The Canadian Culture Wars
Susan Riley adds a valuable perspective on the current war about who started the culture war in Canada. A case can be made, I think, that we Canadians are massively ambivalent about how much moral content we want in our politics. We have prided ourselves on the pragmatism of our politics. Our politicians, especially when two “big tent” parties dominated the scene, prefered to run on issues of competence and integrity rather than on competing visions of the good; mostly they stayed away from deeply divisive issues such as abortion or capital punishment or same-sex marriage unless forced upon them. These were left to the courts and the gradual evolution of Canadian culture. When these big debates did occur, they poked at the seams of our fragile federation and highlighted the profound differences in values that reflect equally profound differences in experience and circumstance across our vast country. We are understandably nervous about values debates and especially debates infused with high moral content.
At the same time, many of us are tired of our current version of politics that seems more stagecraft than statecraft, a game about winning rather than a discourse about purpose. Many are looking for more – more relevance, more courage, more moral content. Politics is always about winning but, at its best, it is also about our collective pursuit of the good and politicians cannot forever avoid trying to define what that might mean. Indeed, the rise of “conservative politics” in North America may be at least partly due to the right’s willingness to take on issues of meaning and purpose beyond our material interests.
In careful ways, the Canadian political right has reintroduced moral issues and social values into the political arena. It is “the right” that talks about family values, about tough punishment for those who do harm and about caring for their victims, about choice and about liberty. And, in Canada at least, it quietly voices its antagonism for abortion. Politically, they have been the loudest voice on these issues. It is time that the other parties started to talk about values again, including moral values.
But, in Canada, parties of the centre or centre-left have avoided a positive moral and values discourse opting instead for a focus on the economy where their track record is surprisingly good. Over the past decades they have been the ones who have championed fiscal prudence, no doubt because they care about government, its resiliency and capacity to pursue the public good. They are also the ones who believe in investment in people, tools and infrastructure, all essential to the global knowledge economy. But “it’s the economy stupid” takes you only so far – it is time that centrist and progressive politicians staked out the moral ground.
If centrist parties talk about these values at all, they tend to do so in reaction to the right, with little respect for the deeply held views of their supporters and, thus, the “culture wars” and wedge politics. There is another way, a positive instead of reactive approach that chooses principle over polarization, that refuses to demonize those with whom we disagree, that rejects false dichotomies however comforting and salable they seem.
Such an approach would understand that the family, in its diverse forms and shapes, is the building block of society and that we all lose if we don’t find ways to help the family help its members, especially as Canada’s population ages. Such an approach would understand that parents are and must be responsible for raising their children and parental choice is crucial in a society as diverse as ours but also that choice is impossible for most of us absent key public infrastructure and that the best of families need help from time to time. This approach would understand that crime must be punished justly, that justice should be restorative but that we should not allow fear or anger to blind us to proportionality and to what works to make us safer. This approach would understand that pro-choice goes hand in hand with family planning and personal responsibility. And at its foundation it would understand that human dignity requires a commitment to both liberty and equality and that liberty can only truly be experienced within a healthy political community and society, that self and other, individual and community are inseparable. Such an approach would put human dignity at the centre because dignity itself is a social idea that draws its strength from the twin values of liberty and the inherent equality of all people.
That doesn’t mean the simplifying rhetoric of wedge politics, its tendency to polarize and demonize and, as “culture wars” implies, to leave no room for common ground. Instead, it means we need a willingness not only to take on the moral dimensions of public policy but to do so in all of their complexity – even as we know that this is the harder road.