Drawing the line: the complicated process of real debate

Dislike of another’s opinions and beliefs neither justifies our own nor makes us more certain of them: and to transfer the repugnance to the person himself is a mark of a vulgar mind.
– John Lancaster Spalding

The debate around the niqab that has now become a strategic element of the national campaign (how effective an element is, itself, a matter of considerable debate) provides a classic example, for me, of an issue that lends itself well to the oversimplification that I like to spend time decrying. It manages to engender strong, emotional reactions: it has religious implications; it is a “women’s issue”; it can be framed as a personal freedom issue; it potentially raises questions about the nature of Canadian identity. Chances are I’m overlooking some other way of framing the debate that deserves consideration but I’ll stick to these four.

niqab 1
Certainly freedom of religion and religious practice constitutes one of the commonest defenses of just about any behaviour that might be viewed objectionable or outside the norm (assuming anyone could ever say just exactly what the “norm” is). It would never occur to most people that such things as hairstyle, clothing, assigned days of rest, food choices, modes of address, – all things that have, by some, been claimed as elements of religious conviction – should be challenged. It is only when a claimed religious conviction comes up against competing ideas that are considered of greater and broader significance that objections become significant.

niqab 3
The most obvious example, recently, would be all things surrounding gender identity whether it be gay marriage, gender reassignment surgery, or other related issues. Certain religions have very strongly held views in opposition to such things (note the county clerk in the U.S. who wouldn’t issue marriage licenses to gay couples because it violated her version of Christianity), but the law, in such cases, increasingly sides with those who see such things as natural and inoffensive.

niqab 4
Interestingly, to me, the niqab manages to raise even deeper questions in some ways. When it comes to sexual orientation and gender issues, we are, here in Canada and the U.S., on solidly Western grounds. As a civilization, Western culture has been moving inexorably toward secularism at the expense of religiously based “norms” for quite some time now. Yes, a vocal opposition commonly raises objections as the law moves ahead with gay marriage and other LGBT concerns, but that train has left the station and few could imagine turning back.

The niqab comes from a culture outside of the experience of the average Canadian. While I can remember a time when the young girl who got pregnant disappeared for a few months or maybe was moved altogether in order to “protect” all concerned, I have no frame of reference which allows me to evaluate a woman’s desire to continue to wear the niqab. In the case of the young girl who is pregnant, I am glad we have developed sufficiently as a society to accept such things and seek to aid and to assist in whatever manner might be deemed appropriate. Ostracizing is no longer a choice, thankfully.

niqab 5
But the niqab? For personal, religious reasons a woman asserts that she wants to wear the niqab. Am I correct if I look at the context in which such a practice is common and say that the wearing of the niqab manifests that religion’s subjugation of women? Should I then be able to ban the wearing of that article because it butts up against the higher moral principle of personal freedom and the equality of persons that Canada, as a country, might tend to assert? At the same time, how can I miss the inherent irony of insisting that someone conform to something as proof of their freedom from conformity?

Nevertheless, we do place limitations on immigrant cultural communities whose practices are viewed as “going too far” you might say. When it comes to sharia law, for instance, some have made efforts to allow for sharia law to be applied in parallel to the Canadian Criminal Code, as long as its application was restricted to those who chose to live by those cultural norms. Shouldn’t they have the “right” to do so if they wish? By that logic, honour killings should be allowed as well. As a general rule, the core limit we place on practices we might otherwise defend on the grounds of religious freedom or something else, revolves around how much such a freedom would affect others without their consent.

niqab 6
In the case of the wearing of a niqab at a citizenship ceremony, the even larger issue of Canadian identity is raised, generally along the lines of “why should anyone conceal themselves at the moment when they are joining the Canadian family?” I could write an entire blog on the manifold assumptions and unstated premises in that question but maybe another day.

As I am repeatedly trying to argue, though, it isn’t simply a matter of saying this side is right and that side is wrong: it’s not a black and white issue. Personally, I’m perfectly at ease with the woman who wants to wear a niqab wearing one. Nothing of what I’ve read suggests to me that she has been coerced or pressured into wearing it. She has made a choice and even if I don’t understand the practice personally, no one is forcing me, or anyone I know, to don any particular article of clothing for any particular reason.

niqab 2
At the same time, the angst that this issue raises, especially in Quebec it would seem, deserves analysis. In an earlier blog of mine, I mused on the difficulty we have, as Canadians, with a national identity. The complacency that, to my mind, dominated such concerns for many years is proving insufficient to the challenges of our shrinking, connected world. As I said, if it were up to me, wear a niqab or anything else you deem appropriate at your citizenship ceremony, as long as it’s something you choose and we know who you are beforehand. But that’s me, and nothing is so simple that we can simply ignore those who do not agree just because we think our way is both right and obvious.

Can’t we all just get along?

The political machine triumphs because it is a united minority acting against a divided majority.
-Will Durant

Believe it or not, politics is not my favourite subject to write about. I much prefer education, having spent almost half of my life teaching and many additional years as a student myself. In fact, I’m back to school even now (more on that in another blog maybe). But politics dominates my thinking these days, without question. Part of that can be ascribed to my personal involvement as a city councilor and then, MLA, but I have always been interested.

Comments that have struck me recently as we approach our impending election day concern the particular horror represented by the “Harper government”. As is common in Canada, the government and its leader tend to become inseparable if they prove to have any longevity at all. In Stephen Harper’s case, though, that commingling of identity seems virtually absolute.

In my most recent blog, I reflected on what I see as Canada’s drifting toward the polarization so many decry in the U.S. and the demonization of Harper (please suggest another word if that one seems inaccurate) is just one facet of that. The three major parties go to great lengths to find the “defining moment”, the “one bad thing” that can be used to characterize an opponent. Harper’s latest gaffe is the “old-stock Canadian” comment. Trudeau has been pilloried for his remarks about the “budget balancing itself” and Mulcair’s stumbles over balanced budgets and tax hikes, while lacking that defining phrase, are a constant theme for the other parties’ leaders.

get along 1

Some years ago (15 to be exact), when I was writing a regular column for the Telegraph-Journal (Saint John’s local paper), I reflected on the cynicism that I felt was taking hold in the U.S. surrounding elections. Time, of course, has only made the matter worse for our neighbour. Here is an excerpt:

There have been columns and analyses and polls and forums and I don’t know what, almost beyond numbering, all trying to get to the heart of what Gore and Bush, respectively, stand for. Little wonder: in the potentially ruinous maelstrom of competing lobby groups, special interests and political correctness neither the Vice-President nor the Governor can really dare to have a great deal to say about much of anything lest they offend anyone.

The part that I find most amazing in all of this is that the commentators and other pundits seem to think that this is not only inevitable but is, in fact, simply the “way it is.” Especially when referring to the recently concluded series of presidential debates, analysts nod sagely and remark on how well or poorly candidates have avoided, on this latest occasion, the “one mistake,” the wrong word or glance or position on an issue that might alienate the voting public.

Has it really come to this? Can the one mistake be so thoroughly devastating to a candidate’s chances? More importantly, what does this brand of analysis say about American’s expectations of their politicians? Commentators seem more interested in whether or not the particular candidate’s mask has been kept in place than they are in any substantial contribution to public debate made (or not made) in the course of the evening. Americans see validated repeatedly the notion that character is constructed. The challenge is to try and see the man behind the mask in order to determine if he even remotely resembles the persona that has been created for him.

I chose to revisit this old column of mine in order to illustrate, hopefully, in another way, our slide toward extremism. Contrary to what some might think, I am not here trying to support any particular party or view. As a Canadian, I am concerned that we are, to my mind, drifting closer and closer to the American reality where opposing political views can barely exist in the same room. While we may not be there quite yet, my recent experience suggests we are not that far away.

get along 2

To put it another way, I encourage one and all to vote for the candidate or party you find most appealing. But, as you do so, please realize that you are voting for a construct. As the incumbent, Stephen Harper garners the most attention for the things he says that confirm either his flaws or his strengths (depending on your view of the man and his party). As the challengers, both Mulcair and Trudeau have far less baggage to account for but they are as much constructed by handlers as Harper.

As things stand now, the outcome on Oct. 19 seems most likely to be a three-way tie. Should that be the case, what will that teach us about those who would lead our country? Will anyone be willing to compromise? Is minority government possible when parties spend their time demonizing and vilifying opponents? Another reflection from 15 years ago: “Elections allow politicians the opportunity to convince us that beneath their desire to maintain power there is a legitimate dedication to public service.” Because of my personal experience, I know that those who pursue political office commonly do so with the intention of doing good. A minority situation just might offer the voters of Canada a chance to be reminded of that. It might even remind the politicians themselves.

Drifting toward the black and white: polarization in Canadian politics

Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth
– Marcus Aurelius

Some years ago I was dating a woman from the States and, while George Bush was president (his first term), we visited some of her relatives in Minnesota. I’ve always been interested in politics, even before I became involved personally, so I was happy to engage when our conversation took a bit of a political turn. I’m not sure how it came up but the contention one of the relatives raised that has stuck with me is this: all Canadians (or anyone from anywhere for that matter) want to be Americans. According to this gentleman’s view, the rest of the world is consumed with envy. Given the chance, anyone would abandon the land of his/her birth in favour of a place in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

polar 6

Absurd you say? Certainly I thought that but it didn’t take me long to realize that I would be wasting my time if I tried to develop any kind of argument to the contrary. For this guy, the world’s desire to be American was a matter of faith. If I didn’t think his observation applied to me, I was simply deluding myself. Somewhere deep inside, there was an inner American seeking the light.

This encounter was just one highlight of a time where I came to realize in a profound way how difficult it was becoming to have a political discussion in the U.S. Considering that this couldn’t have been any more than 13 or 14 years ago, it’s hard for me to believe that the radical polarization of politics in the U.S. is so young. And yet, as I say, this was just part of my developing understanding at the time that politics was not something that you wanted to bring up unless you were sure of the company you were keeping.

polar 1

Flip forward to 2015. A general dismay is expressed over the early success of Donald Trump’s candidacy in the Republican presidential primary campaign. The pundits roll out any number of explanations for his popularity and, in general, dismiss his long-term prospects. While they may be right, I can’t help thinking he would appeal to my then-girlfriend’s relative. Trump’s xenophobic brand of American triumphalism is rooted in the idea that everyone is jealous of America and, since not everyone can BE American, those wannabes will spend their time, spitefully, trying to undermine the country.

To a rational person, Trump’s viewpoint seems absurd (I hope!) but, at the same time, I can’t help thinking it is a logical outcome for the divisive and extreme polarization that has become the hallmark of so much of politics in the United States. I’ve mentioned in this blog before that one of my guilty pleasures when I’m traveling in the States is listening to talk radio of the Rush Limbaugh variety. I am endlessly fascinated by how bizarrely extreme the rhetoric of the Limbaugh crowd really is. They all despise Barack Obama but it is the way in which they despise him that intrigues me. It isn’t simply that his policies are bad or his leadership ineffective; he is “destroying” America, “tearing up” the constitution, etc. Trump’s and other’s buying into the birther nonsense regarding Obama’s origins was just one especially laughable (disturbingly so) manifestation of trends that have been building for some time. As Canadians, (correct me if I’m wrong), we tend to look askance at the politics of our southern neighbor and are thankful that we aren’t like that.

polar 3 Note the stylized flag

And that is the point of my musings today. How different are we? On Saturday I visited the Fredericton market and did my best to avoid the “Anyone but Harper” table where proponents are trying to mobilize an anti-Harper vote to ensure that vote splitting doesn’t allow a Conservative candidate to ride the middle to victory. On Sunday, I ran into a friend of mine campaigning for the NDP who gave me a hug while saying something about hugging a Conservative (I pointed out I am NOT a Conservative but a Progressive Conservative, a distinction that is quite readily dismissed by friends of mine who are in the anti-Harper camp). I know for a fact that conversations I might have with any number of friends come to a screeching halt as soon as I indicate that I am not ready to participate in the wholesale condemnation of Harper and the federal Conservative Party that has come to be taken as a given by those who are supporting “anyone but”.

polar 2

When I started writing this blog (if you were wondering where I’ve been, I took the summer off), I tried to make clear that my motivation was to defeat the oversimplification that I believe is endemic in politics, education and virtually every facet of common public discourse. As Canadians, we like to believe that we are distinctly different from Americans in any number of ways. Sadly, when it comes to politics, we are drifting more and more toward the American model.

And let’s be clear: the federal Conservative party has had a large role to play in creating that “us vs them” approach, an approach that demands the demonization of opponents at the expense of reasoned policy debate. At the same time, those who would otherwise oppose such oversimplification are drawn into the fray. People who are generally thoughtful and open to nuanced consideration line up to sign the “anyone but Harper” petition or pledge, as though that represents a reasonable (and reasoned) choice. Demonization through ads, pronouncements, social media and any other means becomes the order of the day for ALL parties, whether constituted political parties or specific groups pursuing an agenda.

It makes me sad. As a Canadian, I have long felt that we have managed to avoid many of the worst excesses of our southern neighbours. I contend that even as those who support the “anyone but Harper” movement claim that they are acting in the best interests of Canadian democracy, they are, in fact, ensuring that we will continue our slide into the starkly oversimplified polarization that we so readily condemn when we look at the U.S.A. And that, more than anything, would be a dreadful stain on the very democracy we all claim that we hope to protect.