When I was seven or eight years old and living in California, I went on a school trip to a public swimming pool. Such experiences should be the material of pleasant childhood memories, but this one was memorable for more than a playful day in the water. There was a girl in my class who refused to go in the water because there was a black girl in the pool. When questioned about her reluctance to swim the girl told my teacher something to the effect that the black girl was 'polluting' the water. If I recall correctly, the girl in my class was unable to articulate what exactly was going to happen if she got into the same pool with a black girl, she just knew (presumably from what parents had told her) that it was bad. Luckily California was one of the more liberal places in the United States and I did not see a lot of this sort of racism directly when I was growing up. But a few incidents like this made me empirically aware that racism was there and it was real. Later when I was going to high school in Denver I had a jewish friend who attended another high school and he told me about an incident in which his social studies class had had an open discussion about race and religion. During that conversation a girl had asked my friend why Jews sacrificed Christian babies in religious ceremonies. At the time I was old enough to be genuinely shocked by such ignorance, but not experienced enough or jaded enough to understand just how ignorant many people are about other people's lives and beliefs.
Today I continue to exist simultaneously in both in a state of shock and cynicism about people's ignorance, gullibility, and their bizarre sense of priorities.
If human beings can be said to have one generalized skill, it seems to be hypocrisy. This is a fact that was continually brought home to me during the gay marriage debate in the public sphere. People who oppose gay marriage uniformly make appeals to the Bible and their supposed Christian beliefs. But one doesn't need to be a religious scholar to understand how inconsistent practically all such people are. The Bible is a rather bizarre historical document that says a lot of things and practically all Christians I have met pick and choose which parts they want to emphasize or believe. The Bible seems to legitimize selling you daughter into slavery (Exodus 21:7), it says that women shouldn't be allowed to speak in church (1 Corinthians 14:34), it outlaws trimming your beard (Leviticus 19:27), it outlaws divorce (1 Corinthians 7:10-11) Etc, etc. . . . Yet the vehemence with which many Christians oppose gay marriage while ignoring various other biblical edicts is amazing.
Racism and bigotry often rely on this kind of selective concern with other people's lives. Opposition to gay marriage really has nothing to do with religious beliefs. If it did, those who oppose it would be a lot more consistent in their observances of religious edicts. Instead people who don't like homosexuality for whatever reason are just looking for external justifications for opposing it. But what these people seldom do is look inside themselves to understand their real, pre-rational reasons for opposing homosexuality. They don't ask themselves the fairly straightforward question "why am so concerned with what consenting adults are doing with their own lives, things that have no effect on me or my life?" If people were honest with themselves in their pursuit of such questions the world would be a very different place.
But racists and bigots, most of whom seek to prey on peoples' fears and gullibility in the pursuit of their own power and prestige, are usually very careful to avoid the promotion of questions concerning causality and effect. I remember about a year ago (in the wake of the "don't commit sociology" remark from Harper) a Conservative spokesperson on a network news program actually said "I don't want to know what causes terrorism!" I can't imagine a more revealing statement about the contemporary conservative attitude toward life. Similarly, the current government doesn't want Canadians to think about why the most important question in our sociopolitical life should be what difference does it make what clothing a handful of consenting, mostly educated, women chose to wear. They don't want you to think about it because any vaguely rational person will realize that regardless of what I think about feminism or women's rights, what a few women chose to wear will have no baring on my life as long as they aren't telling me or others what to wear. And perhaps more importantly, even if I oppose this or that cultural/religious practice, as long as it is not curtailing the rights of others, I will gain nothing by seeking to outlaw it. In fact there is a very good chance that attempts to outlaw such practices will simply further entrench people's commitment to those practices. As the great Canadian jurist Louise Arbour has said, it is only by welcoming women who wear niqabs into the public sphere that "they will gain economic power and be exposed to other views."
But emotion holds sway over many people's ideas and thoughts. The fact that opposition to the niqab is so strong in Quebec is not really that surprising, for example. Many people in Quebec have felt that Francophone culture in north america has long been persecuted and threatened. It is not surprising, therefore, that many of them would express fear about people that they perceive to be "outsiders." The sad part about this belief that it fails to recognize that you can't stop any culture in time, and you can't 'save' it by insulating it against difference and otherness. Culture is like a shark, it has to keep moving forward or it dies. And one of the ways that culture moves forward is by embracing diversity and otherness, by enriching itself through the input of the perceived 'other.'
I was talking yesterday to the mother of one of my daughter's friends who, like me, has English as well as Canadian citizenship. Despite the fact that this woman, again like me, is what we used to refer to as a WASP, she expressed her genuine fear with the divisive and racist thrust of our government's politics. While claiming to be appealing to some abstract, non-existent group of "old-stock" Canadians, what the Conservatives are really doing is attempting to stoke fear of 'cultural contamination.' And this mother who was born in England and settled here has a genuine felling that she and her children (who were born in Canada) have suddenly become second-class citizens, people who could eventually be deported on the whim of the government of the day. This is what divisiveness and fear of otherness does, it poisons the nation, it stifles difference, it stagnates culture and leads inexorably to fascism.