Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Quebec and Personal Expression. . . .

I have been so offended by the recently proposed legislation in Quebec that I felt compelled, despite a long silence, to speak up, if only for reasons of catharsis. First of all let me say at the outset that I believe that this legislation, supposedly intended to establish so-called Quebec 'values,' is, at best, racially incendiary and, at worst, actually motivated by fascism and racism. For years I have believed that, despite leftist apologism, much of the Quebec legislation that is supposedly intended to "protect" Quebec culture, is, in fact, racism in disguise. And the proposed "Quebec values" legislation confirms my worst feelings about the latent racism that has been gradually emerging from 'la belle province.'

Tonight on CBC the leftist commentator Ian Capstick was swift and assertive in his support for any legislation that outlaws any sort of religious symbol in publicly owned space. Though Capstick is essentially on the left, I often disagree with his arguments. Though he is sometime insightful, I find that Capstick is often pedantic and very seldom demonstrates a deep understanding, sophistication, or a concern for the 'big-picture' in political matters. And while I said that I often disagree with his "arguments," in this case he simply didn't present any. Instead, much like the religious ideologies that I assume he opposes, he simply made the basic assertion that he thought religious symbols had 'no place' in public places (by which, he confirmed to me, he meant publicly owned spaces such as government offices). But, of course, as we all know, an assertion in itself never constitutes and argument. And the problem is that in my thirty five years of political consciousness I have never heard a clear argument (let alone a convincing one) why individual professions of faith in the form of symbols such as, for example, a yarmulke, a cross, or a Sikh turban is in any way problematic. I understand that religious activism can be a problem. I understand that, in a democracy, we can't have the state sanctioning a particular religious belief. But nothing in my experience suggests to me that simple acts of religious self-expression in visually symbolic form, are problematic or threatening to democracy in any way. In fact, I am convinced that self-expression, in personal religious symbols, promotes democracy because it promotes discourse, diversity, and personal understanding between people. If my university professor, say, wears a yarmulke, I am in no way threatened nor is my learning experience diminished. provided he is an effective, open, and supportive teacher. If my doctor wears a hijab, it doesn't undermine her ability to give me proper medical care. And because religious communities are so diverse, these symbolic acts suggest little to me concerning the 'values' of the professor or the doctor. I may share fewer normative values with an atheist doctor or an agnostic professor. Admirable values are certainly not something that belong to any one group, whether religious or otherwise. I have met good Christians, good Muslims, good atheists, good Buddhist, etc; people who share many, if not most of my values.

But, perhaps most importantly, I believe that freedom of self expression is itself a profoundly  important value for a just and decent society. And by undermining such acts (whether they are in the form of restricting religious headwear or some other, secular, expression) the Party Quebecois is engaging in an act of performative contradiction. To outlaw simple, non-threating, acts of symbolic self-expression is a dangerous act of imposition that takes us, as a society, in the very opposite direction than most of us on the left want to go. Such an act is a thin edge of a perilous wedge. For, it begs the question, will we soon be restricted from political self-expression? I am not sure I see a significant theoretical difference between wearing a cross around one's neck and, say, donning a Che Guevara t-shirt. Both the shirt and the cross express certain ideological notions, basic beliefs that might have deep implications concerning one's normative values.

Thus, I contend that, restricting acts of self-expression in a university, a government office, or a hospital, is not only deeply problematic, it is a dangerous precedent. I want to live in a diverse society where people hold different beliefs and we can engage in acts of discursive redemption concerning those beliefs. If Habermas's Theory of Communicative Action taught me anything, it is that we build community through discourse not through the restriction of discourse. And acts of self-expression are essential to discourse. Furthermore, in many cases it is in our publicly owned spaces that are conducive to discourse and understanding.

The PQ is engaging in the kind of political strategy that is, I believe, always dangerous and eventually always fails. Ultimately you cannot protect or promote culture through acts of restriction. The promotion of culture is an organic process that grows out of a rich commitment to language, philosophy, and the arts. What is happening in Quebec is, I believe, a deep act of racism disguised as legislative reason. Ultimately the people who will pay will be non-whites and non-Christians who will become an easy target because of a legislative licence. Military Chaplains will still wear dog-collars and crosses. No one will ask a nun in a hospital to remove her habit. No one in the Catholic studies department at McGill will be compelled to remove their cross. All of this compels us to ask, what are the values that the PQ thinks are Quebec values and what are they really promoting? And, while we are asking questions, what does Ian Capstick think such legal restrictions on personal expression will achieve?