Sunday, September 16, 2007

On accommodation

My remarks at the "Reasonable Accommodation" panel on Friday follow.

Five minutes is too short a time for an argument, and accordingly I won’t offer one. Instead I’ll offer some observations and draw some distinctions—recognizing that the relevance of the distinctions rests in part on arguments I won’t have time to offer.

First observation: the debate about reasonable accommodation is normal politics. It is not a crisis. It does not, as some Anglophone Canadians seem ready to suppose, demonstrate some distinctive, deep, dyed-in-the-pur-laine racism of Quebec society. It is one of the recurring facts about normal democratic politics that there is a cleavage between relatively urban, wealthy, cosmopolitan, liberal, and highly-educated groups and relatively rural, working-class, conservative, and less-educated groups, especially on questions of internationalism, free trade, immigration, and multiculturalism. One often sees an elite consensus across the major left-right parties on those issues; that often creates an opening for a more-populist party to apparently come out of nowhere and give voice to rural and working-class frustrations; and inevitably the urban cosmopolitan elites are shocked. Herouxville and the rise of the ADQ represent something routine in constitutional democracies; they’re part of the give-and-take of democratic politics.

First distinction: Reasonable accommodation is not immigration, and neither is bilingualism. There have been deliberate attempts to blur all of these boundaries. But issues of reasonable accommodation do not arise only in the context of recent immigrants to Quebec or to Canada, and most immigrants raise no questions of reasonable accommodation. Questions of reasonable accommodation typically arise about religious minorities, some of whom like Orthodox Jews have been in Montreal for generations. Conversely, most immigrants to Quebec come from secular or Catholic backgrounds and never request anything that could be classed as reasonable accommodation. It is especially important not to run together either reasonable accommodation or immigration with bilingualism, as has sometimes been done. Multiculturalism is not a mere stalking horse for Anglophone Canada in Quebec. And it is dangerous, potentially explosive, to encourage Francophone Quebecois to take out generations of complicated relationships to Anglophone Canada on either immigrants or religious minorities.

Second observation: “reasonable accommodation” as a phrase shows the limits of linguistic tricks and framing devices in politics. “Reasonable accommodation” should be impossible to resist or deny; it’s got “reasonable” built right into the name! But of course it’s not. The large part of the population that knows it’s skeptical about multiculturalism won’t be fooled into changing its mind by being told ex ante that the accommodations are reasonable ones.

Second distinction, which follows: Not all accommodation is reasonable. Some accommodations are less-than-reasonable; some are forbidden by basic justice or human rights, for example. And some accommodations are more-than-reasonable; they are actually demanded by basic justice, religious freedom, and human rights. In the middle are all the complicated cases involving something more like manners than like justice. This is what’s most important, and where there’s the most work to be done. In many cases, when religious believers have a religious duty that conflicts with a relatively weaker obligation to the state, they have a basic right to accommodation. When their religious duty would prevent them from taking part in the public sphere—from serving in the Mounties or the military, from voting, from attending public schools, from being able to go to court—then liberal democracies have a very powerful reason in justice to make accommodation, to bring the minorities into the public sphere rather than ghettoizing them. And when the religion commands violence, whether against group members or against outsiders, it’s morally prohibited to bend the criminal law to accommodate them—and indeed no one in Canada to the best of my knowledge has tried to request such accommodation, though there are cases in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Agreeing on the easy cases seems not to be so easy. The Herouxville norms mixed together easy right answers, like no stoning of women, with spectacularly wrong answers, like an insistence that real Quebecois eat any kind of meat butchered any old way and therefore Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and vegetarians need not apply. But even with the easy right answers in place, there would be plenty of hard questions about manners. Many of these involve questions of seeing and being seen, and many involve sex and gender. The obligation to wear a headscarf or a yarmulke, the obligation to eat kosher or halal food, are from the state’s perspective self-regarding. They’re private rights. But all of the conflicts involving religious men seeing scantily clad women, or religious women being scantily clad, or men not shaking women’s hands in the workplace, or women wishing not to be examined by male doctors—these aren’t self-regarding. They involve sometimes-onerous requests that non-believers or believers in other religious change their own behavior. At the same time it’s not prohibited by justice for compromises to sometimes be made—though the compromises may well be irksome to both sides for a while.