Charter Ramblings

Many years ago I read a book called The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson. The backdrop against which the story occurs is a relatively near future society where traditional notions of country and state have been largely supplanted by notions of "phyles" - tribes or groups having similar ethnic or cultural characteristics. One of the main characters, a Mr. John Hackworth, belongs to the Neo-Victorian phyle who, like their namesake, are a somewhat prudish lot who follow a rigid and absolute moral code.

The book is good, but one scene in particular has stayed with me. Hackworth is having a conversation with a few of his fellow Neo-Victorians. One of them asks him what he thinks about "hypocrisy". Hackworth doesn't quite know what to make of this question but eventually concedes, somewhat half-heartedly, that it's a "vice" - something that should be avoided. This eventually leads to a discussion about our time (the past, from their perspective) which, according to the Neo-Victorians, is characterized by a rampant moral and cultural relativism. It's a time where all philosophies, no matter how depraved, have equal value. In such a world, it's obviously unacceptable to criticize another person's beliefs because doing so would require some sort of objective standard of morality which, in their view, our age sorely lacks.

They go on to note that "hypocrite" was about the only moral criticism you could level at another person, because in a world where it's taboo to attack the contents of another's beliefs, the one thing you can do is attack the consistency with which they're applied.

The Focus on Hypocrisy

If you live in Canada, and haven't been under a rock, you've at least heard of the Charter Of Quebec Values. Among other things, it's an attempt to ban civil servants, including teachers, doctors, nurses, and daycare workers, from wearing what is deemed to be "ostentatious" religious garb. Hijabs, turbans, kippahs and large crucifixes are all targets.

Notably, the Charter stops short of removing what is probably the most ostentatious religious symbol of them all: the large crucifix in the Quebec National Assembly, claiming that it's a cultural rather than religious symbol. The crucifix on top of Mount Royal apparently gets to stay as well.

The blatant hypocrisy at work here is...distasteful. Other people use more colourful words to describe it. But I always think back to that scene in The Diamond Age whenever someone denounces the Charter as being hypocritical - and just stops there, as if nothing more needed to be said. Because while it's undoubtedly true that the Charter is laughingly inconsistent, I just don't think that is, in and of itself, particularly relevant.

You know how people say that Hitler was voted into power? That the German people - well, minus the Jews, I guess - explicitly voted for Nazism, anti-semitism and brutality, and that this is a good reason to be leary of unchecked democratic power? How are you supposed to react when someone hears that and responds with something like:

Yeah, but I hear Hitler actually rigged the election. He didn't actually win.

I get irritated whenever someone says that because this is basically an attempt to change the subject. The real subject is the dangers of unchecked democratic power, not the actual election results per se. Ultimately, even if the election was rigged, the question you need to ask yourself is whether it matters. Would things be different for you if you were confronted with incontrovertible evidence that Hitler was, in fact, legitimately voted into power?

(I'm aware of Godwin's Law. I am not, however, comparing anyone to Nazis; I'm merely using their rise to power to illustrate a point)

Now ask yourself this: what if the Charter were consistent? What if the PQ decided to take down the cross in the National Assembly? What if they decided to remove the crucifix on top of Mount Royal? What if they decided to rename all the streets with the word "Saint" in them to something less...Catholic? In short, what if they managed to convince you that the Charter really was about secularism, and not about drawing an arbitrary line in the sand between "us" and "them". Would you support it? Because that, in my opinion, is a much more interesting question. And - I'm just being honest here - I'm not 100% sure what my answer would be.

Here's the thing: my reaction to the Charter wasn't quite the knee-jerk revulsion shared by most people I know. I'm actually extremely sympathetic to its stated goals. I'm an atheist. I believe very strongly in the separation of Church and State. I don't think religion has any place in the legislative machinery of the State. I am for the removal of both the crucifix in the National Assembly and the one on top of Mount Royal. I am for the elimination of group prayer from council meetings and public schools. I am, in short, a secularist - a consistent one, I like to think.

I also have libertarian tendencies. My guiding principles when it comes to dealing with other people really boil down to "live and let live" and "don't be a dick". So that basically means I'm pro-gay-marriage, pro-choice, and pro-free-speech. I'm also an advocate of letting people wear whatever the hell they want to wear and I've blogged before about my disgust with the banning of the niqab in France. Everyone has the absolute right to dress as they please, and it is most definitely not anyone's job to adjust to anyone else's expectations.

But, that being said, this doesn't mean that you can wear what you like and expect there to be no consequences. Choices have consequences, including what you choose to wear.

This is true for everyone. It is my firm and absolute right to wear jogging pants to a job interview and, I might add, doing so has no bearing whatsoever on whether I can perform the duties of said job to the satisfaction of my employer. But I wouldn't bet on being hired, and no one would argue the point.

Or, to follow the analogy a little further, I have a right to wear a Coke t-shirt to a job interview with PepsiCo. Again, wearing a Coke t-shirt, in theory, has no bearing on whether I can perform the job in question. But it's probably fair to say that wearing a Coke t-shirt runs counter to the values espoused by PepsiCo. I probably wouldn't get hired, and again no one would argue the point.

So, yes, you have the absolute right to wear a hijab, or a turban, or a big, shiny crucifix but understand that if you do, you will necessarily be closing some doors to yourself. You'll probably have a hard time making friends if you insist on covering your face. You probably won't ever be a mainstream swimsuit model. If you had inclinations towards acting, you'd probably be restricted to a very specific kind of role. And if you had aspirations towards civil service then, well, you're probably going to have rough time of it if the government in question lists a militant kind of secularism as one of its core values. Or, to put it another way, I don't think it's completely insane, on the face of it, for a militantly secular government to expect its employees to dress the part.

And, to be clear, I think a militantly secular government is a good thing. Let me reiterate, for the record: I approve wholeheartedly of the separation of Church and State. I approve of Laicite. So, with that in mind, let me explain why everything I just said is completely wrong.

Why Everything I Just Said Is Wrong

Well, okay, not completely wrong. I stand by all of it, as far as it goes. But there are some underlying assumptions running through all those thoughts that, when all is said and done, are of questionable validity.

For one thing, alot of people assume that the Charter is actually about the separation of Church and State. I've had this talk with several pro-Charter people. The Charter is strictly about promoting secularism, so the story goes, and anyone who is anti-Charter must be pro-female-circumcision or something.

This, too, is wrong.

I mean, when did a "lack of secularism" in the government become an actual problem? Have there been documented instances of turban or hijab wearing civil servants who have performed their governmental duties in a less than secular manner? I doubt it. So this seems suspicious from the get-go.

The suspicion mounts with the refusal to remove the crucifix in the National Assembly. It seems to me that if your true goal was the promotion of secularism, then a giant crucifix in the middle of the very room where you pass all of your laws, installed there by none other than Quebec's very own Catholic dictator, would be the very first thing on the chopping block.

But once again my mind goes back to The Diamond Age. Is this a case of harping on the hypocrisy of the Charter without really caring about its the actual contents? This is something that I actually worry about, but I think I've come to the conclusion that we're talking about two different things. Let's be clear: this isn't hypocrisy in The Diamond Age sense. This isn't an accidental lack of consistency in an otherwise well-meaning Charter. The hypocrisy, in this case, reveals an entirely different mindset than my own.

The people who drafted the Charter do not believe in the same things I do. I value freedom of choice and living with the consequences of those choices. I value a secular government. But when you hear famous Quebecers coming out in favour of the Charter with lines like "I would be afraid to be treated by a Muslim doctor wearing a veil" and "veiled women are being manipulated", you begin to realize that, as it currently stands, the Charter has nothing at all to do with secularism and everything to do with dividing Quebec society into an "us" part and a "them" part. It's an attempt to turn a minority government into a majority government by pandering to a xenophobic element in Quebec society. As a political strategy, it's actually pretty smart. And it may work.

The Charter bans religious garb for civil servants in the name of the separation of Church and State. But if that's not really your goal, and you're daring enough to call a crucifix (and only a crucifix) a "cultural artifact", then what's to stop you from banning hijabs and turbans in public as well? For reason I've already stated, that kind of thing would go completely against my beliefs, but I actually know at least one or two pro-Charter people for whom it wouldn't. And if you think it's unlikely to happen, please remember that this is already a reality in France.

So I guess, at the end of the day, hypocrisy does matter. Because sometimes it's the inconsistencies that tell you whether a person is truly a philosophical ally, or whether his or her beliefs just happen to share, by sheer coincidence, something in common with yours.

Wallowing In Christian Privilege

One term that gets bandied around feminist blogs is "male privilege". If you muscle past the somewhat natural urge (if you're male) to be defensive about it, you begin to see it everywhere. The trick to dealing with it is to realize that "male privilege" isn't something that you "did" but rather something that you simply "have". It's not something that's "your fault" in the sense of being blameworthy. Once you realize that, it's easier to confront. Male privilege is at work, for example, when a man can be unimpressive at math without it being a stigma against his entire sex. It's at work when he can be unattractive and not have it be a major factor in his career prospects.

I believe that there's something called "Christian privilege", and that it's at the very heart of the Charter. It's at work when a Christian is granted the right to regard the crucifix as a purely cultural artifact, completely devoid of any spiritual significance. It's at work when eating fish on Fridays, or putting up a Christmas tree, are considered nothing more than harmless, non-denominational traditions. It's at work when people try to peddle Christian symbols as universal representations of liberal, Western values, like freedom of speech and the pursuit of happiness. It's at work when I can have Christmas off with my family without anyone thinking that I'm homophobic, or that that I'm pro-life, or that I'm a Creationist. It's at work when a woman can wear a cross without anyone assuming that there's someone lurking in the background making her wear it

These are privileges that are notably not granted to, say, Muslims. A woman who wears a hijab is doing so for religious reasons - or she's being forced, also for religious reasons. She is most definitely not doing it for cultural reasons, or because she happens to think it looks nice on her, or because she's having a bad hair day or because she simply doesn't think about it. And Allah help her if she observes Ramadan as well...

To be sure, hijabs and burqas can be used as tools of oppression. The mistake people make is conflating the oppression with the specific items of clothing. Being against oppression is good; being against particular items of clothing is not.

It's also not particularly hard to find examples of Christian symbols being used as tools of oppression. In no particular order, off the top of my head, we have:

  • The Inquisition
  • The Crusades
  • The Salem Witch Trials
  • Any of the myriad stories of Catholic child abuse

I can only imagine what kind of examples someone whose knowledge of history isn't paltry could come up with.

And yet, today, people, in general, would be hard pressed to equate a crucifix with any these things. And I completely agree - a crucifix doesn't have to mean something bad. But if we're going to go down that road, it's only fair to offer the same courtesy to everyone.

Quebecers are amongst the most secular minded people in this country, and yet I can only assume that a significant number of them felt uncomfortable with the idea of the crucifix being taken down in the National Assembly. I think the lesson to take from that is not that Quebecers are more Catholic than they let on, but rather that being attached to one's spiritual symbols and traditions is an entirely different thing from being overtly and actively religious.

I'm an atheist, and for a long time I wore a crucifix around my neck (it belonged to my grandmother). But I haven't been to Mass in years, I don't eat fish on Fridays, I'm pro-choice and I'm pro-birth-control. So why did I wear it at all? I don't know for sure, but I will note that sometimes sentimentality and force of habit trumps all.

The Road Forward

I never know how to end these things.

If the Charter is passed, it probably won't pass the Supreme Court. It remains to be seen if the government would then invoke the notwithstanding clause. It would not be the first time the Quebec government has had to use it. It makes me wonder if there's a limit to the number of times a province can invoke the notwithstanding clause.

In any case, it's all very sad. This is actually a pretty nice place to live, all things considered. It's a shame that something like this comes along once in a while to mar it.

I predict that we're headed for a provincial election pretty soon. I think it's safe to say that I won't be voting PQ. But most of the other parties don't look that great either. It's a shame the NDP never got around to forming a provincial party in Quebec.

If the NDP or Green party is listening, now would be a good time to finally run some candidates in my riding!

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