Friday, January 19, 2007

Committing -- Canadian Style

Part 1 (nothing to do with the title):

I actually typed this post last night, but lost the post through misunderstanding the way tht Blogger works. It is annoying to think and type and reach the point of publish, only to lose the whole. But I have been processing these particular thoughts for a few weeks, so re-writing them is perhaps a good thing, however frustrating.

Part 2 (the actual post):
Some posts ago I observed that Canadian universities exhibit less school spirit than their American counterparts, and that this reticence mirrors the overt patriotism of Americans as compared to the understated Canadian version.

I have asked a number of Canadian friends for explanations, without real success. Like defining what it means to be a Canadian, we are reticent with reasons for our laid-back approach to life. In this context I advance one possible explanation. It is at best partial, and cannot be the whole reason; but if I am right in my diagnosis, it is an important feature of our national character, and source of significant problems in our lives together.

It is a commonplace in the study of culture that Western societies generally have built on the rights and dignity of the individual. The Declaration of Independence in the United States begins: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”. We (Americans) have (as I have heard a commentator observe) fought a war to determine whether or not “all men” includes Black people”, and worked through a difficult period we call the suffragette movement to determine whether or not “all men” includes men and women. We have, so far, concluded that the term is inclusive. (For a separate post: the next struggle may be to determine whether the term “all men” means people from all nations, or “all Americans”.)

My own hunch is that Canadian society has taken this emphasis on emphasis on the individual further than most countries in the world. I don’t know who else has gone as far as we (Canadians) have: perhaps some of the Scandinavian countries; perhaps the Netherlands. One the whole, however, I suggest that we have gone further than anyone else, although we are all going in the same direction.

In Canada this emphasis on the individual is enshrined in The Charter of Rights and Freedoms, with its repeated phrasing of “everyone” or “each individual”. One particular product of our Charter rights is the Privacy Legislation, which has worked out in surprising ways in the past years. I teach at Providence College and Seminary. If I ask where a particular student is, so as to give him/her a message, the school is not allowed to answer the question, not even to say if the student is in class or not. The student’s privacy is held to be infringed by telling me where he/she is. One can multiply examples: the depressed patient released from a Winnipeg hospital, which was not allowed to inform his family – even though the patient went out and committed suicide.

In theory, the rights of the individual and the importance of the larger community are held in balance. In practice, I suggest, the rights of the individual generally trump community in Canada. The Liberal Party of Canada articulates this emphasis in the first sentence of its section on philosophy on its web page: “The Liberal Party of Canada believes that the dignity of each individual man and woman is the fundamental principle of democratic society. All political organization and activity emanates from this guiding principle.” In this respect I suggest that all of the political parties are essentially the same, reflecting a radical emphasis on the rights of the individual, unique in the history of human societies.

What does all of this have to do with school spirit, or patriotic fervour? One aspect of a radical individualism is its reluctance to commit to the larger community. I suggest that in this respect Americans are more oriented to the larger community and Canadians are more oriented to the individual self.

There are positive and negative aspects of our national characters for both Americans and Canadians. This reluctance to commit to the larger group within the Canadian psyche is, of course, a matter of tendency only: Canadians have committed deeply in the past, and within every local community many individuals commit to club, to church, to group of friends. But even after I add all the qualifiers, I remain uncomfortable with this piece of my Canadian self: reluctance to commit to the larger community. True enough that American patriotism shows its own dark side in the willingness to follow a leader into military action overseas; but selfish individualism is no cure for misguided patriotism.

In the end, I will continue singing along to “Jerusalem”, and “Fight On, Penn State!”


KGMom said...

I just wrote a whole response, went to post it, and it was GONE! LOST.
Anyway, I think this is what I said.
I am not so sure that the privacy examples that you use derive from The Charter of Rights and Freedoms. For example, in the US hospitals are not allowed to release any personal information because of HIPAA regs (can't remember what the acronym stands for). But, for example, CHURCHES cannot be told when parishioners are in hospital, due to privacy regs.
In the college where I teach, I dare not release any information pertaining to a student except DIRECTLY to that student. So, if a student asks in an email what she got on an exam, I can't tell her. And I leave NOTHING specific on a telephone answering machine.
Not sure that this entirely relates to your overall post, but just thought I'd opine.

Climenheise said...

These indicate American examples of the same cultural assumption at work. We need to protect individuals, and privacy rights are critical; but the way we are working them out seems flawed to me, at best.

The aims for which the legislation works may be good; the means used are destructive of community.

I would not say, by the way, that the privacy act is a consequence of the Charter; rather I would say that both are outworkings of the impulse to individualism within our society.

Climenheise said...

Two further thoughts. One: You lost a response too. Maybe we're not supposed to be speaking about this! Two: I see that I did connect the Privacy Legislation and the Charter in my original post. My re-wording in response to your comment is more accurate.

I would note that privacy laws in Pennsylvania and Manitoba take related but different shapes. Similar social forces are at work, but within two different legal systems.