Monday, February 19, 2007

The Herouxville Saga: Taylor Speaks...

to Le Devoir. I'll work on translating some passages for future blogging tomorrow morning.

Translated highlights follow.

"Where is the key problem? Why is it that there are major divisions? It is that there are various visions of Québécois society, of what constitutes its identity, of the way in which this identity could be in danger: it is that which creates serious problems and deep uneasiness. And it is necessary to find a way to begin this debate and to discuss this."

There may also be some urgency in deescalating the debate. We can take comfort from some comparisons. Mr. Taylor has spent long periods in Europe in recent years and recalls that, as regards the management of diversity, "there are many worse situations than Quebec’s". It is enough to note the poisoned character of the debate in Germany and Denmark, for example, to remind ourselves of this. "I saw debates about social identity that were much more venomous than is ours in Quebec", he says, citing the examples like the “crisis” of the Danish cartoons and the suburban riots in France. But it is urgent, to avoid a descent into such a condition, for society to enter into to have a large-scale discussion: "One can slip towards a situation like the Danish one or, on the contrary, move some ways away from that outcome. And I said myself that, insofar as we have the any chance to influence the outcome, it is worth the effort to begin."

Diplomatically, Mr. Taylor suggests that there is enough blame to go around, and that all must try to take a step towards the others. Every side must resist the temptation "to remain in its corner while launching insults at the others". On the one hand, he suggests that Hérouxville’s position is dubious: "the lifestyle code conveyed absolutely dreadful stereotypes in connection with the Muslim situation. It was insulting. That is not how one begins a discussion", he says. On the other hand, there was something absurd about the reaction. "The charge of racism against the people of Hérouxville was excessive. I do not say that there is no racism in Quebec. But to use this term, it is also a way, in today’s world, to make it impossible to have a discussion, to completely delegitimize the adversary." Similarly, he finds excessive the identification of a politician like Mario Dumont as "the Québécois Jean-Marie Le Pen."

"That’s wrong. It should be known that Le Pen, he is about torture in Algeria, he is an anti-semite who specialized in the code words filled with sinister allusions, he is a man who wants to return the immigrants to their original countries." Thus, Charles Taylor, even if he says himself "not very impressed" by the reactions such as that of Hérouxville, believes that the effort should be made to understand that which lies beneath it. "We have the duty to understand where that comes from and not simply to attribute it to the most illegitimate motive, like those who charge racism do."

Still, for him, this is all something of a enigma. "I do not claim to understand this phenomenon myself. I am very montréalais, I always lived in Montreal, always lived with diversity within my family."

It's of course very appropriate of Taylor to begin his commission's work with a strong effort to appear open-minded and fair. Still, this seems to me like rather a lot of generosity to Herouxville.

I do appreciate Taylor's openness about the degree to which this is a distinctively intra-Quebec dispute about the society's identity. He's a leading champion of one vision of Quebec's character-- a very montréalais vision. As often happens with urban-rural divides, I think it's been easy for Montrealers to believe that their vision was shared more widely in the rest of society than it actually is. (And the Herouxville debate has, among other things, made explicit some anti-Montreal animus in the north.)

The comparison with Europe may lower the heat, and that's welcome, though I'd also like to hear what he thinks about the cartoon controversy.

And the indictment of the charge of racism just in virtue of its tendency to shut down debate has affinities with the last week's anti-Semitism debate at Open University (see here for the most recent entry)). In both cases, that's an indictment if what one is after is a discussion, at any price, but it's not a direct critique of the charge's truth. The same holds true for charges in the other direction, e.g. "apartheid," "stoning women." Such charges are incivil, and uncondusive to conversation. But it's not clear to me that that makes them impermissible; it certainly doesn't make them false.

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