One of the most important concepts in modern democratic politics is that of “reasonable disagreement.” There are a number of different principles or values that most of us subscribe to, at some level, but in cases where they conflict, it is not entirely obvious how they should be ordered. When should public welfare be assigned priority over personal freedom? How much loss of welfare should be accepted in order to promote greater equality? These are the sorts of questions that define the zone of reasonable disagreement in modern politics. The central distinguishing feature of the right-to-left spectrum of political parties is that they propose different answers to these questions, with the right putting more emphasis on personal freedom, the left more emphasis on equality, and the centre focusing on maximizing welfare. This naturally translates into different views about the role of government in society.
The disagreement is “reasonable” because the underlying principles are ones that are very broadly accepted – they are in fact foundational for a liberal democratic society – the disagreement is more one of emphasis. For instance, I think that personal freedom is important – I like having it – I just don’t think it’s as important as some people make it out to be. So I think it’s a bit strange, for instance, that so many Americans are willing to tolerate mass shootings, in order to defend an individual right to bear arms. To me the loss of welfare that is associated with the exercise of that freedom is simply not worth it. At the same time, I would not want to deny the legitimacy of the gun rights position, or rule it out of bounds. It is (as we would put it in political philosophy) a recognizably liberal view, it’s just that it is a rather extreme one, given the magnitude of the tradeoff it is willing to accept in name of personal freedom. So while I’m committed to arguing against the view, and am happy that it gets outvoted in Canada, I don’t think that the people who argue for it are doing anything wrong, or that those who support them are bad people for that reason.
There are, however, some political positions that fall outside the realm of reasonable disagreement. They are “beyond the pale,” in that they contradict fundamental liberal principles or values. For example, while some people may assign very little importance to equality, and may be prepared to tolerate arbitrarily high levels of economic inequality, to deny the fundamental legal equality of all citizens is totally unacceptable – this is, as it were, a non-negotiable principle, which is why it is accepted by all political parties, and all political actors of consequence. That is also why people tend to get very upset – more upset than usual – when a politician crosses the line, and says something that implies, for instance, that men and women are less than fully equal.
Canadians are a fairly moderate bunch, so it’s not very often that a politician completely crosses the line. That’s why I was astonished/appalled/amazed by the press conference held by Chris Alexander and Kellie Leitch three days ago, in order to announce, among other things, a new “tipline” for Canadians to phone in and report “barbaric cultural practices” to the RCMP. It was, I think, the most despicable thing that I have ever seen in Canadian federal politics. I’m not sure which was worse, the frontal assault on Canadian values, or the fact that it was masquerading as a defence of Canadian values.
In case there’s anyone who genuinely doesn’t understand what the problem is with such a “tipline,” allow me to explain. Both legally and practically, it is redundant. The examples that Alexander gave of the suspicions that Canadians are being encouraged to report are honour killings, forced marriages (including marriage of underage girls), female genital mutilation and polygamy. These are all crimes in Canada (and already were crimes, before they were “recriminalized” by the government’s Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act). And we already have crimestoppers, a tipline where people can anonymously report suspected crimes. So what need is there for a special “barbaric cultural practices” tipline?
If it serves no practical or legal purpose, then what is its intent? Why create such a tipline?
To be more concrete, suppose you suspect that your neighbour is a polygamist (not just a serial monogamist, like the rest of us). Should you call crimestoppers? Or should you phone it in as a “barbaric practice”? Or perhaps you suspect that there is domestic violence going on next door, and that the husband may kill his wife. Are you worried that this may be an “honour killing,” or just a regular murder? On what basis will you make your decision? I think we all know the answer to that question. The “barbaric practices” tipline will be used for surveilling and reporting on brown people, while the ordinary crimestoppers line will be used for white people.
Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps Canadians will start keeping a close eye on their Mormon neighbours, and start calling in anything suspicious as a “barbaric practice.” But I doubt it. The government of British Columbia twiddled its thumbs for 23 years before deciding to go after Mormon polygamists in Bountiful. I don’t think there has ever been much of a sense of urgency around this issue, until large numbers of immigrants and refugees started arriving from Muslim countries, such as Pakistan, Iraq or Afghanistan, that permit polygamy.
Furthermore, we all know that practices like “going out and getting drunk, then coming home and beating your wife” (or pleading alcohol intoxication as a mitigating factor in a crime) are not considered cultural practices, even though to a Muslim, who doesn’t drink, and whose culture does not tolerate alcohol consumption, it might be regarded as such. The term “cultural” is obviously meant to refer to particular minority cultures, not the culture of “old-stock” Canadians.
As a result, the only possible consequence of this policy is that it will encourage Canadians to discriminate against one another on ethno-religious grounds. I don’t see how the tipline idea can be construed in any other way – there is no innocent way of interpreting it. Furthermore, it is in effect proposing that additional resources be invested in policing certain ethno-religious groups (first and foremost, Muslims) rather than others (say, Christians, Mormons) where individuals may be committing the same crimes. And this is being done primarily for electoral advantage – because anyone who criticizes the idea can easily be caricatured as tolerating the barbaric practices, and that it puts the NDP in a difficult position, given the current atmosphere of insecurity in Quebec.
This is, as far as I am concerned, beyond the pale. Indeed, what the Conservative Party is doing, both with its Zelo Tolerance act, and with this new set of proposals, is not all that different from what the city council in Hérouxville did. And yet in some ways it’s worse, because of the insidiousness of it. It’s not just the government being awful to, say, refugees, it’s the government encouraging ordinary Canadians to be awful to each other. It’s proposing to take tax dollars and spend them in ways that actively promote distrust and discrimination toward immigrants. What’s worse, the entire program would be self-defeating, since stigmatizing minority groups makes it more difficult for them to integrate into Canadian society, and thus less likely to adapt to Canadian values.
On a personal note, I should say that I was extremely disappointed to see Kellie Leitch participating in this terrible spectacle. I have always followed her career with some interest, since thanks to her age and choice of profession, she and I have a number of mutual friends, both from her time as an undergraduate at Queen’s and from her surgical residency at University of Toronto. All of them have described her to me as essentially decent, with perhaps her only major flaw being a streak of intense partisanship. She is also my local MP. To see her disgracing herself like that on the national stage – essentially pandering to islamophobia, presumably because central headquarters told her it would win them votes – was something that I found extremely sad and uncomfortable to watch.
Readers of the blog will know that I usually lean towards the more charitable interpretation of people’s motives. And I try very hard to be charitable with conservatives, in part because I disagree with them on so many points, and so am likely to be biased in the direction of being uncharitable. Thus I have really been working hard to resist the tendency – which many of my colleagues have – of writing off the Conservative Party entirely, as being outside the scope of “reasonable” political conviction. I’ve also been doing what I can to encourage centre-right conservatives to be more assertive in controlling the drift into extreme ideological positions that one can see in the right wing in Canada. At this point, however, I’m starting to have trouble. My most charitable reading of the current situation is that it can be blamed on this Australian strategist they brought in, who’s basically been telling them to play the anti-Islam card, because hey, what does he care what happens to the country – he doesn’t have to live here (never thought I would find myself missing Jenni Byrne!). But even then, I’m having doubts. Psychologically, I’m starting to feel that I should put the Conservative Party of Canada into the same mental category that most people put the National Front in France – not as a representative of a reasonable political position, but as more of a cancer on the body politic. For the moment I’m still resisting that – holding out some faith in the decency of Canadians – but the way things are going I may need to reconsider.
The one thing I can say, however, is that after Friday’s press conference, I can no longer regard it as morally acceptable for anyone to vote for the Conservative Party of Canada. A week ago, I could still persuade myself that reasonable people could disagree over how to vote in this election, but no longer.
P.S. Just an extra, somewhat academic thought to balance things out: people who support the classification of certain offences as “hate crimes” should perhaps take pause to consider what critics of these statutes have been saying for a while, which is that it is a bad idea to start taking into consideration motives that go beyond criminal intent when defining and punishing crimes.