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What We’re Trying to Say

The shooting at a Quebec City mosque that killed six people has been on many of our minds over the last few days. There has been the predictable outpouring of support and outrage on social media. There have been vigils and prayers and marches organized in response. There have been expressions of love and care for our Muslim neighbours taking place far away from the bleating headlines. All in all, it’s a narrative that our world is growing regrettably familiar with in light of all the religious and ethnically fuelled violence that has unfolded over the last few years.

I spent some time at a local vigil last night. It was very good to be together as a community and to hear expressions of support for our local Muslim community who are understandably feeling anxious and afraid these days. But as I reflected on the event itself, and as I scrolled through my social media feed last night, I found myself wondering about the language we use and the ideas we espouse at times like these. Specifically, I wondered if we are losing the kind of robust moral grammar that is necessary to respond to and combat these kinds of acts.

Whenever Canadians do bad things, phrases like, “this is not who we are as Canadians” begin to make their obligatory appearances at vigils and in editorials and on social media. Except that, strictly speaking, they are not true. This, apparently, is who we are as Canadians. At least some of us. Alexandre Bissonnette—the man charged with these crimes in Quebec City—is no less Canadian than I am. He lives within the same geographic borders as I do. He was, so far as I can tell, born, raised, and schooled in this nation. His passport bears the same insignia as mine does. He has very different views than I do, of course, and a frightful willingness to act violently in light of them, but this doesn’t make him less Canadian than I am. It makes him less something else. Less… tolerant? open? appreciative of diversity? loving? We grope around for the words to use to condemn his behaviour and to distance ourselves from people who think and act like him, but our moral cupboards very often seem bare. So we default to a vague reference to nationality that cannot possibly bear the moral weight that we want it to.

I understand well what we want to say, what we are trying to say when we say things like “this is not who we are.” It is another way of saying, This is not who we ought to be as Canadians.” But that one important word—ought—is a tricky one to use in these post-modern, post-everything days. “Ought,” according to who? Some Canadians apparently feel that we ought to be monoracial, monoreligious, mono-whatever. And that violence is an acceptable way to go about achieving this. Some Canadians feel we ought to be diverse, inclusive, tolerant, etc, however quickly these concepts collapse in on themselves when we start to ask questions like, “Does inclusivity have room for people who don’t want to be inclusive? Does our mosaic of diversity have room for those who hate the very concept of it?” Clearly these values that we reflexively cling to must have limits, but we struggle to articulate them coherently.

Similarly, we often resort to “we are all” language around high profile public tragedies like these. We are all Paris… Brussels… Je suis Charlie Hebdo… Orlando… Charleston… Muslim. Again, I understand the sentiment behind these statements. We want to say to, in this case, our Muslim neighbours, “We are with you, we care about you, we reject the views of those who would commit violence against you because of your religious beliefs. We are all part of the human family.” I echo each of these sentiments from the bottom of my heart.

But on a technical level, “we are” or “I am” or “je suis” language isn’t true. At the risk of being unforgivably pedantic, I am not Charlie Hebdo or Paris or Orlando. Or Muslim. I do not testify “there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is his prophet,” just as my Muslim friends do not accept that Jesus was “for our sake crucified under Pontius Pilate; suffered death and was buried,” that “on the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father,” just as my atheist and agnostic friends would dismiss both claims. When an act of violence is committed against Muslims, I do not say, “I am Muslim” with you but “I love, support, and stand with you, my Muslim neighbours.” This is what I was saying by standing with them last night. But our differences are not thereby obliterated. They are real and they matter, even if I am convinced we must always be seeking to bridge them in pursuit of political stability and human friendship.

At any rate, whether it is appeals to a kind of vague nationalism, or not-altogether-coherent expressions of identity-as-solidarity, it seems to me that we struggle to morally ground both our outrage and our empathy in these ideologically charged and emotionally fraught days. This is where we live. And this will be our challenge going forward in the context of ethnic and religious pluralism, in the context of divisive voices who seek to foment tribalistic impulses, and in the context of the genuine social challenges that arise when people who have different visions of the world and value different things in different ways, attempt to live together in peace.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Rick #

    Well said, Ryan. Really appreciate the way you articulated this. This was a good way to expose the inherent contradiction in buzzwords like “inclusivity” and “tolerance”. Despite the contradiction, I certainly do resonate with most of things they are associated with these days but it does take us, as you say, to this “tricky ought thing”.

    The “ought” is usually as far as people want to go. It seems to keep the peace but it’s like a suitcase with a false bottom – there’s something beneath the surface that we try to ignore or can’t see. Having any claim or stance about the source of the “ought” seems to get us right back to any disagreement we were having in the first place. We can’t seem to talk about that very well. So I’m hoping that your next post will just as clearly articulate the “ought” – it would really help if we could all come to some agreement on that!

    January 31, 2017
    • Thank you, Rick. Re: clearly articulating the “ought,” well that would be an ambitious post! We quite clearly all walk around with some sense of “ought” operating in our hands, but very often this “ought” is poorly understood or articulated—it’s kind of just an assumption that we don’t feel requires justification. My own view is that for most of us in the west, our assumed “oughts” are living off the unacknowledged moral capital of a Christian past that we either ignore or disdain, but which nonetheless forms the bedrock of some of our most cherished our moral assumptions (i.e, the imperative to care for the weak, the value and dignity of the individual, etc).

      At any rate, it seems to me that there is little question that we all have “oughts” (a quick foray into social media will make this painfully obvious). What is less clear is that we can always tell a coherent story about why this is the case.

      February 1, 2017
  2. Chris #

    I once subscribed to the New York Times for a year and read it nearly every day in that time. I was surprised at how often the writers or editors adopted a moral tone, frequently even using the word ‘moral.’ They truly saw themselves as moral guardians of a sort. Yet it was never clear to me what their rationale was for being moral and for showing that their morals were better than anyone else’s. Their moral tone floated high in the air, groundless. In the pages of the NYT, there is no God and religion is an exotic curiosity; yet the writers saw themselves as moral and advocates of a moral agenda. But without God there is no ground for this. Western culture long ago gave up God. The ‘moral cupboard is bare’ because God no longer lives in the house. All that is left is ‘this isn’t who we are…’ Yet, deep down, the people who say this don’t know who they are any longer.

    February 1, 2017
    • So very well said, Chris. “Their moral tone floated high in the air, groundless.” This describes so much of what passes for discourse these days.

      February 2, 2017
      • Chris #

        Actually, Ryan, looking back at it, I think my comment was crap. But you are kind in lifting out the one line that may be less crappy. 🙂

        Peace to you. Keep writing. You are always worth reading.

        February 2, 2017
      • Well, I respectfully disagree with your assessment, Chris. 🙂

        Thank you for your kind words. Peace to you also.

        February 3, 2017
  3. Kathy Shantz #

    Hi Ryan, I saw this post on my FB feed via some comments of my FB friends and read it with interest. I get tripped up by how you examine: “this is not who we are as Canadians” You note almost parenthetically that “strictly speaking this is who we are” but then you quickly move to your own set of values and imply that Bissonnette is really an exception. I believe it is important to expand the notion of “this is who we are.” After all the nation of Canada was born out of empire, out of conquest and near extermination of indigenous peoples. “We” i.e. new comers to turtle island must understand that this is part of our identity. So even though you and I and most other “civilized” Canadians (Christian or otherwise) wouldn’t dream of murdering the Other at prayer, we nevertheless have a murderous heritage. There is now much talk of “truth and reconciliation” but we, yes our nation Canada and all its citizens have a long, long way to go before we can think of ourselves as having earned the right to stay in this land. So this week was a poignant reminder for me of who we truly are and how much work we have to do.

    As a side note this week an indigenous woman in Thunder Bay was struck by a trailer hitch thrown out of a truck window by two individuals who have not yet been apprehended. For many First Nations people in this country, this vile, murderous behavior is indeed who Canadians are.

    February 2, 2017
    • Thanks for your comment, Kathy. For the purposes of this post I was mainly probing a bit at the moral resources we have at our disposal, the moral vocabulary we employ around events like this, and whether these are coherent and do the work we need them to.

      But I absolutely agree that our assessment of ourselves (whatever the lens—”Canadian,” “Christian,” etc.) often isn’t nearly as complex, nuanced or honest as it ought to be. We are all complicit in histories and systems of violence, prejudice, and oppression. As the father of indigenous kids, I am very aware of how “who we are as Canadians” is viewed very differently from perspectives other than those who know little but privilege.

      February 3, 2017

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