment of “downtown elites” and a split left-wing vote, made it in to office with about 40% of the vote. I’m not going to give a complete history of his tenure in office, because this post is already too long, but his success in enacting his agenda has been mixed. He managed to scrap the car tax and throw a monkey wrench in a transit plan that would have created an extensive LRT network, sell off some community housing properties, and cut some other stuff. He has not succeeded in his subway plan and has failed to find much of a gravy train to stop. And as more and more embarassing and criminal actions come to light, his former supporters are starting to turn against him, as 75% of Torontonians now think he should resign.

But that leaves 25% who don’t.

What is keeping their faith alive?

The psychological concept of “valence” might be helpful here. According to Wikipedia, valence “means the intrinsic attractiveness (positive valence) or aversiveness (negative valence) of an event, object, or situation”. Whatever else he is Rob Ford is Toronto’s biggest site of valence, both positive and negative. For some people he is a walking, talking middle finger to the latte-sipping downtown elites who are trying to make their lives more difficult. For others he is emblematic of everything that is wrong with our culture, a bully and a brute who revels in his ignorance and refuses to learn. Add to that some mommy issues – Rob Ford is constantly being “bad”, rebelling like a teenager against an overbearing nanny state by overeating, driving unsafely, doing drugs – a touch of true believer syndrome, where believers continue to follow a discredited leader or believe in a debunked event, and the very human reluctance to admit that you’ve made a mistake, and you get a perfect psychological storm.

Ford’s supporters call themselves “Ford Nation”, and some have tied their identity to this unfortunate train wreck of a man; they are not going to give up just because he gets drunk at the office or gets caught on video smoking crack or uses racial/homophobic slurs or makes incredibly inappropriate comments at press conferences. They just are not.

The challenge is, in a political arena revitalized by the past three years of mayoral drama, what do we do with them? How do we honour those feelings of disenfranchisement and exclusion without enacting Rob Ford’s program of destruction? (I’m not being over-dramatic here, Rob Ford’s program was one of destruction – destruction of social institutions and services.)

There is a growing body of psychological research that suggests that much decision-making is emotional. Rather than making a rational decisions then having feelings about them, we make decisions based on our feelings, then rationalize them. This process is called “motivated reasoning” and is common in political decision-making. To heal the division caused by Rob Ford, then, we need to heal the emotional wounds that created him. I don’t know if or how that’s possible, but if I am going to continue to live in this city I certainly hope it is.


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