Monday, February 12, 2007

The Herouxville saga, Part II
(See part I below.)

Part of what is offensive about the Herouxville norms is the way that they run together very different issues and blur distinctions-- as if there are some relevant (or even meaningful) similarities among burning widows (which, to the best of my knowledge, hasn't really been an endemic practice in Montreal), covering one's face on a day that's not Halloween, wishing to eat kosher or halal food, an questioning the prevalence of crosses and Christmas celebrations. It's offensive to imply that there are immigrants champing at the bit to burn widows; that's been the focus of a considerable amount of attention. But it's also offensive to take the ordinary stuff of cultural and religious practice (much of which doesn't require any formal 'reasonable accommodation' in law, just basic freedoms) and link them to widow-burning.

So to draw some distinctions, the Herouxville norms include:

1) some norms of fundamental nonviolence and the criminal law: no burning, no 'beating to death.' There are few of these, but they happen early and set the tone. They also allow a faux-naive "what could be wrong with what we said?" defense: "It's true that we have a norm against widow-burning, and we should, so what's the problem?"

Note that the English text refers to death by "beating" in public places and to burning, so it appears that the only specific practice being singled out is sati. But the French text, which is the more fundamental, refers to lapidation, that is, stoning, not "beating." "Stoning" calls up a much more culturally- and religiously-specific practice.

2) some highly contested issues of the accommodation of individual religious practice, including the wearing of kirpans and of headscarves or veils. These are settled by fiat, with no acknowledgement that "we" in Quebec (I don't include myself here, since I'm not a citizen) have disagreed about these questions, and that there is live democratic and legal debate about them. "We" don't wear real or symbolic weapons to school, "we" don't cover our faces except on Halloween.

3) some highly contested and difficult questions (also settled by fiat) about what we'll call, following Dworkin, external preferences: the preferences of some members of some religions governing the behavior of others, not necessarily of their religion. Men and women doctors, nursing home caregivers, and police officers may interact with you whether you're a man or a woman. Men and women, boys and girls, may be in the public swimming pool at the same time as you. People in commercial gyms may be dressed in ways that seem to you immodest, and on display in windows where you can see them. This last is a reference to a dispute that arose in Montreal this winter; some Orthodox Jewish men successfully petitioned a YMCA near their neighborhood to cover its windows so that they would not be subjected to the sight of women in exercise clothes.

This is where a great deal of the current lines of debate and dispute are. (Compare this post from Ingrid Robeyns at Crooked Timber last week: "This morning a neighbour asked me whether I wouldn’t be interested in enrolling my son for such a [Dutch municipal] pre-playgroup. But, she added, it’s only for mothers, fathers are not allowed. Apparently the justification is that otherwise mothers from certain ethnic minorities, where gender segregation is an important issue, would not attend with their children." These questions aren't unique to Canada or Quebec.) And I think that we multiculturalists (that 'we' does include me) haven't done enough to talk or think about these questions, or even to acknowledge them. There is a difference between toleration of internal or individual religious norms (headscarves, say) and allowing them to be exported via external preferences. Religions may ban heresy-- that is, they may forbid heretics from remaining members of the religion-- but they may not legitimately seek its criminalization, or otherwise seek to alter the surrounding society such that it would be impossible for them ever to encounter heresy or to know that it exists. They may not export their internal rules of religious belief.

And yet, there are hard questions both of manners and of prudence about how hard a line to take. It's polite to go at least a bit out of one's way to accommodate the preferences of others; it's impolite to go out of one's way to offend them. (It would be impolite for me to dart my head around trying to force my eyes into the field of vision of an Orthodox Jewish woman trying to avoid eye contact with me.) And manners are a category of morals. Prudence: as I've written about here before, a hard line about making no accommodation in medical care for preferences for same-sex interactions may well have the result that, say, women in the most conservative religious groups are prevented from seeking medical care altogether.

But of course gender nondiscrimination in professional settings is a deeply important value, and becomes very hard to sustain if the frequency of people expressing such preferences rises dramatically. We know the analogy about catering to the external preferences of racist-- and, while many people think the analogy is obviously conclusive or obviously fallacious, I'm much more torn about it. There's something obviously right and something obviously wrong about it-- the rights of women in the workplace are at stake, yet in medical settings in particular the preferences at stake are about oneself as much as they are about the behavior of others, and it doesn't seem obviously bgoted to me for women to prefer women medical providers. If that's right, then it is bigoted to say, "It's all well and good for secular women to prefer women medical providers, but religious women may not have, or express, such a preference." And so on. It's impossible to stay off the slope of preferences regarding interactions with others, and impossible to roll the whole way down the hill because, in a diverse society, our preferences will vary and aren't compatible or compossible.

As I said, this stuff is hard. And I think its importance has been underacknowledged except by full-on critics of multiculturalism such as Okin and Barry. Some opposition to multicultural accommodation comes from a concern about freedom and equality in the larger society, and from a concern about the export of the cultural group's norms to that society. This was Pim Fortuyn's cause, and it's not going away.

4) A lot of autoexemptions. "You may not have religion, but we will have crosses and Christmases and what have you and will call them part of our history and culture and patrimony, and so they're not religious and you may not question them." I do especially love the 'no face-covering except on Halloween,' which can't help but make you wonder just what kind of principle is supposed to be governing.

5) And a fair number of declarations about cultural practices that don't require any special accommodation from the majority, but which are nonetheless presented as governing norms to which members of minorities will be expected to conform. We eat all kinds of meat, and don't care how it's butchered, and freely mix it with other foodstuffs.

So the list mixes together public norms which are obviously right (but which no one is challenging, and which it's offensive to treat as if they are under threat); purely private cultural norms which it's actually wrong to demand minorities to adopt; fiat resolution of a number of legitimately-disputed questions of public norms; and some overt hypocrisy about the way Catholicism will be treated.

Multiculturalists need to recognize these distinctions, too. It's not racist or bigoted or illegitimate to raise and worry about the stuff in category (3). It's not racist or bigoted or illegitimate to take a strong no-accommodation stance on that category, though I think it's wrong. The problem with (1) isn't its content but its implication about what immigrants are like; the problem with (5) isn't the implication (it really is the case that Jews and Muslims have norms about food that aren't typical Quebecois norms) but its content.

Running throughout-- and here I want to tread delicately-- there is a problematic 'we.' Cultural and religious accommodation are treated as a gift that we post-Catholic francophone Quebecois might, but probably will not, offer to you religious and cultural immigrants-- as if there had not been native-born Jews and Muslims in Quebec for generations, or as if they were not full members of the society; as if the question of Catholicism's status hadn't been an object of massive democratic dispute within Quebec for generations; as if there were uniformity and consensus where there has always already been disagreement and debate. That said, the question of the 'we' of Quebec is a tricky one, and one that-- as an Anglophone non-Canadian Montrealais-- I don't want to focus on. There is something pretty bad about the first-person plural pronouns in the Herouxville Norms, but I don't at all think that multiculturalism is incompatible with a recognition of the distinct and enduring character of Quebec as a society.

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