Monday, November 10, 2014

Barbaric Practices Act or, How Conservatives Think

Ever wonder about useless laws. The proposed Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act is a case in point. You can find a media discussion here: 

Barbaric Practices Bill:

and here:


Clearly, this act is pandering. It is also clearly useless because it does nothing to address whatever problems might actually exist with murder, forced marriage or other forms of gender-based confinement in Canada. It is, for instance, odd that the current government will do nothing about the hundreds if not thousands of missing aboriginal women -- real women who have disappeared -- while it fights paper tigers that do not exist. 

That, at least, is one way to look at this proposed bill and I think it is one right way. There is, however, another way that is equally important. It will not change our assessment of the merits of this proposed bill. But, it might help explain it a bit more, where it comes from, and why it is so important to the current government and what it tells is about the state of Canadian conservatism. 

Contemporary Canadian conservatism is an odd ideological mishmash. One might or might not like Grant's _Lament for a Nation_ but at the least it made an effort to sketch out an ideologically coherent way of looking at the world and to specify the public policies that followed from that worldview.  I find contemporary conservatism difficult to grapple with precisely because it is such a mixed boat. At times, it is promotes neo-liberal economic policies; at other times, it looks to the state to intensely regulate society. At times it tows a law and order line (building prison), at other times it ignores the very law enforcement agencies in whose name it supports (say, with regard to gun control). At times it argues for religious tolerance ... at others it seems (at least according to commentary on the current law) to recycle the worst types of religiously-oriented stereotypes. 

All ideologies carry with them some problems, at least as far as I can tell. But, the odd mishmash of Canadian conservatism suggests that something else is going on here than the standard type of brokerage politics that pervades Canadian public life. Indeed, the conservatives seem, at times, oddly unconcerned with broadening their political base. I might also say that assessing a conservative world view is difficult for me because I'm not a conservative. Things that I find odd are things that seem odd to a person from outside that particular perspective. I have little doubt that from within conservatism, some of the things that current government is doing make a great deal of sense and appear consistent and cohesive. This is, however, precisely the importance of ideological analysis. It can show us how people who hold different perspective think, what they view as important, threatening, energizing, traditional, etc. 

We also want to avoid what historians' call "presentism," as much as we can if we want our analysis to be something other than parti pris commentary. Our goal should be to try to understand what motivates conservatives -- what motives them, how they think about the world -- more than showing that we think their perspectives are illogical. This is, of course, not easy to do because we are looking at a present-day ideological perspective. By adopting the approach of historians, however, we might be able to cast this new bill (and, other like it) as primary documents that we could interrogate in the way we might, say, the letters of John A. Macdonald or a bill before Parliament in 1870.  If we did that, what would this new proposed law show us? 

Let me quote Walkom's commentary (cited above) because it is a good place to begin:

"Indeed, the Conservative government’s proposed Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act (yes, that is its formal name) is reminiscent of a bylaw banning polygamy and the stoning of women that was enacted in 2007 by the Quebec village of Hérouxville.
At the time, Hérouxville was not overrun by murderously polygamous immigrants. In fact, it contained no immigrants at all. The village council just wanted to make a point — about foreigners, immigrants and especially Muslims."
The first thing we should note is that the law does not necessarily bear any relationship to empirical reality. Indeed, the minister who introduced it provide no evidence whatsoever to show why this law was needed. He claimed, for instance, that there "hundreds" of cases of polygamy in Canada but failed to substantiate this claim. 
This is important because it highlights the degree to which this perspective is ideological. Ideology is an odd thing in that it requires no proof. It is something that people just believe because it jives with their perception of the world, what they have been taught, or the views recycled by their friends. To someone who believes, for instance, that polygamy is run amuk in Canada, no evidence is needed because they are already convinced of this perspective. In this regard, I don't think this bill is pandering because that suggests a certain level of cynical manipulation. I don't know what Harper, or Baird or one of the other big name Conservatives think but I don't think that the average conservative -- small or big C -- is in anyway being dishonest or cynical. I  think they honestly believe that this is a serious problem. In the same way that the people of Herouxville needed no evidence to find ban stoning, the average conservative needs no evidence to ban polygamy. 
The second thing to note is that, technically, this law -- or, much of this law -- is not needed. Polygamy is already illegal in Canada, as is "honour killing" or stoning. Exactly why people are even concerned about "honour killing" is a matter of some confusion to me as is why the term is even used. My friends and I call it murder? Does murdering someone somehow become acceptable if we say "my honour was at stake?" Conservatives seem to think so and are moving to close what they see as a gap in the law. Yet, the courts just don't agree. In Canada murder is murder is murder and always has been. So ... why do we need a separate law that covers one kind of murder (versus others)? The truth of the matter is that we don't and I'd ask you to pause and think about this. What would happen if we needed a separate law for each type of murder that could be committed? We'd have laws against "passion killings", against "gun went off while robbing the bank", against "killing relatives," etc. We don't have those laws because we don't need them. Once you make murder illegal ... murder is illegal, regardless of whom you kill. 
What is important here, though, is not the illogical of this law (of, this special criminalization of something that was already criminalized). What is important is *not* that there was a loophole in the law because there was not (seriously, can anyone imagine a judge say "oh, you killed your lazy no good daughter because she has sex. I'll let you go, no jail time for you."). What is important is that this activity -- killing relatives -- is viewed as "barbaric" and of such importance that a special law is required to address it. 
Here, I think we have the heart of the matter. Conservatives seem to be working with a conception of the world that is oddly backward. Anyone who has taken the history of anthropology knows that once western anthropologists categorized societies according to scales of "evolution" (or, what we today would call "development"). There was savagery, barbarism, and civilization. There were various was of making these determinations but that is not important because, it turns out, you can't actually categories societies that way. It empirically does not work. Yet, this idea seems to continue to exist in the minds of conservatives. There are some societies out there that are barbaric. They practice barbaric rites like honour killings or polygamy. What we see, then, is an important element of conservative thinking. Where liberals tend to look at society as composed of individuals, conservatives seem (despite their support for neo-liberalism in economics) to view society or culture as more important and determining. 
Moreover, not all cultures are created equal. Some are better than others. Don't believe me? Go talk to a conservative friend of yours about this subject. Nor, everyone agrees that there are things that are barbaric and that socialization plays some role in an individual's behaviour and values. But, one of the things those of us who are not conservatives try to do is respect difference. We might like Canadian culture (and wonder if that is because of our socialization) but we also try to *not* castigate other cultures even if we argue that there are problems with them. And, we try to avoid generalizations. What is important about this bill, and the discourse surrounding it, is that it does not do this. Instead, it makes bold generalizations on the basis of no evidence and makes no claim to respect difference. Indeed, the implicit claim is something other: it claims the right to judge others as if the truth were clear, self-evident, known, and living in Ottawa. 
Now, before anyone says "you are defending honour killings". I'm not and to say that would be an ideological statement in and of itself. What I am saying is that honour killings were already illegal in Canada, as was polygamy, and so we need to think about why conservatives feel that it is necessary to bring in a law that makes an already illegal practice illegal. 
Third, there has been an odd  transformation in conservatism in Canada and one that deserves a more attention that I can devote to it here. That transformation might be called "the return of values." We might recall that when Harper was first running for PM, he made a considerable production of saying that electing his party was precisely *not* about values. It was about good government. Leading conservative voices -- like REAL Women -- urged Canada to *not* politically intervene in places like Uganda that were in the process of bringing in tough anti-gay laws that included capital punishment precisely because, they said, who are we to tell another people what their values should be. We should respect difference. 
I might, or might not, I don't remember, at the time said that was silly, but you see the analytic point I want to make: conservatives were once trying to avoid discussions of values. Now, their agenda seems to paint themselves as the defender of values. We need these laws to protect our values -- our society, our way of life -- from barbarism. I doubt that Canada is about to slide into barbarism with or without this law but that is not the point. The point is to see what conservatives see and here what they see, they seem to find deeply disturbing. Without new protections that criminalize certain values or behaviours ... Canada is in trouble and that threat is external: people coming from elsewhere might destroy Canadian values. The transformation, then, is about values and their increasing importance to conservatives. 
Finally, we might think about what this law tries to protect. The weak? Yes. It does contain special provisions against forced marriage. (I might call this human trafficking if one were bringing in woman from outside the  country to force her to marry someone and point out that it, too, is illegal but I've already made this point.) I think that protection for minors is a good thing and I think the collective (through the state) has to accept its responsibility to protect vulnerable members of our society.  But I don't think that this what this law is all about. I think it is about "the family" and what conservatives think it should be. The so-called traditional family (long defended by conservatives), it turns out, is not under threat from gay people, as conservatives claimed it was. But, it is under threat from other sources (polygamists and honour killers). Don't believe this ... well ... I don't like either polygamy or honour killing (whatever this is) and I am glad that these things are already illegal. But, I also don't think that the Canadian family is about to fall apart without this law either. What is important, however, is not this law but what it entails: a search for problems. With gay people off the agenda as a threat to the family, conservatives are looking for another threat because they believe the family is threatened. I suspect that this will not be the last  threat we see because ... well ... it is so insignificant that this law will make little difference. 
Let me conclude: I've not done a particularly good job at making the points I want to make. I recognize that.  What I am saying is that this newly proposed law is odd precisely because it is not needed. Hence, we need to ask: why is the government bringing in a law to make murder and polygamy illegal when they already are? The answer I have given is that this shows us something of the ideology of contemporary conservatism in Canada. Its lack of need for empirical evidence, its view of threats, its willingness to categories societies on a hierarchical scale, and its search for threats to the family. These things do not amount to a stable ideological position but they do tell us what is important to conservatives and how they see the world ... at least some of them. 
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