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?


Rene said...

The PQ is pursuing a secularist agenda much akin to that pursued by the Socialist Party in France, that you can agree with or disagree with, but which falls within the range of secularist policies pursued by democratic republics, admittedly less so by parliamentary democracies such as Canada.

They view this as a extension of the Quiet revolution which sought to separate Church from State in government bodies and public institutions. The Marois law of 1998 put an end to confessional school commissions ( Catholic or Protestant) which had been constitutionally protected and established in their place school commissions based on language. Such legislative initiative can hardly be attributed to "racism and fascism".

In Canada's history of parliamentary democracy there are examples of discriminatory legislation prohibiting and targeting the religious, cultural and linguistic rights of national minorities, but such laws were directed against Catholics of French Canadian origin in Western Canada a century past.

Generally it's Reform Party types who engage in media discussion hysteria with shouts of "fascism" and "concentration camps" when addressing the issue of the as yet unsubmitted secularist legislation by the PQ government, which may or may not win approval in the Quebec National Assembly. I point out to such individuals that secularism does not equate to fascism, that the current secularist French Republic notwithstanding, the "secularists" of the ill-fated Spanish Republic in the 1930's were engaged in a civil war with an assortment of monarchists, the Catholic church, Italian fascists, German Nazis and so forth. One can disagree with the intended legislation, once the actual terms and scope is clarified, but it is ridiculous to equate a secularist initiative with fascism ....

Kirby Evans said...

Nothing you have said here Rene is compelling to me. First of all, to suggest that other countries have pursued similar legislative tactics therefore somehow this precludes the act from being racist is obviously not a meaningful or cogent argument. Secondly, it is richly ironic that you would cite France as an example since many legislators in France have used overtly and uninhibited racist language in their pursuit of so-called secularism. Thirdly, just saying something is not racist doesn't mean it is a priori not racist. When the Southern states in the US instituted the Jim Crow laws, many legislators were at pains to claim that they weren't racially motivated but rather were concerned with the effective functioning of democracy. People in the South who didn't want to be perceived as racist were eager to parrot these arguments but it didn't make the JIm Crow laws any less racist. Fourthly, your example of Spain actually works against your argument because the comparison is so specious. The Spanish republic was in no way concerned with simple acts of self-expression but were trying to dismantle a state in which the Catholic Church owned much of the country and had incredible and direct political power. It is not my comparison here which is ridiculous, in fact, but yours. Because in a country like Spain were much of the wealth was owned by the church and many of the legislators were overtly motivated by their catholicism, one could make an argument that changing that was a process of 'secularism.' But such a issue doesn't even vaguely apply here. Fifthly, neither you, nor anyone else has adequately demonstrated how symbolic acts of religious self-expression are different from similar political acts which means far from the comparison to fascism being "ridiculous," rather it is quite cogent.

In summation, nothing you have said convinces me even vaguely that this process is free of racism (or facism for that matter). More importantly, however, once again you have failed to provide any actual arguments in favour of such legislation. You can say that you think "secularism" is a good idea, but that is not an argument. Legislation to prohibit people's self expression might, in some cases, be necessary, but for such legislation to gain my support it has to have a clear and convincing argument behind it. I have heard not a single one here from you or anyone else. In the absence of a solid argument I am compelled to conclude that such legislation is arbitrary and capricious or must be motivated by an unstated agenda.

Owen Gray said...

I can't equate secularism with fascism. But I do think Kirby makes a valid point about restricting self expression -- which is detrimental to any democracy.

Kirby Evans said...

Thanks for your comment Owen.

I have not, in fact equated secularism with fascism. Furthermore, as I have tried to demonstrate, it is not at all clear that restricting people's symbolic self expression has anything to do with secularism. Secularism as a government policy relates to ensuring that the state has no tie to a particular religion. A university professor wearing a yarmulke or a doctor wearing a hijab in no way establishes a relationship of the state to religion, and any argument to establish such a relationship seems laughable to me. Ergo, what we have here has nothing, in fact, to do with secularism. Secularism is, rather, a convenient excuse for what is either a arbitrary and capricious government power or a latently racist policy (because anyone with any brain knows who will be targeted). And since fundamental aspects of fascism are the shutting down of self-expression, the arbitrary power of the state, and the dampening of public discourse, I hold by my statements and have heard nothing to dissuade me. In fact, I have heard no real arguments at all. The racists of the South did a better job of defending Jim Crow than anyone has been at defending this prospective policy in Quebec.