Blog 123: Cultural Relativism, Cultural Imperialism & Quebec Bill 21

Opponents of Bill 21 Reject Objectivity

David Rand


Suppose that we are confronted with a situation where conflicting values collide, where two groups of people who come into contact with each other have very different approaches to a given social issue. The two groups may correspond to different parts of a city, region or country, or one group may be composed of newly arrived immigrants while the other group involves longtime residents, or the two groups may correspond to neighbouring countries which seek some way of cooperating. The issue giving rise to conflict may be a social question such as equality between women and men, the death penalty, relations between religion and State, homosexual rights or any one of many other possible concerns.

There are various ways of attempting to resolve the conflict, and I would argue that we can put them on a continuum with two extremities. These extreme solutions are cultural relativism and cultural imperialism.

Cultural relativism is the idea that no value system of any culture is any better or worse than that of any other culture. In colloquial terms, the culturally relativistic attitude can be summed up as: “Who am I to judge?” It is a refusal to judge, a refusal to make value judgments. Paradoxically, this attitude is nevertheless based on a judgment—and a rather severe one at that, the judgment that all cultural norms are of equal value. Everything is equally tolerable. Anything goes.

The other extreme, the polar opposite of relativism, is cultural imperialism or cultural hegemony, i.e. the practice of imposing a value system (usually that of a politically dominant group) over a dominated society, without regard for the relative worth or qualities of differing practices. In colloquial terms, the culturally imperialistic attitude can be summed up as: “My way or the highway!” Thus, cultural imperialism involves a peremptory judgment based totally on who is in charge, who has the power.

Let me suggest a better approach, far from these two extremes, somewhere in the middle between them, an approach which neither accepts nor rejects a value out of hand but attempts to evaluate the conflicting values. I call this approach cross-cultural comparison. By this I mean the practice of comparing different answers to a given question or issue in an attempt to evaluate them. We must choose the objectively better solution, regardless of its origin. The goal is either to decide which practice is preferable or, if a clear objective decision is difficult or impossible to make, conclude that no choice should yet be made, at least for the time being.

Now let us consider a concrete example: the wearing of obvious religious symbols on the job, while working in the civil service, including public schools.

In some societies, the wearing of religious symbols anywhere and everywhere is completely normal and conformist, even compulsory. In others, it is considered to be defiantly or aggressively exceptional, even hostile. This is particularly the case for the Islamic veil, especially the full veil, which is objectively a banner of misogyny, a degrading emblem of the subjugation of women.

Furthermore, according so some people, such behaviour by civil servants or teachers is completely innocuous, a simple expression of religious freedom, or it may even be considered laudable as a healthy expression of personal identity. But according to others, such ostentatious displays of religious affiliation are a form of proselytism which is unacceptable for a State employee on the job.

When faced with this conflict of values, opponents of Quebec Bill 21 take a position which is doubly extremist.

That is, opponents of Bill 21 adopt an attitude of cultural relativism with respect to religious practices in general, as if such practices had few if any negative consequences and little or no impact on other persons. In the particular case where the practice is wearing an ostentatious symbol of one’s religion, opponents of Bill 21 treat the symbol as devoid of any objective meaning and meaningful only in the mind of the wearer, i.e. they recognize only the subjective meaning which the wearer herself or himself assigns to it.

In Canada, this mentality is imposed by multiculturalism which is basically synonymous with cultural relativism. It is important to recognize that Canadian multiculturalism is not a synonym of cultural diversity as its proponents often dishonestly claim. Rather it is an ideology enshrined in law which results in religious privilege, because it promotes an attitude of exaggerated and unhealthy tolerance of religious practices. Canadian multiculturalists tend to criticize only the most harmful and egregious religious practices—such as female genital mutilation for example—and even then they do so only timidly, refusing to condemn such practices as barbaric. Canadian multiculturalists fail totally to oppose less extreme but nevertheless harmful religious practices such as veiling young children or fasting while working in a job requiring mental alertness for security reasons.

On the contrary, the Canadian government, in the name of multiculturalism, even celebrates pernicious practices, such as the wearing of the Islamic veil, even the full veil, which are religious practices which should never be encouraged and which should be banned where appropriate to do so. Thus, Canadian multiculturalists adopt an attitude of extreme tolerance of religious practices as well as an attitude of extreme intolerance of anyone who disagrees with them. They refuse to judge the religious symbol and, consequently, they make a severely negative value judgment of anyone who does see and judge the symbol for what it represents objectively.

If instead of the cultural relativism of multiculturalism we were to adopt an attitude of cross-cultural comparison, we would seek an equilibrium between tolerance and intolerance, neither of which is an absolute virtue. Where religious practices are harmless or do little harm, and only to the person practising, they should be allowed (but not foolishly encouraged) in the name of personal freedom. But where religious practices become more harmful—and especially if they impact others, in particular children—then some legal constraints may be appropriate.

Simultaneously, these same Canadian opponents of Bill 21 adopt an attitude of cultural imperialism with respect to secularism. The idea of banning the wearing of religious symbols by civil servants or schoolteachers is considered an anathema by those who subscribe to Canadian multiculturalism. The fact that secularists in the French-speaking world have a very different view is of no consequence to them, other than rejecting that view with absolute contempt. Thus, opponents of Quebec Bill 21 are cultural imperialists, forcing the application of multiculturalism—an Anglo-American norm—to the detriment of secularism—for which Quebec, like France, is in the vanguard.

Instead of rejecting secularism for reasons of cultural imperialism, what if we were to adopt an attitude of cross-cultural comparison to this issue? Although the concept of secularism, including religion-State separation, is known in the English-speaking world, it is not applied consistently. Allowing a police officer, for example, to wear an ostentatious crucifix or hijab or other religious symbol on the job is an obvious violation of religion-State separation and is thus unacceptable. Several European countries, and not only France, have laws which do a much better job of respecting the separation principle. For example, a law adopted in the Republic and Canton of Geneva in Switzerland bans all civil servants from indicating their religious affiliation, whether by words or by visible symbols, when in contact with the public. Quebec’s Bill 21 is weaker than that, applying to only part of the civil service.

The bottom line is this: so-called secularism applied in the English-speaking world—I would call it pseudo-secularism—is obviously inferior to the more thorough secularism applied in several European countries and in Quebec. The latter helps to protect the freedom of conscience of civil service users and of school students by placing a small and reasonable constraint on civil servants and teachers. Allowing State agents to wear religious symbols on the job violates the religious neutrality of the State which is so necessary to protect the citizenry and which even the Supreme Court of Canada recognized in its 2015 decision in the Saguenay prayer case.

The choice is clear: the Quebec model is better. If one is not blinded by conformism to Anglo-ethnocentrism, if one considers the two models objectively, it is obvious that secularism is preferable to multiculturalism, and by far.

To summarize, when Canadians—especially those who hypocritically claim to be secularists—reject Bill 21, they are indulging in cultural imperialism with respect to Quebec, while simultaneously indulging in cultural relativism with respect to religious practices.

One comment on “Blog 123: Cultural Relativism, Cultural Imperialism & Quebec Bill 21
  1. Gina Bisaillon says:

    Hear! Hear!

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