It depends

Canada’s talking about it too.

In recent weeks, the debate in Britain over the wearing of the niqab or face veil has crossed the north Atlantic to Canada. It came on the heels of claims that the leaders of the large Indo-Canadian population in British Columbia were turning a blind eye to widespread domestic violence. Last year saw an acrimonious dispute in Ontario over whether Muslims could use Islamic sharia courts to settle family disputes.

Notice what all three of those examples have in common.

In themselves, fights over cultural practices and symbols are nothing new in Canada…What is new about the latest arguments is an underlying tension between some cultural practices of recent immigrants and the mainstream values of Canadian liberal democracy, such as sex equality.

It’s too bad pols and journalists so often frame the issue that way. It seems to me the point isn’t that the values are mainstream or that they’re Canadian (or British, or Dutch, or German, or French, or Italian), but that they’re egalitarian, universalist, justice-based, and the like. ‘Mainstream’ is the wrong word to invoke, because sex inequality is mainstream in many other places, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing in those places. It’s funny how popular those coercive conformist majoritarian words tend to be – as if no one had ever heard or known of a case where the majority was simply wrong. Majorities can get the facts wrong, and they can be morally wrong; ‘majority’ isn’t an inherently moral term. I suppose it’s natural for everyone to get confused about this in democracies, because it is the case that we are all subject to majority will; but the fact remains that number of votes doesn’t equate to accuracy on the one hand or justice on the other.

Multiculturalism has since sunk deep roots in government, reflected in everything from broadcasting to education policy…Almost half believe that immigrants should be free to maintain their cultural and religious practices. But a poll published this week reflected the new disquiet: when asked whether those practices should be tolerated if they infringe women’s rights, a large majority said No.

Well, there you go. Exactly. Free to maintain cultural and religious practices, good, but if they infringe women’s rights, not so good. That’s why it’s so misleading for people to keep churning out bromides about tolerance and cultural yakyak – because it depends. It depends on which cultural and religious practices we’re talking about, obviously, so blanket ‘yes lovely all should be permitted Kumbaya’ is not helpful. That awareness is starting to sink in, which is good. Maybe somebody should write a really good book about religious and cultural practices and how they affect women.

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