Wednesday, September 07, 2016

A conversation about Canadian values

Conservative Party of Canada leadership contender Kellie Leitch has made headlines by calling for immigrants to Canada to be screened for ‘Canadian values’. Several of her colleagues have spoken out against the idea, and CBC did a good job of pointing to some of the practical problems with the policy.

The Leitch campaign has responded by saying that people who don’t want to test for Canadian values don’t want to have a conversation about what Canadian values are. But when Canadians reject the idea she's put forward for consideration, a conversation about those values is exactly what we’re participating in. If she’s sincere in not understanding this, and not simply trying to froth up a corrosive populist rage for personal political gain (something that would be hostile to the very conversation she claims to want!), what is causing Dr. Leitch to talk past so many people?*

To answer this question, it’s helpful to look at how, when, and at what level we enshrine our values into law in a liberal democracy, and what makes such a system of rules resilient and lasting in a world where we can’t control everything. In her book The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress, Virginia Postrel proposes a metaphor:
“In How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand examines how buildings are adapted to new uses over time – and what makes for resilient architecture that can “learn.” His research provides a useful metaphor for dynamic systems in general. A building, he notes, contains six nested systems: site, structure (the foundation and load-bearing elements), skin (the exterior), services (wiring, plumbing, heating, etc.), space plan (the interior layout), and stuff. The farther out the system, the more permanent. Moving around furniture (stuff) is easy; altering a foundation (structure) extremely difficult…
A well-designed, adaptable building, he argues, respects the different speeds and different functions of these nested layers. It keeps them separate, allowing “slippage” so that the quick inner layers can change without disrupting the more permanent systems. (You don’t have to tear up the foundation to fix the plumbing.)” (Postrel, 143)
In our lives, we have layers of rules – the foundational ones that hold the system together are, rightly and by design, difficult to change. At the other end, the personal rules for governing our lives require only that we change our minds. The foundations are the stuff protected by documents like The Charter as well as universally accepted, uncontroversial laws like those prohibiting assault, theft, and murder.

Bound (and enabled!) by our broadest rules are many flexible, nested systems, like churches (a women's club at that church), political parties (a campus club within that party), or private clubs (and their executives and committees), with their own rules, all of which compete for followers throughout our society while by being bound by our legal foundations.

Someone in Canada who wants to have their marriage governed by Sharia law can do so in terms of how the women in the family will dress and who makes spending decisions, but by law they may not harm or kill people who would like to leave such an agreement. Likewise, if conservative Catholic parents in Canada want to teach their children that homosexuality is a sin, they may, but they may not imprison or abuse their gay child to try to convince her to change her ways.

Constrained by foundational Canadian values of peace, equality before the law, and freedom, we try to learn together what constitutes right and wrong, struggle with our most personal and important decisions, and through civil discourse and personal actions help both our own and our shared values evolve with knowledge and experience. The reasons that prohibitions of murder, violence, and discrimination under the law are important is that they are hostile to attempts to learn and improve our world. We don't enshrine the rules governing personal morality because, albeit at a lower cost, they would have the same effect.

All of that is to say that what 'Canadian values' are is multiple, competing, and evolving. In a world where we don’t have perfect foresight, the rules we enshrine are the type of rules that allow us to learn and update our values to reflect better arguments and new information in a way that static, enshrined norms simply can't.

I'm not the first to point out that the Conservative Party of Canada only removed opposition to same sex marriage from its official policy document this past spring. I think this is positive, but understand that what makes conservatives conservative is their reliance on what’s proven to work and skepticism of change that’s meant to be open-ended. By this understanding Leitch is showing her conservative stripes when she tries to freeze some of our values where they are today, but with a caveat: she is proposing that we throw out even more foundational rules to do so, something much more likely to unsettle Canadian society.

Those foundations, our constrained but flexible rules, are what allowed same sex marriage to become politically possible, but are also what allowed enough conservatives to make their own peace with the law that it became politically uncontroversial. They allow us to progress as a society in a way that brings more people willingly along with us. They provide space for conservatives to be skeptical of and push back against radical change and to accept when experience has proven them wrong, and they allow for others to experiment and to accept when conservatives are proven right. This social trial-and-error, unlike a forced change imposed on us, is meaningful and lasting, and until there are angels among us, it's the best we can do.

What Leitch is proposing is that we lay the plumbing in the foundation. It would cut the legs out from under the process that has helped the Conservative Party of Canada become, in the words of one of its supporters, “a little more Canadian”. Her proposal would disenfranchise Canadians from our search for moral truth in a world where no one can claim to know it for sure, instead putting that decision, at least in part, in the hands of government.

In the process we’d become a lot less Canadian.

*A brief note: I have no interest in whether or not this is a smart political move for the Leitch campaign, though I hope that it's not. In fact, I hope it will be disastrous for her campaign to have proposed something like this.

Assuming she is sincere, though, I agree strongly with Dr. Leitch that it's important that we have this conversation, given what's happening with populist movements hostile to liberalism around the world. But I think that unless we understand that both proposing
and rejecting ideas like this is part of that conversation, we could be treading on dangerous ground.


Russ Campbell said...

Your words: "If she’s sincere in not understanding this, and not simply trying to froth up a corrosive populist rage for personal political gain…"

I got this far in you post and didn't see the point of continuing. Is this your idea of a "conversation"? How about a respectful debate that doesn't include phrases like, "trying to froth up a corrosive populist rage." I'm a conservative and I read about Ms. Leitch's proposal and, at no time did I feel anything close to rage or come even close to frothing up.

Have we reached the stage in Canada where we demonize--or become so outraged at--someone for simply proposing newcomers embrace our traditional values? It may be an impractical proposal--even distasteful to some--but we can still show the proposer some respect. Can't we? Shouldn't we?

Dollops said...

I disagree in almost every detail with this article. A “conversation about these values” is what we are not allowed to have. The words “corrosive populist rage” illustrate perfectly why that conversation is not allowed, they being the attitude of the people who are in control of the forums in which the conversation would be held. “How dare”, they ask, “the ordinary people raise questions that we, the beautiful and sensitive ones, teach are discriminatory?” Discrimination, Ms Bufton, is good; it is how we common folk separate wholesome change from unwanted adventures. “(A)ttempts to learn and improve our world” along with the wisdom gained from experience are the stuff of conservatism and the justification for discrimination as a part of the process of improving. A society's foundational rules are not at all like the solid foundation of a building because the former have their roots in pre-history – woe betide the nation that departs from received wisdom – and the latter tends to be state-of-the-art. Buildings that outlive their designed function are easily replaced; societies can be led astray but always return to their foundational nature when corrupting influences are removed. It is the conservative's duty to expose the corrupting influences and bring the society back to reasonable sifting of new notions about our values. It would seem that Ms Leitch is offering something that no other contender for the Conservative Party is, candour. It has been a long time since any politician has dumped the PC garbage and spoke what every ordinary person has known all along.

Janet Bufton said...

Russ and Dollops, thanks to you both. A response can be found here:

Russ, I hope you find the argument absent the offending passage (and with my apologies for it) more thought-provoking.

Bernier's bad bet

Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press Maxime Bernier is taking a gamble. He believes that there is a large, disenfranchised voting bloc in Canada...