Friday, July 23, 2010

Bathurst, Flags, and Equal Rights

An English-language rights group wants to fly its flag at City Hall in Bathurst, NB. The town council first said yes (in a 4-2 vote) and, then, after significant popular protest changed its mind and said no. I was reading some on-line discussion of this issue and there is a significant amount of confusion about it. The question is: is this a legitimate action? Should not, in an effort to respect multicultural diversity, Bathurst fly this flag? Those who want to fly the flag seem to be suggesting that the town council’s failure to do so show multiculturalism to be a shame (they argue other things, too, that I will mention below, but this is the most “philosophical” of the points the flag’s proponents make).

The answer is “no.” First, the flag of a small, extremist, lobby organization is not an ethnic flag. In this sense, it multiculturalism does not apply. This group has as much philosophical right to fly its flag in front of a government office as any other lobby group, whether it be the Canadian Manufacturers Association or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals or the local chapter of the “Save the Bull Frogs Foundation” (OK, I made that one up). In other words, multiculturalism does not apply because this flag does not represent an ethnic group or a nationality.

Ah ... its proponents say, “it represents ‘English’ people.” No it does not. I am an English-speaking person and the Maple Leaf represents me. No one in this organization ever contact me to ask if they could represent my interests. Their position on bilingualism (opposition to it) is decidedly out of step with popular views, which makes them a special interest group. No conference ever certified this flag, at least one that was widely attending by representatives of English people. No one every determined, either, exactly who these English people were. Is this a heritage group? Is it a language group? Both? This is a group that has, in other words, no democratic sanction. It is a group that represents a small minority view. And, it is a group that claims for itself the right to represent  me. I deny it that right. Sorry, you don’t represent me or, to the best of my knowledge, anyone in my family or among my friends or in my community. Indeed. I actually personally no one one who even knows someone in this group.

I’m not trying to be harsh here. I am trying to make a point. There is a difference between a special interest lobby group and a national or ethnic group. To confuse to two creates problems. If we accepted the right of this group to fly their flag outside a government office, then we would have no choice but to accept the right of Nazis to fly their flag or members of Al Quaida. Or, members of the local “Save the Bull Frogs Foundation.” Any lobby group would now have the right to put its flag up and is this what we want. Do we want our City Halls festooned with the flags of lobby and special interest groups.

Some might say “you know, we might. There just might be a group we’d like to show we support on a municipal level. Our town loves bull frogs. Why can’t we put their flag up.” One might be able to, indeed it might be legitimate to, as long as we are clear about what we are doing. I am arguing above that there is a qualitative difference between a national or ethnic flag (the Canadian flag, the Acadian flag, for instance) and governmental flags (city or provincial) on the one hand and those of special interests on the other. This group is a special interest and so has no moral or ethical or legal right to have its flag flown at a government office, no more right, at least then any other special interest group (like the local bowling league or a butterfly collecting club). It is possible that someone might want to demonstrate their support, however, for butterfly collecting. If so, could the two council authorize this one group to fly its flag on a special occasion.

Yes, as long as its justification was not multiculturalism. The butterfly collectors are not a nation!. And, it seems to me, as long as its rationale was ethically sound. In other words, not all social groups are, as it were, “created equal.” I’d argue that provisions of the criminal law, for instance, should apply. One should not fly the flag of, say, an organized crime group. Nor should one fly the flag of a terrorist organization. These strike me as pretty straight forward and generally acceptable points. Nor, should one fly the flag of a group that is propagated hate. For instance, a racist organization should not enjoy the support of a state committed to freedom, equality, democracy (say, like Canada) because the goals of this organization run counter to the goals of Canada.

In this regard, consider the differences between this English rights organization and, say, Acadian organization. This English rights organization opposes equality. It seems to eliminate French-language rights in NB. Acadian organizations do not oppose equality; they are not arguing the use of English in NB; nor lobbying for the elimination of English as an official language or a language of instruction. Note, too, the important distinction: I am talking about an organization. Organizations that promote intolerance often justify their own intolerance by saying that a member of ethnic group X was once intolerant to them. This is almost certainly true but the logic is perverse. Using francophones and anglophones as an example, it run like this “because a francophone was once mean to an anglophone, all francophones should lose their rights.” Does that make any sense: because one person who you may not have known; who you might have thought was an idiot, whom you opposed did something, you lose right because they happen to speak the same language as you.

Let’s flip this around and reverse the field. Suppose an anglophone was once mean to a francophone. Does that mean that English should be eliminated as an official language? That is the logic we are talking about here. It is a guilt by virtue of language spoken. If someone in your linguistic group did something wrong, you are guilty purely by virtue of the language you speak. Does this not strike you as akin to a fascist logic?

My point is this: (1) there is a difference between an unrepresentative group that argues against equality and symbols broadly representative of a nation that support equality, and (2) the logic used to justify the equivalence between the two is faulty to the point of being fascistic.

For these reasons, Bathurst correctly reversed its decision on this flag issue and did the right thing.
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