Yearning for a Good Canadian Stew


Internationally, the Canadian identity elicits feelings of trust, kindness, and equity. Canadians are seen to be uncontroversial, cooperative, polite to a fault, habitually apologetic, and reliable in times of need. Some might say that at our worse we are uninvolved. Maybe complacent. Never violent, except when we are, in which case – we’re truly sorry.

This hyper-civility—which I think best characterizes the Canadian identity—has had, however, an unintended impact on the national discourse. Driven by the desire to promote a safe and inclusive space wherein pluralism can flourish, Canada’s culture of civic engagement has a tendency to suppress and/or marginalize certain ideas derived from moral and spiritual convictions. As these ideas are sifted out of the public forum, a type of technocratic rationality (see footnote 1) remains, leaving the discourse somewhat shallow and impersonal.

As a refugee, public servant, and a civically engaged citizen, my experience of “becoming Canadian” has been one of increasing dissonance. I’m encouraged to have non-normative beliefs and ideas, so long as I keep them private. Our public forum seems unwilling to entertain ideas that are not rooted in some technocratic epistemic process. I see this in the way we treat our Indigenous Peoples, in the way non-liberal ideas are aggressively suppressed in academia, and in how we gradually assimilate our immigrants by praising their “normative” qualities, while ignoring their particularities.

I’ve tried to understand why this happens. Perhaps there’s a fear in this country toward unfamiliar worldviews that are incongruent with some dominant Canadian identity. Alternatively, this movement towards an impersonal discourse might just be a way of neutralizing the public sphere: to protect the masses from the influence of ideologues. However, by promoting an impersonal discourse we risk homogenizing our landscape of ideas, while preserving only a superficial sort of diversity. Michael Sandel, political philosopher at Harvard University offers the following insight:

In pluralist societies, we hesitate to bring moral argument into the heart of the public square for fear of disagreement, and conflict, and controversy; for fear of imposing on some the values of others, and so we develop a habit of resistance. It’s as if we asked democratic citizens to leave their moral and spiritual convictions outside when they enter the public square, and it’s for good and understandable reasons. We think it’s for the sake of mutual respect and toleration, but the result is that we create an empty, morally vacant, hollow public discourse given over to technocratic talk or to shouting matches. And this moral vacuum, this void is eventually filled by strident nationalism, by xenophobia, and narrow, intolerant moralisms. The conclusion I draw from this is that we need to aim at a higher pluralism, not based on a mere toleration—asking people to set aside their moral views when they enter the public square—but a pluralism of engaging with, not ignoring or avoiding, the moral convictions that democratic citizens care about. Not because this will lead to agreements … but because it will, I think, make for a healthier democracy.(2)

Transcribed from talk given at 2017 LaFontaine-Baldwin lecture.

The type of multiculturalism that I currently see in Canada is one that merely acknowledges and tolerates the existence of diversity. This is the multiculturalism of food festivals and stage dances; of stock-photographs of multi-ethnic groups for promotional materials; equitable hiring practices; and ceremonial gestures of recognition. On their own, these activities fail to recognize the sub-cutaneous complexities of human reality.

Diversity extends beyond the simple colours, sounds, tastes, and displays of culture. These are the superficial boundary lines that distinguish “us” from “them”; the taxonomic properties that we are justifiably compelled to preserve. However, human reality encompasses a trove of ideas, worldviews, and metaphysical insights about our moral and social landscape. Like maps sketched out on ancient scrolls, these devices allow us to navigate the complex jungles of society, and can even offer us a glimpse into surprising cosmological realities. These attributes of our inner life exist as fluttering abstractions, prone to change and decay as we experience new ideas and alternate frames of reference. It is for this reason that I believe that our national discourse can be enriched through a deeper exchange by drawing from this inner life.

The current state of multiculturalism in Canada is best characterized as a salad bowl: together but separate, and equal under the eyes of the law. This might be an achievement in itself; however, it seems like merely a step towards a more fundamental unity. In the salad bowl, the tomato tolerates the lettuce, the cucumber co-exists with the avocado, yet the flavours of each are preserved and protected – nothing is exchanged, nothing new will emerge.

Some might suggest a “melting pot” as an alternative, but this analogy presents an obvious problem: a melting pot dissolves all the ingredients into a uniform substance. This is antithetical to the idea of celebrating diversity.

The analogy that I prefer is that of a stew. At first, the diverse ingredients of a stew sit together, much like the salad, and insist on their particularities. However, over time, and with enough heat, some things begin to break down and intermingle while others are preserved or even enriched. Flavours, textures, and aromas are exchanged, and new ones emerge. This process of stewing takes time, will very likely be noisy and violent, and requires very little interference – just a hand to stir the pot every once in a while.

Yes, the ethics of equal rights maintains that all the ingredients in a salad have equal value, so they should be allowed to survive, but is their worth truly appreciated? In Charles Taylor’s essay, The Politics of Recognition (3), he proposes that we not only acknowledge the equal value of different cultures by letting them survive, but that we presume that they all have worth, “the claim is that all human cultures that have animated whole societies over some considerable stretch of time have something important to say to all human beings.” Think about the stew and how each of the ingredients are presumed to offer something important to all the others.

However, this is where my analogy ceases to be useful. The stew implies that there is a chef, a recipe, and an intended outcome: the desired flavour. Taylor warns us not to imagine that the dominant class (i.e., the Chef) can simply use its own judgment to gauge the worth of cultures (i.e., ingredients):

For it implies that we already have the standards to make such judgments. The standards we have, however, are those of North Atlantic civilization. And so the judgments implicitly and unconsciously will cram the others into our categories. […] By implicitly invoking our standards to judge all civilizations and cultures, the politics of difference can end up making everyone the same.

As a resolution, Taylor suggests that we first need to admit, “that we are very far away from that ultimate horizon from which the relative worth of different cultures might be evident […],” and then we have to be willing to displace our horizons as we fuse with those of other cultures. Taylor seems to be asking a lot of us. Why should Canadians be so willing sacrifice their time-honoured values and ideas to the onslaught of unfamiliar influences? Taylor offers the following thought:

[…] one could argue that it is reasonable to suppose that cultures that have provided the horizon of meaning for large numbers of human beings, of diverse characters and temperaments, over a long period of time—that have, in other words, articulated their sense of the good, the holy, the admirable—are almost certain to have something that deserves our admiration and respect, even if it is accompanied by much that we have to abhor and reject.

Taylor’s analysis has clear implications for the state and the individual. It requires us to transform the nature of our public discourse as well as our interpersonal dialogues. In practice, this would mean not only being more open to new ideas and going out of our way to get to know people at their heart, but also to be open and willing to become transformed by other perspectives.

Dialogue at this level can be terrifying to those who wish to protect and preserve the familiar ways – those who prefer the salad bowl. But if you’re in for a slow-cooked stew or a crackling curry, if you seek to explore, learn, and progress, to expand your consciousness, and to extend your circle of regard, this level of dialogue offers infinite opportunities. In this intimate intersubjective space, truths are revealed, minds are enriched, hearts are connected, and that yearning for meaningful engagement is satisfied.

1. As defined below by Barbara Townley in “Reason’s Neglect: Rationality and Organizing” (p. 79):
The transition from technical rationality, where the application of technical criteria is appropriate, to its application in areas not capable of technical resolution is signified by the term technocratic rationality. This is manifest where social and political problems become likened to technical problems, prompting the thinking that not only do these require technical solutions but also that all such problems have technical solutions. It presupposes that ‘human problems,’ like technical ones, ‘have a solution that experts given sufficient data and authority can discover and execute.’ […] A technocratic rationality offers the illusion of ‘scientific’ objectivity, ‘one best way,’ understood and decided by experts, and guaranteed by the impersonal knowledge of the objective and the ‘real.’ A technocratic approach to problem-solving and technical expertise offers neutrality, efficiency, and depersonalization. ‘Politics’ can be avoided or reduced when there is agreement on ‘technical’ issues, as rationality resides in, and is assured through the tools, techniques, and systems that provide calculation. Technique is the ‘neutral’ mechanism or instrument that aids in the provision of solutions to problems transposed into ‘scientifically’ manageable and rationally resolvable ones. It is independent of the passion and interests that usually cloud political debate.


4 thoughts on “Yearning for a Good Canadian Stew

  1. Right off the bat I want to say that I like it and the direction that you’re going. I think there are a number of fantastic ideas in here, but I think, for the most part, they are still preliminary. The piece feels exploratory, which is, I think, the right direction to take it, but the ideas need to be fleshed out a bit more – possibly through the use of more detailed examples. The inclusion of more short definitions would also help with clarity, there can be confusion between your use of pluralism v. multiculturalism v. diversity. The essay may also benefit from a tighter framing of the issue and argument. As it stands, it can be tough for the reader to know exactly what the essay is about. Is it about Canadian identity, the discourse around Canadian identity, multiculturalism, left v. right politics, or your experiences of fitting into a disorganized Canadian context that hides its true functions in insidious ways? I recognize the interconnection of these ideas and concepts, but a clearer path through their intersections would help to make the piece more cohesive. Maybe an introductory paragraph that explains your thesis and general argument.

    Some broad comments on the ideas themselves:

    You attribute to the Canadian ‘hyper-civility’ identity this suppressive function within Canadian public discourse. I think this might be a touch too strong an association. I would be more willing to accept that Canadian ‘hyper-civility’ identity contributes to the suppression of moral/religious arguments within the Canadian public discourse. I say this because, as I will get into below, I think that the issue of suppression within public discourses is not unique to Canada. The way by which Canada’s public discourse is, for lack of a better term, censored is born partially out of this falsified expression of multiculturalism (which, in the form you describe, is uniquely Canadian) and partially out of the production of knowledge that seems endemic to the West.

    1. Not solely a Canadian phenomenon

    For example, if we look to the US it is fairly clear that what you ascribe to the Canadian identity – this pacifying of the national discourse through left leaning political rhetoric – can also be viewed as a consequence of liberal political rhetoric. This rhetoric ostracized right wing voices and views to such an extreme that there was valid and justifiable space for the emergence of Trump who aggressively reinstated morality and religious conviction into the national discourse; not in the sterile fashion of the politically-correct liberal discourse (i.e. that happy holidays sort of way that even many mainstream right wing voices tended to adhere to), but in an emotionally and morally resonant sense that took it to an extreme. Maybe this is mostly a Western phenomenon. I don’t have enough knowledge of other national discourses to be able to make a case for this happening in other parts of the world or under different political/economic/social systems. However, what certainly is uniquely Canadian is the perversion of the discourse around multiculturalism that you touch on. It strips the concept of its moral, religious, and cultural weight by perpetuating the othering of other cultures through spectacle. It appears to be largely a pacifying tactic that maintains the principles of assimilation through the rhetoric of inclusivity and equality.

    2. This state of affairs is possibly a more fundamental product of Western knowledge production in the vein of Descartes, Kant, Socrates, etc.

    Building on the first point, I think it is possible to identify a more basic genesis for this state of affairs. Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy provides a useful conceptual apparatus to unpack the current climate of intense rational technocracy that also provides space for a more even handed discourse that meaningfully acknowledges both the rational and irrational to emerge. In the book, Nietzsche presents the Greek tragedy (which can be read as a metaphor for life) as an habitually conflictual encounter between the Apolline Logos and the Dionysian Anti-logos – these are the two poles of reason and unreason. He argues that from Socrates onward, there has been a tendency to prioritize the Logos over the Anti-logos (I won’t get into the intricacies of this argument here, but it’s a fantastic read). This, I would argue, is still occurring today where we see Western knowledges and knowledge production held above all other knowledges and modes and methods of production. Western knowledge production largely aligns with the Logos, allowing it to dominate other forms, whether they actually align with the Anti-logos or not. Fundamentally, I see this as the point you are making in your essay. There are pieces (i.e. perspectives, arguments, principles) being obfuscated from Canadian, and arguable all western, discourse due to the current, largely unacknowledged and unconscious, epistemic prioritization of rational technocratic knowledges and arguments (the Logos) over morally and/or religiously-based knowledges and arguments (the Anti-logos). These pieces are rendered inert through a domination-suppression interrelation that is born of and perpetuated by the very discourse in which these pieces are being manifest. This is particularly troublesome because this interrelation is, as you point out, maintained partly through the projection of a superficial Anti-logos or inclusive/multicultural discourse that quite deftly masquerades as true and valid Anti-logos knowledge.

    Finally, I would be curious about bringing these ideas further to critique the political, economic, and/or social structures of Canadian/Western society and their impact on/proclivity for perpetuating this state of affairs.

    Sorry for long response. If your essay wasn’t insightful and engaging, I wouldn’t have been able to provide this sort of feedback.

  2. This is a very large pot of stew! So many delicious ingredients!

    On the metaphor, I don’t think there is one pot of stew or one culture. I think there are many public discourses, they are not managed by any head chef or even a master cooking school. People put forward their competing claims about the “right way” to do diversity goulash or multicultural masala but I think that most people don’t really let anyone’s technocratic liberalism stifle them too much. For better or worse, people make their stews out of the ingredients at hand, quite happy to try new spices and weird vegetables as they come along. I think many Canadians do like to brag about how they do that. I remember yoghurt, pita, tofu, donair all being novel, and the same goes for ideas.

    You probably have seen Andrew Griffith’s great blog “Multicultural Meanderings”. He is a retired DG who used to work at CIC when multi was there. He has updated the following chart a few times and it is useful. I would add another column to the right where the dominant idea is inclusion and respect for diversity, where the pluralism of which you speak is one way to frame the differences of cultures and beliefs.

  3. This is an important set of insights . It would be interesting to consider the pace and extent to which Canadian consciousness and behaviour is starting to reflect the stewing of diverse cultures. We are talking here not about the stewing together of a diversity of cultural foods and dances but about “metaphysical insights…world views… spiritual and moral convictions”.

    It would be helpful and encouraging to cite some of the many examples and trends in this regard, however superficial as of yet their contribution to a truly deep, enthusiastic and uninhibited discourse among Canadians on this subject.

    Might these include significant interest in yoga, Eastern forms of meditation and concepts such as reincarnation which, messily or not, co-exist with more normative Christian beliefs and practices? Are the ideas of the relativity of spiritual truth and the essential oneness of religion becoming more widely accepted and suncontroversial truths? Does the fast growing spiritual but not religious phenomenon produce more openness to new ideas and practices? What is the impact of fast accelerating rates of inter-racial and inter-religious marriage?

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