Friday, August 09, 2013

Gay rights stance supported by Canadians, Baird says - Politics - CBC News

This story gives Foreign Affairs Minister Baird's response to criticism from a fairly extreme right wing group that Canada should not promote equality in other countries

Gay rights stance supported by Canadians, Baird says - Politics - CBC News:

I have a lot of problems with some of Baird's policies (particularly the axing of Canadian Studies funding!). But, he is surely right on this.

There are also lessons to be learnt here and lessons that are important to learn. The key one is about the politics of right-wing extremism. For those unfamiliar with the story, a conservative women's action group called "REAL Women" issued a statement condemning Baird for his opposition to anti-homosexual laws in a number of countries. The most grave of which is a proposed law in Uganda that would make same-sex sexual relations punishable by death.  What do we have to learn about REAL Women and the politics of right wing extremism. I'd suggest things that many people may already know but they are worth enumerating.

1. REAL Women uses an odd form of moral relativism in its defence of Uganda's laws. Their national vice president (according to CBC) explained that this (capital punishment for gay people) was not a human rights issue but a cultural issue and that Canada had not business messing around with other people's culture. In other words, moral values can vary by culture. A complicated issue, to be sure, but did she ever ask Ugandans about this? Do they view it as a cultural issue or a moral issue? Or, is she assuming that those Ugandas (read ... black Africans) have a violent culture that solves its moral problems by executing people? Here is her quote?

"According to the culture and the religion of, you know, Uganda it's not a human rights issue. You can't imply that every country has to take our human rights issues and plunk it down in another country. And particularly when you're spending all that taxpayers' money to implement a standard which is not that of that country [...]"

I wonder if homosexual Ugandans view this as a cultural issue? I wonder if they are saying "yes, this is culture so I fully understand why I will be executed and agree with it." Or, do they say "no, this law is unjust and should not be implemented."

In other words, the REAL Women VP is making a lot of assumptions here without bothering to check it out. She is giving us her views on Ugandans (they must feel this way so it is part of their culture) but has she even bothered to find out if this is the case? And, she is not speaking to, for, or about those people involved.

2. The logic here is perilous. I think we can all agree that too much state involvement in culture is a problem. We have lots of examples in Canada of that and so we should be aware of the problems of telling other people what to do. I think, as well, we can all agree that some things are best kept out of government hands. For example, governments should educate new immigrants to Canada in official languages (if they do not speak an official language) for self-evident reasons (labour market integration might be one but there are others). But, governments should not legislate away (that is make illegal) inoffensive elements of culture that harm no one. Again, this is self evident and an example might be legal prohibitions against some elements of aboriginal culture in Canada (say, the potlatch) that all Canadians now see a misguided (at best!) use of the law. The state should not tell people that they should not eat heritage culture food (providing its safe) or tell people that they should not play instruments that are an important part of heritage culture. In the Maritimes, for instance, there are a lot of Canadians of Scottish heritage that periodically eat traditional foods, wear traditional clothing like kilts, and play traditional instruments like the bagpipes. There things harm no one and I think most people wold argue actually enrich culture in Canada.

But, the idea that culture is a wall over which one should not speak is ... well ... bizarre, noting what we can note about world history. Should we ignore genocide because it is part of culture. Let's leave aside the deeply deeply troubling question of how Canada has responded to genocide in other countries to ask the ethical question. Genocide was part of Nazi culture. Does that make genocide legitimate? The mass slaughter in Cambodia was part of Khmer Rouge culture ... does that make it legitimate?

A serious person would say that REAL Women's argument is reductio ad absurdum. It compares apples and oranges and fails to draw meaningful distinctions about things that are qualitatively different. It is, in other words, not simply silly but an immature and unsophisticated form of moral reasoning. It is what we teach our children *not*  to do.

3. Going along with this, it also devalues life, which is very odd for a group that puts "life" in their title. The L in REAL women stands for Life. What about the lives of gay people .... Again, here is a quote from the original CBC news story:

 "It may be unwise by Western standards, but who are we to interfere in a sovereign country?"

Unwise by western standards? Executing people for sexual orientation is unwise by anyone's standards. There are oodles of Africans, Asians, Latin Americans, East Europeans  who disagree with executing gay people. In other words, this is not a west versus the rest issue. But ... unwise. Would REAL Women use the same words to describe the pro-choice position. Would they describe pro-choice as unwise? If they did, well, there would be no debate on abortion if all its opponents viewed it as was "unwise." You see what has gone on here: taking a life is "unwise." It is not, say, morally repugnant or illegal or criminal. It is merely unwise.

4. Which points us to the final thing we should learn about the extreme right: they are hypocrites, in a literal sense of the word. They impose one standard for themselves and the people with whom they agree and one standard for the rest of us. Life, it turns out, is only important for some people.  This is the classic definition of hypocrisy.

I have, I should conclude, by noting subscribed to REAL Women's newsletter for years. You should too. Not because you will learn anything about morals or culture or Uganda or Canada from it. What you will learn in the mindset of extremists. They will send it to you for free. Read up, know about this group, don't commit the same breaches of knowledge and simple common sense that we might expect from our teenagers as they do. What you will learn is exactly why we call extremists, extremist.

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