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.