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.