Friday, November 9, 2012

Opting Out

This is one time where the disclaimer at the top of the post is of critical importance. Please read this and understand that:

I am not taking sides on this issue of whether or not people should attend Remembrance Day ceremonies. Nor am I advocating that one should or should not attend Remembrance Day Ceremonies. Quite frankly, I feel that this is a personal decision - akin to decisions about religion and politics - that is best left to the individual. I am merely providing some context and some extra food for thought about the issue of opting-out of Remembrance Day.

One of the great things about living in Canada is that as long as we are not promoting hatred toward a group of people, we are free to believe what we want, say what we want and, within the bounds of the law, do what we want to do. Nobody in Canada whether it is a private citizen or the government can force you accept people from the LGBT community, to be fully accepting of people of colour, to choose one religion,  or force you to be an unbeliever. Looking at it from the other side of the coin, nobody can stop you from embracing the LGBT community, people of colour, the religious or the atheists. While you cannot promote hate-speech or violence toward any of those groups, you are free to believe what you want to believe.

Me, I'm the accepting guy. I feel that our community is at it's best when we all live, work, play and contribute to social good, together. And not this is not regardless of our background, beliefs, culture-differences, sexual orientation, or political leanings, but because of those things that make us unique. I'd much rather have the most culturally-diverse, richly-textured, and nuanced community I could possibly create, than a boring existence of beige sameness and cultural porridge.

It can be argued - and it traditionally is - that we enjoy these freedoms because of the men and women who fought the wars so that you and I don't have to. It could also be argued that European wars and eastern Pacific wars, may have had little effect on us here on island North America, regardless of who won. North America is vast and the idea that a small foreign nation could - in the days before electronic mass media - take away our core freedoms seems pretty far-fetched. Put another way, did we have to send our people to fight and die in a foreign land?

Whatever you believe, the uproar around Edmonton Schools allowing their students to opt out of Remembrance Day ceremonies is certainly boiling over. Unfortunately, the rhetoric coming from the traditionalists is trending toward familiar xenophobic and intolerant tones. Comments have appeared on Facebook, on Twitter and in letters to the Editors of various papers, exhorting new comers to Canada to go home if they don't like the way we do things and that "It's OUR country..." so you'd better do what we do and say. Many comments are also full of the ultra-nationalistic, jingoistic themes that drag us into conflict in the first place. Unfortunately these short-sighted views don't reflect the reality of an diverse and fluid culture that is constantly shifting and trying to create a shared-values system.

Here's a few illustrations to show how that thinking can fall short:

If a pacifist family feels that their children shouldn't participate in an event that, to them, celebrates violence, then they should be free to opt out. You might not like it but you absolutely cannot call them unpatriotic or bully them because they are putting action to their belief system. This is analogous to a Jewish person demanding that Christians keep Shabbos from Friday evening to Saturday evening. Traditional Christians would be outraged to find that their beliefs were being suborned to those of another group. So it is with pacifists. One cannot denigrate them for practicing their beliefs; especially when that practice causes no harm to anybody. Allowing a pacifist family to opt out of Remembrance Day so that they can keep their beliefs intact must be reasonable; right?

What of a family of Japanese or German immigrants? Surely allowing people from the "losing side" or the "wrong side of history", to opt out would be reasonable. After all, it wasn't their families who fought and died for Canadian freedom. In fact, there's a better than average chance that someone in their family died, due to the actions of someone from "our" community.

What of a Yugoslavian family, refugees to Canada because their village was torn apart by bombs dropped from Canadian attack planes? Are they supposed to take off their hats and give thanks to the veterans who drove them from their homes?

I'll address the counter argument that says "if it weren't for our veterans, those immigrants wouldn't have this safe place to come to." Perhaps, depending on your feelings about the potential impacts of either losing or ignoring the two World Wars when they happened, and on your thoughts about whether we should have been involved in the modern conflicts, at all. But if someone puts a gun to your head, demands your money and then gives you your wallet back it's going to take a while before you feel gratitude to that person for allowing you to live. In a broader sense, that's what's at play for the refugees from war-torn countries, where we helped to create the problem. Canadian (under NATO) jets bombed the hell out of Bosnia Herzegovina and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. I think it's a little absurd to expect that those same people should give thanks to the veterans who displaced them.

Please don't misunderstand my motives here. I'm as grateful as the next person to our veterans. I have pictures in a trunk of my Step-Grandfather in uniform, heading to the trenches of WW1. I grew up with him often drifting away in his mind, to a place that clearly disturbed him and from which he probably never fully mentally recovered. The impact of witnessing that mental trauma made a huge impact on me as a child and I've never underestimated what he gave up in order to serve his country and his fellow Canadians.

I am not saying either way, that people should or should not support Remembrance Day. I am saying that it's not for a group of super-patriots to decide what is right or wrong for people to believe.

My family marks Remembrance by wearing poppies, talking about peace and having the kids attend and participate in the schools' Remembrance Day ceremonies. Would I allow them to opt-out? Probably not; because I think the lessons about avoiding conflict and finding peaceful solutions to problems are important lessons to learn. The schools have actively included these themes into their Remembrance Day curricula.

However I for one don't believe that anybody should be forced to participate in something they don't believe in. Period. Case in point. A few years ago our elementary school wanted the kids to wear red shirts on the last Friday of the month to honour the soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. When my son (then in Grade 3) said that he didn't want to participate in red shirt days because he didn't believe in war, we supported that decision. We didn't announce it publicly, but we did give him the vocabulary to justify the action that he took, should he get questioned. You don't have to like it, but you do have to accept it. I should point out that if he had wanted to wear a red shirt, we would have supported that decision as well.

I posted a quick note on Twitter today that said. "One of the hard parts of freedom, is accepting that people may not use it the way you want them to." One of the downsides of freedom is that you have to accept that not everybody thinks the way you do and not everybody believes the way you do; and that it's a good thing for society to work like that.

American conservatives might not like it that people burn a flag that soldiers fight and die for, but that's too damn bad. Flag burners have the right to burn the flag because people fight and die for the freedom of expression. Likewise in Canada, if you believe that soldiers went to war around the world so that you and your family can live free, then you have to accept that some people will display that freedom in a manner that you don't support. That includes opting out of the ceremonies that honour veterans. You don't have to like it. You don't have to agree with it. But if you truly value all our freedoms, then you have to accept it. The knife in this case, cuts both ways. It's ironic, but accepting all that a truly free society allows for is difficult. It takes work, thought, openness, and understanding. Demanding that people bend to your version of freedom and not allowing them to give voice and/or action to their beliefs, diminishes the core values of the entire concept of freedom.

So go into this Remembrance Day knowing that you are doing what you believe to be the right thing to honour and respect veterans. But keep in mind that a truly free society has no right to force that belief and that action on those who for whatever reason, cannot support it.

1 comment:

Red said...

Extremely well said. I often think that some of the raving and ranting I hear is just the opposite of what people fought for.
I do remember although i don't attend formal ceremonies.