Dr. Dawg

Anthropological illiteracy and the Quebec Charter of Values

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Cross National Asembly.JPG

The cou-rouges of Hérouxville will be celebrating tonight, as their cramped dreams of Quebec purity, almost snuffed out by a ferocious backlash (or is that frontlash?), return at a higher level in a perfect Hegelian synthesis. This time around, hérouxvillisme will become the law of the land, right across la belle province. Bravo!

There will be intense discussions, but count me out. I’m finding it too hard to engage. The difficulty that I’m having as this xenophobic comic-opera unfolds is with the terms of the debate. I can’t find any purchase, as notions of “culture,” Canadian/Québec “identity,” “unity” and “values” swirl around us. These are largely empty signifiers, at best place-holders for various forms of ethnic triumphalism/racism that used to be signified more crudely and specifically, prefaced by the well-worn phrase “espèce de _. There were the pure laines and les autres, as the crude binary had it. And that current is still flowing, a vast underground river from which the Right and allegedly “progressive” elements in the Parti Québécois periodically refresh themselves.

The crucifix will be kept in the National Assembly solely for its historical value, we are told. It’s a “cultural” thing. But the history and “culture” condensed in the yarmulke, the turban, hijab and other apparently objectionable signs, not solely of belief but of background, will be under the ban for public employees. How easily does “religion” get shoved in and out of “culture,” and history, by the party in power, as the political fancy strikes.

I was trying to make a succinct point in this earlier short blogpost, but let me make it again, more bluntly: Christians are virtually unaffected by this initiative, and that’s no coincidence. The pur et dur will keep their giant crucifix over the very seat of government, and their occasional unobtrusive jewellery will not be banned. This isn’t real secularism, which in its more liberal forms accommodates differences while privileging none; it’s a fake version, one that targets les autres while leaving the dominant group untouched.

“Culture” is not a thing. It’s a fluid, ever-changing, dynamic process without borders. There is no “this culture” or “that culture,” frozen in time. When we think of Inuit “culture,” for example, its soapstone carving, square dancing and syllabics, we must remind ourselves that all of these things were once imported from the south. Yet any Inuk would point proudly to them as ethnic markers, and rightly so. They have become just that, and serve as points of distinction.

But ethnicity is fundamentally political. “Culture,” on the other hand, if the word has any meaning at all, is how people unselfconsciously go about their lives. This can’t be codified or contained, nor can boundaries be easily drawn between one “culture” and another. In fact I would suggest that they cannot be drawn at all, and that a pluralizable “culture” doesn’t exist. Supposedly “authentic” cultures are a flux of ceaseless borrowings, adaptations, combinations, recombinations, and contestations—they have no walls around them, in fact there is no “them,” particularly in this age of global information-flows on a previously unimaginable scale.

So why do people stick so doggedly to the concept? As a means of asserting political and social dominance. When people blithely talk about the “Canadian identity,” for example, I always asked them to tell me what it means in a country with French, English, First Nations, Métis and Inuit origins. Usually it turns out to mean something that Anglo individuals prize, and oddly enough it always looks and sounds just like them. Meanwhile the pure laines have their own self-conscious identity in mind, and other groups theirs as well. “Nunavut,” for example, means “our land”—as opposed to other people’s land. It’s a political notion. “Inuit,” on the other hand, simply means “human beings.”

“Identity,” then, doesn’t get us any further ahead than “culture.” It’s just another way of expressing something frozen in time that the dominant group can use as a rhetorical nightstick when “the others” get too far out of line, or when the proximity of the US gets us worried and insecure. There is no such thing as “identity,” in its essentializing sense. There is no “Canadian-ness,” “Québec-ness,” or “Aboriginal-ness.” Here’s the shocker—we are all “others,” to each other and even to ourselves.

And “values”—don’t get me started. Values are lived, organic, socially shaped, re-shaped and ceaselessly contested—they aren’t a written list of things to be stuck on a wall. My values aren’t my parents’ values. They’re obviously not every Canadian’s values. Neither are yours. Just try to pin down what a “value” is, in any case, and watch it slip from your hands like an eel.

As for “unity” in a 12 million-member grouping, best not even try that one on, Mme. Marois. It is to laugh. It means everything and nothing. It’s just one more empty signifier in the hands of rhetorical thugs.

But the same false assumptions bedevil “our” side of the discussion too. “Multiculturalism” compounds the felony. Instead of two or three boxes, we now have a warehouse full of them. Identities abound. Think food, costumes, folk-dancing and other ethnic markers, and of course language. (I love hot Indian food. Am I bothered that chili peppers, which originated in the Americas, were imported into India by the Portuguese colonizers of Goa province? Not at all.) Language does set people apart, but in Europe most folks speak several. In diglossic Italy, everyone speaks a Tuscan lingua franca and their own provincial dialect—which can differ markedly from the former.

Language all by itself has never been the source of an ethnic conflict, even if it is sometimes presented as such. Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, in fact, speak the same language. Serbian and Croatian are mutually comprehensible, too. There’s always something more at stake—unequal power, struggles for hegemony, other socio-political factors. In Québec, emerging from the dark shadow of clerico-fascism and its English supervisors, nationalism was an inevitable consequence, and language was a touchstone. In Montreal, where I lived as a kid, you never had to speak French, and the commercial signs were mostly in English That said something, and needless to say, Premier Jean Lesage’s quiet revolutionaries wanted to say something right back.

But right now, with the two strains of xenophobia and progressive social values thoroughly entangled in public policy, matters are much more complex. I’d really like to discuss that on its own terms. But can we end-run fallacious but deep-seated notions of identity, values and culture and get to the meat of the thing?

I’m pessimistic, but have at it.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on September 10, 2013 11:36 AM.

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