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Unity and civility can be abusive demands when placed on us by the powerful. But diversity and pluralism, likewise, are also not self-evident goods. The hallowed middle ground – a modest unity – is the sacred but lost country so many multicultural explorers have been searching for.
We are not united; we are tribally polarized. There is much to be uncivil about. And the pitch and complexity of social, religious, and cultural diversity has reached such a fever, its unrest and violence so widely publicized, that we are exhausted by the do-gooders call to dialogue, and badly want the normalcy and security of common rules. And that is at least the one thing French secularism has to teach us in Canada and America: there is no such thing as naked pluralism. There are always rules, qualifiers, covenants, constitutions, laws, and procedures that make what we call pluralism possible.
The French have come in for special ire in recent months, since the beheading of Samuel Paty, and the spirited reaction of French secularism in that republic. Here at home, Québec’s own response to diversity has taken a decidedly laïcité fermée turn, with a cultural twist. Many observers agree that Bill-21 – the law banning religious symbols in public office – is probably unconstitutional.
Yet this supposed secularism of Québec is now under fire, with charges from religious minorities that allowances for Christmas to go ahead undermine the neutrality of that secularism. It exposes the majoritarian preference of laïcité fermée, there is no neutral secularism. Neutral secularism is a fiction the English world has clung to a bit naively, but the French have long understood secularism as a stand in for a particular cultural arrangement, nothing universal, nothing neutral about it.
This is something English observers often get wrong about the French context: these laws are not ultimately about a neutral secularism, they are about French culture and identity. Christmas celebrations are historic to Québecois identity in a way that Ramadan and Rosh Hashanah are not. To the English world, this is casual bigotry, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism. To the French, they do wonder about all the fuss. Don’t they have a right to privilege French’ness in a French society?
I am rather English in this debate. But there is something important that laïcité fermée gets right. It is not enough to say that “diversity is our strength” as though we hold these truths to be self-evident. One must also say that diversity means some things, but not others. And that is, in fact, where the real fight is: religiously, ethically, sexually, where is the common ground on which all this diversity overlaps, concedes to work together, agrees on certain things. Such a ground feels increasingly like fantasy.
How can we find a common ground when we cannot even talk to or know each other across the epistemic chasms of ethnicity, religion, sexual identity, and more? Convicted civility is wonderful theology, but to be a catalyst for social and political solidarity, it needs constitutional context. It needs rules for conversation.
Nobody is against diversity. But the devil is in those details, and Québec – and France – are hardly alone in this, no matter how much multicultural pearl clutching the English world can muster. India, China, Russia, Brazil, Hungary, Turkey, Myanmar, the list does go on, these states far outstrip France’s modest laïcité fermée in rule setting and boundary marking around diversity, and in at least a few cases their organized, state backed pogroms of violence have expelled, exterminated, or incarcerated millions of human beings. And those are just the most extreme examples.
The idea that a Muslim society, or increasingly even a Buddhist, Hindu, Chinese or Russian society should set such neutral ground rules that the range of human diversity would be equitably treated or subsidized is anathema. Doesn’t even Canada push tax dollars on Canadian content and art? Where’s Ottawa’s subsidy for Guatemalan culture?
The point is not to relativize or morally equivocate laïcité fermée – wrong is wrong – the point is that the English world’s response to laïcité fermée shows its blinkered and provincial outlook.
The competition between religious and secular ideologies is hot and getting hotter, the toleration of diversity in the midst of that context is diminishing, both inside and outside the North Atlantic world. And the English world’s response that diversity is our strength is beginning to ring hollow and naïve. Pluralism as encounter is a fiction. The co-existence of difference always requires rules for common living, the clearer and fairer those rules, the better the living.
Diversity can be our strength, but there is no such thing as diversity apart from the rules and procedures that enable it. Laïcité fermée draws state-centered boundaries tightly. It does this wrongly, in my opinion, and in a way that violates clear principles of the Canadian constitution and Charter but that it draws those boundaries at all is obviously necessary, in a way in which the English world seems to live in a universalist fantasy land without borders. It is not all pluralist potpourri. Boundaries will and must be drawn and negotiated.
The American and English Canadian world doesn't like the current French model, fine. I don't either. But they have a lesson for us. A game without clear boundaries breaks down fast, and a pluralism in politics that rewards diversity without asking for a common good, a common set of ground rules – rules for speaking and knowing each other across our epistemic chasms, boundaries for our habitation - breaks down just as quickly.