The Canadian Imagination

What it means to be Canadian; examining and reworking Canada as a nation.

Monday, July 23, 2007

What is in a word?

'The time has come,' the Walrus said,
'To talk of many things:
Of shoes -- and ships -- and sealing wax --
Of cabbages -- and kings --
And why the sea is boiling hot --
And whether pigs have wings.'

'But wait a bit,' the Oysters cried,
'Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
And all of us are fat!'
'No hurry!' said the Carpenter.
They thanked him much for that.

A rare social outing slipped easily into discussion about national social policy and immigration, and then into debate. I kept my part in the exchange to asking questions testing what was actually meant, and to what parameter or extreme. One of the core points on which the conversation turned out to be the degree to which immigrants should be allowed to keep their cultural identity. Perhaps predictably, the key points of contention were the turban, kirpan, burka, and acceptable levels of service in non-official languages.

The strongest and least flexible policy view in the group held firmly to a dominant, immutable national identity, rooted within existing law and logic: to which all immigrants should be required to adhere as a requirement of their being admitted to the new country, abandoning their own cultural heritage except as a strictly at-home thing (and even that to be discouraged). I tested a few of the limits of this view. If a different cultural group grew to become the majority, should they be allowed to change existing language laws to suit them? Should uniforms allow the Sikh turban, a religious requirement? If not, did this mean that Sikhs should not be allowed to apply for those positions unless they gave up this part of their religion?

(I decided not to mention that logic is not objective and absolute; and that any logic system is entirely dependent on which a priori tenets are selected.)

Then I pointed out that since both turban and kirpan are required religious symbols (as burkas are not), to restrict a person based on those two was discrimination based on religion. I like to call a spade a spade. In and of itself the word is value-neutral: and in testing the concept it was in this value-neutral way that I used it, solely by way of determining the hierarchy of societal priorities within a given viewpoint. After all, all it really refers to is the concept of selecting by way of creating or maintaining a desired ideal.

The concept itself was entirely acceptable. Apparently the word was not.

Once, discrimination was even a positive word: still can be, as reflected in such phrases as "discriminating taste". However, mores seem to have changed to the point that overtly admitting to such selection for or against different racial and religious groups has become a non socially acceptable viewpoint. Ironically, this non-acceptance only drives these viewpoints linguistically underground to the point where the non-acceptable word is completely divorced from the acceptable social policy.

Should it be surprising that it was only a matter of minutes longer before the questioning itself came to be seen as contentious, and then as illogical "bleeding heart" opposition: even though I had not said a single word pro or con?
'A loaf of bread,' the Walrus said,
'Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed --
Now, if you're ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed.'

'But not on us!' the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue.
'After such kindness, that would be
A dismal thing to do!'
'The night is fine,' the Walrus said,
'Do you admire the view?'

'It was so kind of you to come!
And you are very nice!'
The Carpenter said nothing but
'Cut us another slice-
I wish you were not quite so deaf-
I've had to ask you twice!'

'It seems a shame,' the Walrus said,
'To play them such a trick.
After we've brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!'
The Carpenter said nothing but
'The butter's spread too thick!'

'I weep for you,'the Walrus said:
'I deeply sympathize.'
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.

'O Oysters,' said the Carpenter,
'You've had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?'
But answer came there none --
And this was scarcely odd, because
They'd eaten every one.

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