In the society in which we live in Canada, as with all Western-style liberal democracies, the health and vitality of our communities depends on keeping a precarious balance between competing demands for rights, freedoms and responsibilities. From the time of the old Greek philosophers, it has been discussed and debated: how far can my freedoms impact on the freedoms of others? Over the centuries, societies have developed ways of keeping this balance, not always successfully, and not always without conflict.
In Canada, we have inherited the British system of checks and balances: we have certain methods of ascertaining and protecting what the rights of society, as distinct from the individual, might be. I may have the right of free speech, but is there a limit to that? I may have the right of personal liberty, but does that mean I can do whatever I want, regardless of its effect on others? These are just two of the issues that we have tried to find answers to over many generations.
We have devised laws, tested in the courts of law, to try and establish and maintain the balance between the community’s rights and those of the citizen. So, we have laws governing speech: the standard is that no-one is free to yell “Fire!” in a crowded building. We have laws that restrict the right to drive a vehicle to certain age groups, and demand a valid proof of having been tested on our ability to drive safely. We need a passport to travel across international borders.
This system we now live under, which balances these freedoms and responsibilities, did not come about easily. Over a long time, we moved from tribal elders to absolute monarchies to parliamentary democracy. It took time to extend the right to vote to everyone, regardless of class, gender, or income. But we still maintain an age qualification. Wars were fought, campaigns waged, imprisonment suffered, by those who worked to extend the liberties of the citizen, even to extend the very definition of citizenship.
The American Revolution brought in the concept of the consent of the governed: that people have a right to choose those who govern them, and to reject them when they no longer represent our interests properly. This led to the creation of political parties and election campaigns as we know them today. There are specific freedoms we can all enjoy because of this process over centuries: free speech, freedom of movement, freedom of thought and belief, freedom to be who we want to be. All this is still within limits imposed by our shared membership in society: we have to live together in relative peace, even where we fundamentally disagree with each other on fundamental issues.
The alternative is to return to older ways: government by the few over the many, or even government by the many over the few, where the few are not free, not protected by law and custom, where the balance has been lost. We’ve seen all the horrors that can lead to in Nazi Germany, in Stalin’s Soviet Union, in medieval Europe under clerical rule, under colonialism and imperialism based on race and colour. Our system continues to be based on the principle: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,’ attributed to Voltaire.
Western society has learned the lessons of trying to legislate against minorities, or those with whom we disagree. It goes clear counter to the society we want to have, it destroys the balance we need to maintain if we are to see our democracy survive. Because democracies are neither inevitable nor indestructible. Democracies have failed in the past, and even recently, when the balance was lost, when one group refused to keep to Voltaire’s principle of toleration. In the past few weeks, we in North Grenville have seen how quickly the balance can be endangered. Refusing to accept differences, whether in belief, gender, or any other possible area of division. Once we demonise the Other and claim they are dangerous to us, it is a slippery slope. We must be careful: most often, the arguments used in this way can be reversed against the accusers with equal force.
We don’t have to agree with each other: that would be impossible, and probably undesirable. But we have to give the other side the compliment of accepting their sincerity and integrity. I believe things are seldom cut and dried as is often claimed in these divisive debates. Each person on the opposite side of an argument may be completely and sincerely convinced of their position. We have to accept that, while continuing the discussion in respectful and open dialogue. Some people think there is no room for co-existence: that would mean the death knell of our democracy and our civil and human rights. We must not go there. In addition to Voltaire, let me suggest a further principle (this time by the Philosopher, Neil Diamond): “It’s a little bit me, and it’s a little bit you”.