Saturday, June 19, 2004

"Canadian Values” are Meaningless

My friend, columnist John Robson, has just written a wonderful column in the Ottawa Citizen (June 11, 2004) dealing with the current phobia about morality in politics. It would not be possible to write a better piece on the subject so I want just to bring it to our reader’s attention. We are pleased to have that article reprinted on our blog site here with permission of the author.

I want to focus, not on the moral phobia that plagues Canadians generally and their leaders in particular, but on a similar problem about what could be called our value-philia - - or claim to love the category of “values.” In election after election, it is as if each party and candidate tries to show how much he or she affirms “Canadian values” without ever spelling out precisely what these are or why they matter.

And please note that every side of every question uses “values” to support their side of the debate. On abortion there are those Canadians who value the “right to life” and another vehement group who support “the right to choose.” Both cite these mystical “Canadian values” or, perhaps, the other term that accompanies it, “Charter values” (and often the same Charter value – the bungee cord of “equality”) to prop up their missing metaphysics.

Canadian elections nowadays when everyone avoids the key issues (same-sex marriage, abortion, poverty, the collapse of public education and ethics) to focus on generalized bromides seem more and more to be just an exercise in which group can out-shout the other about their love of “Canadian values.”

WE STAND FOR CANADIAN VALUES seems to stand for something real, clear and substantive. Nothing could be further from the truth. “Values language” as I am (almost) tired of pointing out, is, as the late Canadian philosopher George Grant once said in an interview with that paragon of CBC journalism, David Cayley, “an obscuring language for morality used when the idea of purpose has been destroyed.” Let’s look at that for a moment.

An “obscuring language for morality?” Let’s see. “You have your values and I have mine?” This phrase is recited everywhere in public discussions. Is it true? Then, what could “Canadian values” mean? Any answers out there? We all know, don’t we, that it is inappropriate, wrong or bad taste to “force your values on someone else.” So values cannot be moral absolutes like the killing of the innocent. But, wait; don’t I want (even if I lament it) to kill the innocent as part of my values when I affirm the “right to choose” as the trump card in the abortion issue - - -? Of course I do. Welcome to Canadian values, the perfect language to obscure morality and it can be used by anyone, rich, poor, capitalist, socialist, religious, non-religious etc. etc.

Let us look at the second aspect of that pregnant insight from George Grant: values language he says, is “used when the idea of purpose has been destroyed.” Is that accurate? Do we have a sense of “shared purposes?” Yes. What might that be? Well, for most, the shared purposes are a commitment to - - you guessed it - - “Canadian values.” So the dizzy values affirming puppy roars around in circles chasing his (or her) own tail. We didn’t even notice that by substituting meaningful discussion about shared human purposes with the confused language of “values” we were playing into the very destruction of “purpose” that many of us lament. “Gotcha” says the language of values.

So the next time you hear a politician (or educator or judge) say that they believe in “Canadian values”, ask the person what they mean by using the term “values?” Does she mean a moral truth that he or she believes everyone should acknowledge or merely something he or she feels is personally important like a matter of personal taste or opinion?

If it is an objective moral truth that all human beings share by their nature (a “purpose” for us all) then what practical steps should be taken in education or perhaps law, to ensure that the moral truth is furthered in society?

If you try this kind of blowing away of the smoke of “values language” (as I have on occasion) you will find two things. First, that the person has never thought about it before and hasn’t a clue what she means by the term “values” or, second that even if he or she thinks that the value is an objective principle, they are unsure about what should be done to further the application of the principle because they are usually paranoid about “forcing” something on others even if they think it is a principle that everyone should respect.

For when our education is (as ours has largely been in Canada for many decades now) based upon “values” confusion, and our debates supposedly turn on them, we are just exchanging windy words that serve to air our collective confusions but not a whole lot more.

Out, out, damned “values” and pity those who are led by people who think they matter for the common good.

Iain T. Benson©