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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Canadian enough?

Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity.
– Herbert Marshall McLuhan

As promised, the rallies in opposition to Bill C-51 went ahead and, I suspect, they have had the impact I would have predicted: they made a newspaper here and there and probably were reported in other media but, overall, the voices raised in protest will join the ranks of others at similar events, events important perhaps to the few who were involved, but largely ignored by the general populace. Most people went about their business confident that the country wasn’t going to descend into dictatorship and become a police state anytime soon. One need only look to Russia for an example of what such a process really looks like. As one commentator pointed out, can anyone imagine a scenario where Stephen Harper would take charge, personally, of an investigation into the assassination of a political rival? In Canada, we leave the policing to the police; in Russia, Vladimir Putin increasingly seems to be the sole voice of law and order, if you can call it that. But I digress (but only slightly).

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I’m mentioning Bill C-51 because it segues nicely with another controversy that I believe is rooted in a similar, core issue: “values”. I’m referring of course, to the court ruling which supported a woman’s right to wear a niqab to a citizenship ceremony and the subsequent decision by the federal government to appeal that ruling. In a manner similar to the response to C-51, both opponents and proponents of either side are lining up and leaning toward “outrage”, the default position it seems these days for just about anything one might support or decry.

On the one hand you have those who view the controversy as a matter of religious freedom, as outlined in Canada’s charter. Personally, the law being the law, I expect this view to prevail. It seems pretty clear that the woman in question has no other reason for wanting to present herself veiled beyond the convictions of her faith. The other side interests me far more by virtue of its important but nebulous appeal to “Canadian values”, as in “covering your face while you are participating in a citizenship ceremony goes against Canadian values”.

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I know many other fine examples of oversimplification exist but rarely does one of this caliber come to the forefront of public discussion. Whoever makes the claim for this violation of values assumes a willingness among those hearing it to simply nod assent and express something along the lines of “yes, as a Canadian, I don’t want anyone covering his/her face while swearing allegiance to the queen and the country”.

At the risk of being accused of treason, sedition or some other soon-to-be-defined offence, I have to ask: what “value” is it exactly that the niqab-wearer is violating? Please don’t think I am disparaging this position in favour of the other. As I’ve already said, I think the law falls on the side of the niqab wearer. But making the issue a question of some overarching set of Canadian values is of especial interest to me because it assumes that such an animal exists and is clearly understood by all. I can only speak for myself here, but am I alone in feeling that any such a value-set is far from clear?

We have instruments of law that outline rights which seem to coincide with, or emerge from, values of some kind, but the niqab example serves to illustrate extremely well just how complicated things can become when elements are added to the equation that probably no one envisioned when the charter was devised. In particular, public fear of the radicalized versions of Islam embodied in al-Qaida, ISIS and others creates an atmosphere where people can feel that something they treasure – even if articulating that “something” might be difficult – faces a tangible threat.

And the niqab is both tangible and exotic. I can’t recall having seen one around Saint John until a few years ago. Having spoken with some who are adamant in their opposition to the niqab, I know they associate it, negatively, with all kinds of things that might fit within that Canadian value arena: oppressed women, extremism, religious fanaticism, etc. And I’m with them inasmuch as I believe values are key to the manifestations of angst we see over both Bill C-51 and the niqab-wearer.

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However, just what those values are presents a problem. When the Prime Minister appeals grandly to Canadian values while announcing plans to appeal the niqab ruling, he does a disservice to us all. Politically, such a narrow opposition may serve him well but the entire question deserves a closer look. IS it consistent with being Canadian to go around in public places with your identity obscured? Will we equally require teenagers and others to remove their hoodies, a feature of certain apparel which rivals the niqab when it comes to hiding your face?

Canadians have been accustomed to define themselves by saying what they are not.
– William Kilbourn

Really, the larger question concerns that age-old dilemma: what, precisely, does it mean to be Canadian? Growing up and later studying Canadian literature, I heard a variety of voices on the subject. The only place consensus seemed clear concerned our neighbours to the south: whatever it meant to be a Canadian, we definitely WEREN’T American.

Perhaps, as the world becomes increasingly complex and we are challenged to accommodate more and more differences from some vaguely stated, but commonly felt, norm, the time has come to give some thought to just what values we do cherish as Canadians. My point always would be, simply, it isn’t a stark choice between tolerance and intolerance. Somewhere amidst the fear of terrorism, anxiety over things that are new to many, and a general unease as the world seems increasingly chaotic lies a Canadian identity. Maybe it’s asking too much that we try to articulate clearly some common principles that define us but we certainly won’t know unless we try. If that is to happen, we need to scale back the “us” vs “them” rhetoric and, in today’s public arena, that might be the hardest task of all.

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