People often regard philosophical politics and ethics, not to mention philosophy, as dry, abstract and irrelevant to everyday life. They couldn’t be more wrong. Philosophy matters. It profoundly shapes everything we say and do. It determines the nature of power, who gets access to it, and who is excluded. As such, it influences the life possibilities of all individuals and groups within its horizon. The recently Quebec secular charter is a case in point.
The Pauline Marois-led PQ minority government campaigned, in part, in defense of their so-called secular charter. In the view of the government and of famous legal authorities such as former Canadian Supreme Court justice Claire L’Heureux Dube, it offered the opportunity to strengthen gender rights and promote classical liberal values such as state neutrality on matters of religion (www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/ex-justice-claire-l-heureux-dub%C3%A9-supports-secular-values-charter-1.2528132).
As the great English liberal political philosopher John Stuart Mill argues, the foundation of the liberal philosophical tradition is individual freedom. The state is supposed to be neutral on questions of conscience and not promote any matter that is properly the decision of the private individual alone. The framers of the secular charter claimed to be acting within this tradition. However, the realities are quite different. It is a terrible irony of the charter that an instrument allegedly intended to defend women’s rights and individual freedom most powerfully harms women while systemically harming many ethnic groups.
Under the secular charter, the Quebec Charter would have been modified to prohibit public officials from wearing or displaying any prominent religious symbols. This applied to all public officials whether they worked in the provincial department of human resources, public hospitals, universities and schools, or bus drivers. Furthermore, all persons, when dealing with public officials, were prohibited from being veiled.
A classically liberal argument was offered in defense of the changes.
1. The state has a duty to ensure gender equality and all rights enshrined in the Quebec charter.
2. Furthermore, since religion is understood to be a matter of private conscience, the state has a duty not to promote it.
3. Public officials act in a public, not a private capacity, and consequently act as representatives of the state.
4. In wearing religious symbols in their public roles, they compromise state neutrality. Their wearing of religious symbols, it was maintained, de facto compromises state neutrality
Conclusion: they ought to be prohibited, as public agents, from wearing religious symbols.
Premise 4 is not self-evidently true and would be difficult to defend given the many prior successes of government institutions at accommodating religious dress. The Canadian military permits turbans, for example, but has not failed to perform its state functions. But the more basic problem is that, for all of its apparently liberal commitments, and in spite of its stated commitment to gender equality, the charter was ethnocentric, racist and sexist in the following ways:
1. The charter excluded from government, and thus from core positions of social power, all individuals whose identities are strongly religiously defined. It maintains that individuals do not have to wear religious insignia. Yet religion is a core element of the personal identity of most human beings. For those for whom a hijab or a turban are essential, access to government employment is available only on condition that they deny their identity. This is the use of state power either to compel cultural conformity or to exclude individuals from employment.
2. In practice it targets both women and gender choice, since women with strongly defined religious identities cannot work for government due to their religious symbols, and women, alone–in particular Muslim women–are impacted by the requirement that they be unveiled.
3. In preserving Christian celebrations and Quebec cultural symbols, this form of secularism is not, in fact, culturally neutral at all. It is actually the prioritization, backed by state power, of one tradition and the exclusion of others. For notice who it privileges: people from a specific grouping who are overwhelmingly secularized Christians of European origin, strongly rooted in the Quebec tradition with its long Catholic heritage; in other words, people with a very specific cultural belief system and values. As well, notice who it excludes: Muslim women, Orthodox Jews, Sikhs and other racially stigmatized groups.
On gender it is self-contradictory, and on racial terms, it is clearly racist.
The charter debate manifests a difficult tension in liberalism between the prioritization of individual freedom and the accommodation of the diversity that such freedom generates. Liberal philosophy prioritizes individual choice and it values, as Mill notes, countless individual experiments in living. The state is supposed to be neutral between all of these different experiments in living. Yet defining the state as secular is already, both in principle and practice, a choice of a specific cultural tradition and the exclusion of others. It involves the suppression and exclusion from power of a wide range of human identities. In this case what we see is the deliberate and systematic exclusion from positions of power of an extraordinary range of culturally different experiments of the kind that Mill so rightly praises. It reminds us that we cannot explore such crucial moral and political questions of oppression without accommodating cultural difference.
Although the Parti Quebecois were resoundly defeated in the recent election, this belief set is alive and well. We should be cautious in thinking that the defeat of the Marois government is a rejection of these ethnocentric and sexist beliefs.