"That doesn't take courage."

Last week Nellie and I were among hundreds who flocked (ha) to see Christopher Hitchens deliver a lecture about the ten commandments at the Royal Ontario Museum. Attending lectures at museums isn’t my usual Tuesday night activity, but when given the opportunity to see hear as eloquent a speaker as Hitchens on such an interesting topic, one makes exceptions. His lecture covered the expected ground, familiar to anyone who’s read his book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything or heard his recent debates with religious leaders. After forty minutes he took questions from the audience, some insightful, some rambling, one angry.

During the less interesting of the questions I found myself drifting off, thinking about two CBC articles I’d read earlier in the day. The first concerned a young girl in Manitoba whose mother and stepfather sent her to school with Swastikas and other white-power symbols on her skin. Following the investigation which uncovered neo-nazi materials in the apartment as well as general evidence of neglectful parenting, the girl and her brother were seized. The stepfather filed a constitutional challenge on the basis that “his right to freedom of expression, religion and association were violated when the children were apprehended.” Predictably this story was met with horror, and condemnation of the parents for teaching hate to an eight-year-old.

The second article described a law, passed earlier that day in Alberta, allowing parents to pull their children out of classes dealing with sex, sexuality or religion. Teachers fear this leaves open the possibility for parents to file human rights complaints against them based on what they teach in their classrooms. I suppose it would be possible to read this as relatively innocuous, that there are a few parents who are extremely sensitive about what is taught to their children in schools rather than at home, and who would like complete control over that. But the set of targeted topics — sex, sexuality and religion — are all pet topics of social conservatives and make clear the intention of the bill. The language of the bill’s legislative supporters point — none too subtly I might add — in the same direction. Conservative MLA Rob Anderson said (emphasis mine), “There are thousands and thousands of parents, the silent majority, severely normal Albertans that are extremely happy with this legislation…” Reaction to this story, while strong, has been less universal than that garnered by the budding skinhead. Clearly there is enough support for this for the bill to have passed in the provincial legislature.

To me, both stories are about intolerance. In one case parents are explicitly teaching a child to be intolerant of other races. In the other a new Alberta law gives parents the right to keep their children from hearing presumably progressive discussion about sexuality and religion. Note: I say presumably for two reasons: 1) this is Alberta, traditionally a far more conservative province than the rest of Canada; 2) a provincial school system actively teaching regressive views on sexuality (e.g., homophobia) and religion (e.g., creationism) would immediately fall under national criticism, which Alberta’s has not, so one can only conclude the parents supporting this bill must be concerned about their children being exposed to topics such as gay rights or evolution.

So why isn’t the second story as widely and vociferously condemned as the first? Is it because the intolerance is passive rather than explicit? Is it because the Alberta bill is intolerance dressed up in doublespeak (the afore-mentioned MLA finished the above quote  thus: “…, that believe it’s right to affirm the right of parents as being the primary educators of their children on these subjects.” The stepfather in Winnipeg is no doubt counting heavily on a similar interpretation of this right now that his little girl’s Swastika tattoos have been discovered) and legalese? Or is it that claiming religious sanctuary still affords one a certain amount of license to be intolerant in the public eye?

I suspect it’s all of these. The first is perfectly understandable: racism is repugnant to most, and Nazi fascism is universally despised outside of a few pockets of extremism, so any right-thinking person will be horrified at the idea of an eight-year-old being taught this filth, even if the parental law in this case is a gray area. The second is unavoidable; politicians and special-interest groups will always find ways to obfuscate their true aims by wrapping bad intentions in good rhetoric: patriotism, family values and so on. The third explanation is most frustrating, but also gives me the most hope. I’ll explain:

Look back at the first sentence in my last paragraph: not many would argue with the statement “racism is repugnant to most” and yet, not long ago, this simply wasn’t true. Far from it. But just two generations removed from Jim Crow, the idea that lawmakers allowed (let along condoned) “separate but equal” treatment based on skin color is nearly unfathomable. Given that, I have no reason to think homophobia will follow any different a track than racism. Now, I have no delusion that intolerances like racism or sexism have been wiped from our lives, but in each case society has eventually progressed to the point where — for the most part — it no longer creates or allows law which systematically oppress people. Arthur Schopenhauer said, “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” It takes generations to think away intolerance, but it does happen. For gay rights I think we’re somewhere between Schopenhauer’s second and third stages. For secularism I think #2 is just getting heated up.

Mr. Hitchens concluded his response to one of the final questions (which ran something along the lines of, “Plenty of religious people are good, and religion can be helpful. Would you oppose that?”) in this way: he had no issue with anyone who found comfort in religion, and that indeed it could be helpful, but two things must be kept in mind. First, the devout should not be able to impose their religion on those who do not want it — he used the example of attempts to force the teaching of creationism in various school boards in the US. Second, the devout should not suppose that religion somehow excuses immoral behaviour.

If you want to hear the podcast of the lecture, you can download it here.

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