Posted on February 2, 2012

Crisis of Cultural Confidence

Father Raymond J. De Souza, National Post, February 2, 2012

Multiculturalism took quite a pasting in January. In the aftermath of the Shafia trial in Kingston, and following hard on a broadside against sex-selection abortions from the editor of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Canadians were full of condemnatory remarks about certain cultural values. Not the usual Canadian way, that.

Equality between the sexes is the bright line in the multicultural sand. Making it as easy as possible to abort children is actually celebrated by some as a progressive Canadian value, but when girls are aborted because they are girls, it is a step too far. Killing of teenagers and adults is not countenanced by law or culture, but when women are murdered in the name of preserving “family honour,” again it earns special condemnation.

The Shafia trial judge was unsparing: “It is difficult to conceive of a more despicable, more heinous, more honourless crime. The apparent reason behind these cold-blooded, shameful murders was that the four completely innocent victims offended your completely twisted concept of honour . . . that has absolutely no place in any civilized society.”

There are actually many things that have no place in a civilized society but are rather common, which is why civilized societies have courts to deal with, inter alia, killings, whether banal or barbaric. Uncivilized behaviour landing in the courts is routine. What so exercised the judge was that the cultural values of the Shafia family themselves had no place in a civilized society. That is a rather different matter. Murder is a crime, whether in Canada or the Shafias’ native Afghanistan. Values are not crimes, but the judge was right to point out that certain values are compatible with “civilization” and others are not. All of which is rather contrary to an older idea of multiculturalism, which held that one did not make judgments about different cultural values.

It was always a monumental dodge, as culture is fundamentally about values. It is the synthesis of what a people thinks about the most important questions of life, death, birth, marriage, virtue, honour, beauty, love and, ultimately, metaphysics and God. Culture is far more about cult than curry.

The idea that any number of different cultures — each with their own cults, whether it be superficial celebrity worship or patriarchal domination — could contentedly live side by side was always false. The older multiculturalism was based on ignoring questions of values in favour of a celebration of folkloric customs. Ignore the cult, enjoy the curry.

That is getting increasingly difficult to do, even leaving aside the extreme phenomenon of honour killings. It was Germany’s Angela Merkel who declared in 2010 that multiculturalism had “utterly failed.” David Cameron of Britain agreed with her, stating that the “passive tolerance” characteristic of “state multiculturalism” needed to be replaced by a “muscular liberalism” which asserted the superiority of liberal democratic values.

So the challenge for multiculturalism in the 21st century is to formulate what values are compatible with Canadian civilization and which are not. Trumpeting tolerance as the beginning and end of all multicultural values is a hindrance to that task. Tolerance is a good practice, but limited: It is not useful in regard to behaviour which should not be tolerated. That task requires the assertion that some values are superior to others, and the cultures which carry them therefore are superior in that respect. Does Canada still have the cultural confidence to make such claims, or have the acids of relativism long destroyed that capacity?

That challenge works both ways, for no culture is superior in all respects, and every culture is in need of purification from its ills. While newcomers to Canada need to realize what Canadian values are, Canadians can also discover anew the values that built this country. For example, in all our cities there are immigrant communities whose hard work and entrepreneurial spirit contrast favourably with wide swaths of Canadian society where an entitlement mentality has dried up the springs of creativity and adventure. Consider those immigrant communities whose children excel in school and who make heroic sacrifices to look after their elderly parents — do they need to adapt to Canada or does Canada need to learn from them? Who is more Canadian then, to put the question provocatively?

The Shafia case is an extreme one, and many voices, beginning with the judge, seemed eager to issue a full-throated defence of Canadian values. That is easy enough when the question is murdering your own daughters. But what about the rest of the time?