21 December 2007

The Road to Hell

Lifesite has an article about some of the recent activities of Canadian Human Rights Commissions. According to the article, various groups (Muslim and homosexual activists) are using the Commissions as a tool to silence their opponents. The Commissions give these groups a nothing to lose option, as the person who initiates the action will have their legal fees covered by the Commission, while the group accused will have to cover their own fees, and any punitive measures imposed. Incidentally, the commissions are not actual courts, and therefore do not have a real court's rules about due process, evidence, and the like. The gist of the article is how the magazine Catholic Insight has been targeted by a few homosexual activists for targeting homosexuals and inciting hatred.

How did things get this bad? Can't say for certain, but it has been my experience that most bad ideas begin by sounding like good ones. This whole thing brings me back to the first year I was a teacher at a university. As part of my training I was handed a sheet of paper at a seminar on the university's race relations and sexual harassment board. The board detailed the aims and goals of the board, and its reason for existence. The goals were to create an atmosphere in which all students felt "comfortable", where no one was frozen out for reason of their gender, or their orientation, or the colour of their skin, and all would be able to learn in a welcoming atmosphere.

At first blush, there is nothing wrong with these goals. I certainly had no intention of behaving in any way that would ostracize people in my class. But notice the word "comfortable"- what exactly did that mean? It was a subjective term, and wholly within the realm of the perceiver. If someone felt uncomfortable in your class, possibly the teacher was a racist. Also, the comfort was entirely within the student. If they felt "uncomfortable" over something said in class and said so to the board, it would be difficult for the teacher to say: "No they didn't!" It would be hard to argue that no reasonable person would take offence, without giving a further offence; or to say they were being overly sensitive, without again offending their sensitivities.

That small piece of paper made me uncomfortable for my entire time as a teacher. I was teaching Shakespeare, who, of all the dead white European male authors out there, was the deadest, whitest and most male of them all to a mostly female, mixed race class. I had feminists of a level hard to describe to anyone who has not met them, constantly harping on the portrayal of women, and how these plays were an affront to all women. I had Afro-Canadians who were offended that they would be required to study Shakespeare if they wanted to be a high school English teacher. I had gay men who wanted to claim Shakespeare as one of their own, and grew indignant at any suggestion otherwise. Most of my students were very nice, conscientious people. But there were always a few other ones, just lurking, waiting to be offended, looking for a reason. We used to say, (I think the line came from a movie) "The issue isn't whether or not you're paranoid; it's whether or not you're paranoid enough."

There is an old proverb about what good intentions are used to pave. That board, and the Commissions were made with the very best of intentions.

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