Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Charters of Values

In a lecture he gave a number of years ago, Joseph Heath argued that there is a fundamental distinction between "values" and "principles." Heath was interested in debunking the idea that there was something called "values" that held Canada together -- that provided the basis of Canadian unity. At the time, there was a great deal of talk about values at the national political level. Liberal politicians, looking to fight off a rising and renewed C/conservatism in Canada argued that the CPC did not reflect Canadian "values;" that they were, as it were, clones of American Republicans. Important values like health care, gun control, multilateralism, etc., were supposedly on the line.

Whether or not this was true is another matter. Heath's interest lay in demonstrating that there was not much in the way of common values that held Canada together. On most value issue -- something periodically called "moral issues" in the media -- Canadians were actually deeply divided. Far from creating unity, values provided only a veil of unity that disguised and fomented deep divisions in society. There were, Heath believed, other problems with the transformation of values into high politics (they tended to be ahistorical, promoted the tyranny of the majority, disguised the real accomplishments of Canada, and directed attention away from those things that Canadians actually had in common), but this the idea that value as politics create division as opposed to unity is worth considering.

On one level, Heath's argument -- once he says it -- seems obvious. If we think of any particular value issue, we find that Canadians are rarely to the point of never unified: equality rights, the role of religion in society, funding of religious-based schools, women's control of their own bodies, equality rights programmes, the accommodation of cultural difference in society, etc. On all these issues (and more) we find Canadians on different sides of the coin. Perhaps the best recent example comes not from the trial balloons floated by the Quebec government with regard to religious symbolism, but from Tory efforts to attack Justin Trudeau's credibility by becoming outraged over his pot smoking. This is a good example because it demonstrate the problem of values as politics. How so?

First, Tory outrage will backfire. If polling is to be believed (and, it might be too early for anything approximating accurate numbers on this), a huge swath of Canadians simple don't care about Trudeau's recreational activities. In other words, the fact that he had smoked pot is just not something that what appears to be a majority of Canadians care about. It is not a shrewd political move, in other words, if it is intended to win back voters to the Conservative Party or distract attention from ongoing Senate scandals. Indeed, as one commentator noted (I've misplaced the reference; if someone has it, please do send it in so I can give due credit to thoughts that are not my own), Tory outrage could backfire because it could make them look like ... stogy old conservatives who are out-of-step with the time, at worst, or, at best, focused on issues that don't matter to Canadians. In other words, even with the best case scenario, their concern about Trudeau and pot does not win them the friends they need to win the next election. Its wasted energy.

But, second, the Tories had to become outraged.  Why? Because of values. I don't have numbers on this but I hazard a guess that the Tory base is outraged by this. For committed Tory voters, values really are an important part of public life and part of the job of the state. Harper has tried to some extent to avoid making values too much a part of his public agenda. He has, to be sure, and he's flip flopped on them. Running against Martin, for example, Harper was at pains to say that elections was not about values (something Martin was trying to contend), but about good government. Said differently, his message was: "trust us. We are looking to provide good government. Not revolutionize the country." After getting a bit better ensconced in government, Harper changed his tune and started to say that Canadian values were conservative values. And, his government certainly went after value issues. The ditched all talk of decriminalizing pot; talked a law and order agenda (which brought expensive new prisons and discontent with the provinces), establishing an Office of Religious Freedom, cut arts funding, and changed the mandate of Status of Women. His government also axed international Canadian Studies funding. Values politics crept back into his government.

Harper and his government have been criticized by the extreme right (see a previous blog entry) for defending gay rights in Africa ... well ... not really defending, but opposing the death penalty for gay people (which is not the same thing since defending equality rights would involve an active programme to promote equality, but you get the point). So-called "social conservatives" clearly wanted the Harper government to go much further than it has gone on the values front, including having the state regulate women's bodies, rolling back equality rights in marriage. These are the kind of people who would really embrace of charter of values and these are the kind of people that the Tories need to keep in their camp if they have any chance of winning the next election. (They are not a large constituency but they are a needed constituency for the Tories like unionized labour is a needed constituency for the NDP.) So, the Tories had to be outraged at Trudeau and pot. If they had passed over Trudeau's confession without outrage; they would have further weakened their values bona fides with social conservatives and perhaps lost them (witness the rise of Reform in the 1990s).

Values, thus, become a political trap. If one plays the values card, one is damned because it is divisive. If one does not ... one might lose one's political base. I'm not trying to sympathize with the Conservatives. I suspect that most elected Tories see eye-to-eye with social conservatives on this issue. In other words, I don't think their outrage is fake.  But, this is the second trap: values blind us. Years ago, I was at a party in Amherst with a number of social conservatives. This was years ago because Chretien was still in his first term as PM. These people were convinced that there was no way the Liberals could win a second term because "no one" agreed with them. And, to some extent, they were right: no one that they hung out with agreed with them. Where they were wrong was in assuming that their circle of friends represented the broader, diverse, and often fractured values of Canadians. Heck, these people may even have been representative of the values of northern Nova Scotia. I don't know, but let's grant them what we can. Their values, however, blinded them to the diversity of Canada and led them to assume that since they thought one way, everyone must think the same way.

We all fall into this unfortunate pattern from time to time. For instance, I often write about what "Canadians" think as if Canadians only thought one thing. I should know better, but the point is that we all have some value to which we subscribe that we believe is fundamental that all good people must agree with us. The result is that our blindness obscures the fact that there are a lot of people out there who subscribe to different values. As a result, we end up doing things and supporting views that become divisive as opposed to views that unify the country.  The blindness created by our own commitments to our values leads us to misapprehend what is actually going on in Canada.

So, values are a problem. They end up being divisive as opposed to unifying; they become a political trap that binds political parties to a relatively small core base and from which there can be little escape, and they blind us to reality. There is one further problem with values as politics that is worth noting. Values blind us but there are some people who are swift enough to realize that others do not share their values. How does one respond to this situation? Well, there can be a variety of ways. One way would be to accept democracy and diversity and to accept that common values are simply very, very difficult to attain and, even when attained, they come at a steep price. The other which occurs far too often is to cast aspersions on those who do not share our values. Those with different values are castigated as somehow unCanadian. Martin made this point with regard to Harper a number of time in the 2004-6 years. His not so subtle point was that Harper was not really Canadian but more an warmed over American in disguise. In other words, Martin raised questions about Harper's bona fides as a Canadian: "how can you trust this guy? He's not really Canadian."

This is a less than nuanced form of racism. It is the most corrosive characteristic of values as politics in that it mobilizes a discourse of self and other in which the other is not simply someone who holds different views (perfectly acceptable in a democracy), but a threat to society who must be policed and controlled. Such a view stands at the basis of prejudice against immigrants, for example, or gay people who want to be married. Somehow, in some unspecified way, accepting their value differences (and reasonably accommodating them) will cause the downfall of society or the nation or the political order. They are a threat.

What can I say about this? Well, only that we have heard it before. I read a column retweeted by my colleague Matt Hayday this morning which reminded us that Canadians once said the same thing about communists and religious minorities and that the result was a series of draconian laws that harmed minority groups and subverted the rule of law. This is a lesson well worth remembering as we think about the distinction between values and principles and how each are operationalized in society.
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