Sex education and the paradoxes of social conservatism

People often describe the current conservative movement in Canada, as well as several other countries, as involving an “improbable” coalition, assembling groups that seem to have rather little in common. The two most often pointed to are libertarians and Christian “social conservatives,” who not only take different positions on many specific questions – such as abortion, physician-assisted suicide, marijuana, gay marriage, etc. – but have fundamentally different views about the role of the state in society. Social conservatives generally want a more intrusive state, one that takes sides on controversial moral questions and enforces particular views. In other words, they reject what we in political theory call “liberal neutrality,” or the doctrine of limited government that says the state has no business trying to control behaviour in the private domain. Libertarians, on the other hand, want a state that is even less intrusive than the one we have – ideally, one that stays out of people’s lives almost entirely, intervening only when necessary to defend their rights. Libertarians, therefore, endorse what one might call “liberal neutrality plus.” They are not just liberal, but ultraliberal.

This would appear to make for strange bedfellows. And yet it is not so strange, if one moves beyond abstract political ideology and looks at the specific policies that each group winds up favouring. That is because social conservatives often realize that they can’t get their first-best outcome, and so they wind up supporting what is, for them, a second-best outcome, which is often a libertarian arrangement. This is because of what Rawls called “the fact of pluralism.” Living in a pluralistic society, especially one in which people subscribe to all kinds of different religions, the first-best outcome for the Christian social conservative, which is some kind of close-knit biblical community, becomes practically unobtainable. So instead, they wind up supporting a state that does as little as possible, so that they can retreat into isolated communities, as free as possible from “liberal” cultural influences, in order to preserve their “values.” This brings them into agreement with many libertarians, who want to make it easier for people to opt out of shared institutional arrangements.

There is no better illustration of this dynamic than in the current debate over sex education in Ontario public schools. Right now we have a group of religious fundamentalists pushing back hard against the new curriculum, but because the coalition is made up of Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Sikhs (primarily), they all realize that none of them can get their first-best arrangement – which is a curriculum that teaches their specific “values” (e.g. the importance of modesty, purity, chastity, etc.). So what they are demanding is that there be no curriculum at all. The banner they are rallying under is one of “parental choice” – something that is, of course, quite congenial to the libertarian.

I want to unpack this a little bit, in order to show how the logic of the position unfolds – how different people wind up taking the positions that they take. In particular, I want to explain how a bunch of people who are essentially hostile to liberalism could wind up pushing for institutional arrangements that are even more liberal than the one they are opposing. I think this is interesting both inherently, but also politically, when it comes to understanding the significance of what I have been calling the “Kenney coalition” – the recent alliance, forged largely in the outer suburbs of Toronto, of “social conservatives” coming from religious backgrounds of various stripes, including a very large number of recent immigrants. (I should mention that approximately 3.5 million people live in these “outer suburbs,” giving them a population just slightly smaller than that of the province of Alberta.)

First, it’s important to be clear about what the people protesting the sex education curriculum are demanding. Above all, it is important to recognize that they have already been offered the standard “multicultural” accommodation, which is that they are entitled to opt out from most of the curriculum (the sex part, not the parts dealing with “health, safety or human rights.”) So for the most part, their children don’t have to go to the classes if they don’t want them to. Many of the parents and leaders of the movement reject this, however, on the grounds that they don’t want anyone else’s children being taught the curriculum either. Why? Because those children might talk to their children. So, for instance, there has been a great deal of fuss over the plan to teach children the names of their body parts in Grade 1. Parents complain that, even if they opt out of this, or keep their children home that day, the children will still learn those words, because all the other children will have learned them. This they regard as unacceptable.

I mention this just to make it clear that the demands being made by the protestors are ones that simply cannot be satisfied within the context of a liberal multicultural society. The idea that you should be able to control the content of what other people’s children learn, because it conflicts with your own religious values, is basically a demand that you be able to impose your values on others. It’s as if Jews were to get together and insist that ham sandwiches not be served in the cafeteria, because other people’s children might eat them, and might even mention to their children how great they taste. Admittedly, it’s hard to maintain food taboos in a society where the majority doesn’t share them, but that doesn’t give you an argument for imposing your taboos on others. The same obviously goes for sexual taboos.

So just to be clear, the parents who are currently protesting the curriculum are making demands that cannot be accommodated within the “standard framework” of a liberal society. The demands are, in that sense, illiberal (which is why media commentary has been uniformly unsympathetic). There is, however, one route that remains open, and that is what pushes these parents in the direction of ultraliberalism. Notice that the conflict is only occurring in the public school system. This is why, among Christians, only Protestant evangelicals have been getting exercised. Conspicuously absent has been the voice of conservative Catholics. Why? Because Catholics have their own school system in Ontario, and their own curriculum, which they are able to tailor to suit their particular “values.”

So there is one thing that the religiously motivated protestors could coherently demand – their own school systems. In other words, they could demand the dissolution of the public school system in its entirely (since there is no way of reconciling the conflicting demands on that system, given that parents are demanding the right to dictate what other people’s children are being taught), to be replaced by a set of religious schools catering to every constituency. Again, just to be clear, the protestors are not currently demanding this – they are simply making demands that can only be satisfied in this way (or else through home-schooling). Furthermore, separate schools would not be an entirely crazy demand, since it is, in effect, what the Progressive Conservative party was promising several elections back (John Tory, while leader, promised to make all private school tuition fully tax-deductible, basically allowing anyone to opt out of the public school system with compensation). Furthermore, if Catholics have publicly funded private schools, why shouldn’t everyone else?

Again, one can see how this arrangement would be highly congenial to the libertarian, and it provides a nice illustration of the pressures that lead from a social conservative position to a libertarian one. The problem, however, as the PC party learned several elections back, is that the broader public has very little interest in this sort of ultra-liberalism. If you ask people in Ontario whether they would rather get rid of the Catholic school system, or allow every religious minority to have its own school system, the majority preference will be to get rid of the Catholic school system. Otherwise how on earth could you integrate immigrants? The idea that we should be making it easy for parents to teach their children whatever they want, and should be able to dramatically limit their child’s exposure to “mainstream” society, is one that many people baulk at. For instance, one way of limiting your child’s exposure to liberal values is to ensure that they don’t learn English. Or what if parents decide that they don’t want their children learning any science? One can see here how this becomes the “paradox” of social conservatism. People who worry a lot about “shared values” and the possibility that “the centre cannot hold” wind up recommending institutional arrangements that generate – or rather, exacerbate – precisely those concerns.

This is all worth keeping in mind, when it comes to assessing the prospects of the Kenney coalition. Those who fret remind me of people who worry about the far-right parties in Europe entering into some kind of alliance. This doesn’t strike me as particularly worrisome, precisely because the major thing that these parties share is hatred of foreigners (i.e. each other), which rather limits the extent to which they can cooperate with one another. Similarly, the only thing that the various conservative religious groups have in common is that the current set of liberal arrangements is incompatible with their vision of how society should be organized. And yet each group has a different vision of how things should be organized. Because of these differences, along with the strictness of their demands (in particular, their need to control the social “environment,” and thus to limit the freedoms of others), the only arrangement that could meet all of their demands is an ultraliberal one. And the ultraliberal arrangement is one that, in many respects, and from their own perspective, is even worse than the liberal one. (“Choice” is not such a great slogan, when what you really want are limits on sexual freedom and expression.)

The only way out of this blind alley, as far as I can see, is for these groups to recognize that they need to adjust their demands, or their expectations, in order to make them compatible with the basic structural constraints that are imposed by life in a liberal, pluralistic society. (As a bonus, if they were to do so, they might discover — surprise surprise — that this is precisely where the norms of liberal society come from. They are the set of rules that we settle upon, once we realize that we have no choice but to live together under a set of shared institutions, and that this will require compromise on all sides.)

So what should we say to the protestors, who are currently camped out in parks, creating “alternative schools” for their children? I’m inclined to say that nothing should be done – we should just wait, and let winter take care of them. That or they really should be home-schooling their children. I mentioned Farina Siddiqui, one of the protest leaders, in my previous post on this topic. She has been threatening to withdraw her children from the public system and to home-school them. But listening to a few interviews with her, it’s become clear to me that this is probably what she should do, since the demands that she is making simply cannot be accommodated by the public school system. So it’s really not clear why she’s out protesting, instead of just teaching her kids — and I suspect it’s just a matter of time before she realizes this.


Sex education and the paradoxes of social conservatism — 8 Comments

  1. I, too, am glad to have found your blog. I agree with quite a bit in this article, but maybe not this: “Similarly, the only thing that the various conservative religious groups have in common is that the current set of liberal arrangements is incompatible with their vision of how society should be organized. And yet each group has a different vision of how things should be organized.”

    Seems to me that conservative religious groups have in common the suppression of women and girls, and the regulation of female sexuality. That might help them work together for longer than you’d think.

  2. “Seems to me that conservative religious groups have in common the suppression of women and girls, and the regulation of female sexuality. That might help them work together for longer than you’d think.”

    This is a good point. I hope you are wrong Lynne but I fear you might not be.

  3. Another option is school vouchers which would grow the market for alternatives overnight, and provide the opportunity for an entrepreneurial approach to solving the problem, or give middle class parents a shot at paying for preexisting “elite” private schools.

  4. “Another option is school vouchers which would grow the market for alternatives overnight, and provide the opportunity for an entrepreneurial approach to solving the problem, or give middle class parents a shot at paying for preexisting “elite” private schools.”

    Perhaps public education is not a widget to be bought and sold on the market like a new smartphone?

  5. It’s amazing how market types like to suggest these things as if they’ve never been tried and there’s no empirical record of how they work. We know what vouchers do: Impoverish the public system and create “alternatives” that are statistically no better than public schools once you account for student selection and neighbourhood incomes. But some private parties make a lot of money and teacher unions get weakened so who cares if the supposed intent of the policy is a failure, the side effects are wonderful. Almost like that was the real point to begin with…

  6. For the protesting parents, sex education raises issues of sexual “ethics” that are beyond the sexual “health” frame of the sex educators. When I was a kid in the 1950s, public schools were basically protestant schools so issues of ethical pluralism were not a big challenge. I’d like to know more about how our public school system now deals with “ethical multiculturalism.”