The Society of Difference

An excerpt from the eighth annual LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecture, March 2, 2007, Vancouver

mosaic of a face
Illustration by Marco Cibola

The kind of responsible government which gave us our democracy and our exercising of it as Canadians over the last 150 years is a paradigm for what has happened in many Western industrialized countries.

Where Canada is different is that we have virtually insisted on making our society one which accepts and wishes to integrate people from all over the world. At first glance, this seems like a foolish and far-fetched notion. How do you make a country out of such disparate elements? How can you have children wearing turbans and veils and head scarves? What do you do about your Christmas tree and about the fact that people observing Ramadan may be very cross for forty days because they can’t eat between sunrise and sunset? A lot of these questions seem very trivial, and yet their very triviality makes them important in the day-to-day lives of Canadians.

First of all, we must conquer the ignorance that we have about other people’s habits and customs. How many people understand that every year Christian festivals like Easter and Muslim ones like Id al-Fitr are set by the phases of the moon? Do we know what the purpose is of going to confession in the Catholic religion or making the pilgrimage to Mecca in Islam? Can we balance out what Buddhist monks actually mean when they wear their saffron robes and carry begging bowls without asking for food? Do we actually know what circumcision signifies? Without attempting to overcome this ignorance and learn something about others, we can only hide in refuges of bigotry and prejudice.

The recent remarkable event in a small Quebec village which has prohibited women from being stoned to death is simply a manifestation of an unease with not only what is not understood but what seems to be not understandable. The fact that there is nobody asking to stone a woman to death or that the situation hasn’t really arisen where female circumcision could be banned is immaterial in this particular case because it’s really all about fear of the unknown. And yet, in this little town there are black families and black adopted children who are happily accepted by the village. Again, it’s a case of “but we know them.” The fear of the unknown is so huge that it can crush all reasonable judgments. The fact that the black family is headed by a former school principal and a town councillor who has lived in the village for thirty years and that the Haitian boy who was adopted by a white family has been happily at school and integrated for seven years does not seem like a contradiction to the rules against stoning. Perhaps this is simply a way of people reacting to what they fear is going to happen to them rather than what is actually happening.

That is why we must persist in our creation of a country which has every possible difference in it. We must encourage difference. When Voltaire went into exile in England and saw the numerous religious sects that had grown up, he observed: “If there were only one religion in England, there would be danger of despotism; if there were only two, they would cut each other’s throats. But there are thirty, and they live in peace.”

We have seen this in our own history in Canada when there were only Catholics and Protestants. We had the Orange Order attempting to rip apart the fabric of the country and tear Catholicism out of it like a living sacrifice. And the Catholic ultramontane movement demonized Protestants, circling themselves in narrow prejudice. As the country opened up to everyone over the next hundred years, these pitched forces declined completely in vitality. The difference of dozens led to a harmonious civil society.

Unquestionably, the multiplication of difference has helped us to not tear each other’s throats out, but on the other hand we have to recognize that the introduction of difference has often meant that there is a period, not always concurrent, of misunderstanding, miscalculation, confusion, and adjustment. But if the long-term goal is to create a democratic project in which everyone will have a positive civic identity, then we simply have to be constructively patient while the rough places and the rough edges get smoothed and eventually buffed.

It’s a great challenge for us as Canadians because they’re not managing to pull it off in Britain, France, Germany, Holland, or even in Scandinavia, which we have always regarded as the holy of holies of democratization. Here we are out on our own, doing different things with different people.

It’s important to remember how we got here, that we started out with a very narrow base, and that as we have enlarged it, it has brought us to a greater and greater understanding of what life can be like in a civil society. After all, a civil society is a relationship of human beings, and without that fundamental condition we do not have the basis with which to negotiate our living together. When pessimistic voices are raised as to how long we can continue with our project, we have to be ready to come up with ideas which will not solve future problems but will give us exercised muscles with which to deal with problems.

I’m always extremely interested when people worry and have worried in the past about things like the rcmp wearing turbans. It caused varying degrees of consternation at the time, but now rcmp wear turbans and nobody thinks twice as they see the Musical Ride with one or two turbans in it. The very fact that people are allowed to express their identity without coercion is something which we should be grateful for. The discussion and the unease also are something we should be relaxed about. We don’t have to be happy about everything — de Gaulle with his typical acerbic asceticism said, “Happiness is for idiots.”

The way in which difference manifested culturally or expressed philosophically or religiously can help us is that we can learn about what others believe and try to understand even if we don’t believe the same thing; but also, if a society is healthy it will look at what other people believe and it will cause them to look at their own beliefs and see what foundations they have for their Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, or atheism. To be able to observe others in their belief systems and to question one’s own beliefs is an inherently healthy thing. The worse thing is looking at other people’s belief systems and assuming them to be bad because they are not your own. This is the very basis and foundation of the feeling of exclusion because it seeks to destroy connectedness and community. I believe it to be simply a bad thing.

The concept of acceptance incorporates both understanding and tolerance. Acceptance in our country, I think, can be anything from wanting to know all about it — and embracing it — to “I don’t want to know anything about it as long as it doesn’t hurt me.” Most people fall somewhere in between and don’t think about it one way or the other. We do not ever want to get into a position in this country where we force people to decide what they want one way or the other. The idea of coercion in a country like Canada is anathema and counter to everything our history and experience has taught us.

Therefore, I’m very much for the promotion of what I’d like to call passive acceptance. Now I know most people don’t like to use the word “passive” because it somehow seems to mean impotence, weakness, or indifference. I don’t think it needs to imply these things. And although it is the popular creed in our society to be active and make everything work, I would like to plead for a little bit of room in a society that is as mixed as ours for passivity. This kind of passivity I don’t see as exactly the opposite of action. The passivity I am talking about is mixed with a kind of watchfulness and of course, always, latent curiosity. In passive acceptance there must be built-in curiosity as well.

In unitary states, like the European ones, where the nation is defined on racial, religious, and cultural grounds, it is very hard to accept things that make difference visible. The French have gone into pretzel-like shapes in order to be able to ban the hijab in public schools. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face! It seems that this kind of secularism can only define itself against religion and cannot take as a larger and more interesting ground where all cultures are accepted as equal in value and can be openly discussed and debated. It is this very nature of openness and debate which is so lacking in these tempests that arise over modes of dress and accoutrements.

We are a secular state and we have long accepted ourselves that way. But the virtue of the passivity of our secularism is what saves us from the kind of ludicrous assertion of our right to live in this negative space. The outward signs of difference are ones which we must learn to accept. Why is it that as travellers we mourn the loss of native dress in Thailand and note with regret the ubiquity of blue jeans? The cultural inheritance that clothing brings is something which is innately important to people who feel that they’ve been uprooted in other ways.

My mother insisted on making her own cheongsam — the colonial Chinese woman’s dress of Hong Kong — for the first twenty years of her life in Canada. With a great deal of skill, she managed to replicate what she was familiar with in her youth and her expression of her own femininity. Eventually she mixed these with trouser suits, blouses, but as far as I remember there were only one or two skirts and they were never the kind of dresses that I was used to wearing from the time I was a tiny child — what my mother would have called European dress. Her clothing gave her a security and also a kind of stardom — nobody in Ottawa looked like her in the 1940s.

In our country, of course, the obvious differences are in colour and forms. But one of the most interesting things about the Canadian climate with its three seasons of winter is that national dress is subsumed by the covering of a dark blue anorak and overshoes. Perhaps the visible sense of difference is not as great in our country because of the chilling effect of our winter. I don’t think it’s a trivial thing, but on the otherhand I think that dressing for winter equalizes all of us because we know we have to wrap ourselves up completely in order not to die. A lot of the early-twentieth-century settlers did come from snowy climates — the burly men in sheep coats and their sturdy wives. Once we have accepted anoraks and overshoes, we are equalized.

But there are unseen differences which govern people’s lives and customs and which we should also be curious about. We know that in Canada arranged marriages are still very much a desired and accepted custom among some Canadians from South Asia. In talking to my friends and acquaintances who had arranged marriages, I sense that they have a certain complacency about them. They feel that they have worked out as well as most marriages, which is not saying very much considering our divorce statistics. There has been no real concerted effort to understand what the advantages of arranged marriages are. We hear only of the headlines of the violence against women to gain their dowries or a sense that women are totally victimized because they are “married off.” When you realize the subtlety and the care with which these marriages are arranged, you realize the wisdom of them: the organization of people of common background, the agreement of families, the acceptance of the same values. It is interesting that when we talk about marriages in the Western mode, it is always about the choice having somehow gone wrong. And that again is an expression of guilt for the individual because a choice must, by definition, be made by one person. In the arranged marriage, the whole of the small community is involved, and that is both a support and a diffuser of the values of the relationship.

There are invisible signs of difference, like male circumcision, which is a religious rite among Jews and Muslims. To the wider population, it is an optional health precaution, sometimes in fashion but currently quite out of fashion, it appears. Or was circumcision originally a health precaution for desert societies which became a religious ritual? In any case, it does not seem to have stopped the reproductive capabilities of the cultures that use it. Again, I think curiosity could play a great role in helping us to understand why others behave as they do, but also to examine our own rituals and purposes.

A society of difference allows for comparisons and contrasts, and that is one of its great values. It is not about which is better. Again, we have to keep in mind always that each of us is equal in our human evolution and that we are all contemporaries. It is fascinating to see how we have dealt with the questions of our private lives as well as our public faces, given that we all live now together in this world. I think it is very hard for us to accept the fact that we are equal in our evolutionary capacities but that we are different in our manner of expressing them.

Adrienne Clarkson