Lessons for Québec from British pop singers and Japanese Anime: “secular” is not “neutral”

The Québec charter of values

Over the last few months, much debate has occurred over the proposed Québec Charter of Values, which was ostensibly introduced in order to guarantee the “neutrality of the state.” The real reason, of course, is that the PQ wants to gain political points with its separatist base, and has no qualms about riding roughshod over the rights of minorities to do so.

That said, I still want to address the “neutrality” thing, because it bothers me so much when I see people making the claim that the Charter will make the machinery of the state more “neutral.” But first, let’s consider a couple related questions.

Why do British people lose their accents while singing?

Have you ever heard a person ask, “Why do British people sound American when they sing?”

The reason for this phenomenon is not that British people actually sound American when they sing. For that matter, if you think about it, American people don’t sound particularly American when they sing either. Because of the mechanics of singing, everyone has to pronounce their words in more-or-less the same way, regardless of their speaking accent.

While speaking, one’s accent might influence what syllables to stress and whether to use a short or a long vowel sound for particular words. When singing on the other hand, pretty much all of that is dictated by the music itself. There is really only one way to sing “Ave Maria,” for example, no matter what your accent is. And so, everyone sings the same way, and it’s not the same as anyone’s speaking accent.

Don’t believe me? Read the words, “Ave Maria” in your own head in different kinds of accents—standard BBC, Zoidberg, Morgan Freeman, etc., and then imagine those same people singing it. Unless you’re imagining them really exaggerating their accent, they all have to sing it in pretty much the same way, just due to the nature of what singing is.

Why are Japanese Anime characters drawn as white people?

Curiously, this is the same thing that happens when a person asks, “Why are Japanese Anime characters drawn as white people?

They’re not. Read the linked article. Japanese Anime characters are drawn as cartoon characters. They are not photo-realistic representations, and it is only the assumption of American viewers that fills in the gaps in favour of these characters being white. It’s the same reason that when you draw a stick figure, you assume it’s a white male, unless it has a dress or a something to mark the “other.”

What’s going on in these cases?

The underlying assumption in both of these questions is the same fallacy. The assumption is that the majority (in these cases, white and American) is “neutral,” “default,” “normal.” In the absence of all markers to the otherwise in one’s singing voice or in cartoon characters, many people will fill in those gaps with what they take to be “neutral,” and come to the conclusion that British singers all sing with an American accent, or that Japanese Anime characters are drawn as white people.

A similar fallacy is being made by supporters of the proposed Québec Charter of Values. Like the cases above, they assume that what they are (i.e. non-religious, or maybe non-visibly Christian) is the “default,” but in this case, instead of inadvertently filling in something that’s neutral with details from what they take to be the default, they are explicitly trying to make an ideal “neutral” person, based on their own assumption of what the “default” is, or should be.

Challenging the assumption—”secular” is not “neutral”

I have heard so many politicians indicate their support for the Charter because it’s supposed to make the state more “neutral.” There is no reason why not-wearing-a-head-covering is “neutral.” In fact, I’m here to tell you that there is no a “neutral” to be found.

There is no normal, neutral, or “default” type of person when you’re thinking along categories like gender, sex, race, religion, orientation, etc. And as far as religions go, an atheist person is not a person who has no religious beliefs. It’s that her belief is that there’s no God. To repeat: there is no “default.”

What would neutrality actually look like?

Imagine a little boy in Québec who grows up in a family where head coverings are the norm. He looks at his doctors and teachers, and none of them looks like him. He has a minor run-in with the police in his teens, who call him “towel-head,” and slowly, over time, he realises that there is no one—not a single person—in a position of power in his province who looks like him. His Christians friends, on the other hand, have all kinds of role models—teachers, doctors, judges, lawyers—all employees of the state who look just like them.

How is that neutral?

If something is supposed to be neutral, it has to be neutral for everyone, not just for the majority.

By saying that a public worker has to remove her head-coverings in order to be “neutral,” we are saying that a certain group of people, namely the non-religious and the Christians, are more “neutral” than the rest.

The test that the PQ seems to be applying for whether a government employee appears to be neutral is this: If a white, Christian person looked at a government employee, would that person worry that she was going to be treated by the government employee differently because the employee is religious?

If your major concern is protecting white Christians and non-religious people from anyone who wears a head-covering, of course the answer is to say that a “neutral” state is one where everyone conforms to the standards of dress for Christians and the non-religious. But really, we should stop calling it “neutrality” in favour of a more honest term like “state enforced atheism or Christianity.”

I suggest another test for the neutrality of government employees. Something like this: If a non-white, non-Christian, non-secular, totally marginalised minority person looked at our government employees, would that person worry that she was going to be treated like an “other”?

If a child growing up in Québec sees a number of people wearing head coverings in government jobs that is proportional to the number of people wearing head coverings in the general population, that would be true neutrality.

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The Grey Literature

This is the personal blog of Benjamin Gregory Carlisle PhD. Queer; Academic; Queer academic. "I'm the research fairy, here to make your academic problems disappear!"

5 thoughts on “Lessons for Québec from British pop singers and Japanese Anime: “secular” is not “neutral””

  1. Interesting take. Also interesting to me is how much of a big deal this seems to be in Quebec. It isn’t getting much attention nationally by my observation.

  2. I’m glad that the rest of Canada is ignoring this. the PQ wants to cause a stir so that she can say after the fact: “Look! Canada won’t let us govern ourselves. We need to separate!”

    I have a perverse fantasy about this that I like to entertain from time to time.

    I imagine that the bill passes, and that on day one when it comes into force, there’s a legal challenge from a First Nations person who refused to remove her traditional head-dress when going to work.

    And then, all the high-profile racist people like Celine Dion will realise just how racist they have been by saying that newcomers to Québec “have to adapt to our rules.”

  3. We live in a strange world when we must continually adapt our own culture to those of immigrants, rather than asking the reverse. Actually, “world” is the wrong world, since it’s mainly only western civilization that does this.

    If Ontario wants to live under charia law, it may. Call me “racist,” but I like Québécois culture and want to preserve it as it is.

  4. @Guy

    Get off your high horse and have a little perspective, you nasty racist hypocrite.

    If you are a non-First Nations person and you are a speaker of English or French and you live in Canada, then you are an immigrant, and the culture here has MASSIVELY changed to adapt to you, an immigrant.

    Do you understand? YOU are the newcomer. I’ll give you a minute to digest that information. (And please don’t reply with “the Ontarians are too,” because I know, and my points still stand.)

    Just because you’re white doesn’t mean that you can write off a non-white culture’s experience as being unimportant. It’s not “mainly only” western civilisation that has to change to immigrants. We white people COLONISED Canada and imposed our language and culture on this country by force, through murder, rape, residential schools, etc.

    Second, you are not being asked to change. There is no danger of French disappearing in Québec. There is no danger of white people becoming the non-dominant culture in our society. And even if we whites had to share the spotlight, that wouldn’t be a bad thing! Get over yourself.

    So yes, you are a racist. You are so racist that you forgot that you live in a country that exists because white people came and forced their culture and nationality on the First Nations of Canada. You are so racist that you think this is some terrible burden that only white people have to bear.

    You’re being asked to treat immigrants’ culture with the same dignity that yours has received.

    You could at least learn to spell “sharia.” I won’t ask you to learn what it means. If you’re afraid of it coming here, you obviously have no motivation to educate yourself on such matters.

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