The right to be wrong

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There is much to say on Remembrance Day that could be considered “cliché”. I am talking about phrases such as “lest we forget”, or reminders that we should thank those who have served, and honour those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. These common cliches are a perfectly uncomplicated show of the type of humbled respect we must give to those who have served our country over the span of many decades. There is an important lesson behind all that we teach present and future generations on Remembrance Day, which is that we see the fruits of these sacrifices every day in the form of freedom. Another way to put it is, that veterans have given us the “right to be wrong”. 

When I think of freedom, particularly the types of freedom that we have in Canada, I realize that we are lucky to have the right to be wrong, because some countries don’t even afford their citizens the right to be right. There are places in other parts of the world where human rights are violated routinely, and standing up to these human rights violations can lead to harsh consequences, the most severe of which is death. In other words, simply being right – simply doing right by others and positioning oneself on the side of kindness and peace – is not a citizen’s right in these places. 

When I say that we have the right to be wrong in Canada, I don’t mean always. There are certainly things that society deems wrong in all instances, such as murder and assault. We don’t have the “right” to commit these wrongs, and nor should we. But a fundamental right that we do have, is the right to challenge the legitimacy of our laws, including criminal laws. For example, theft is generally accepted as wrong, but what about the age old debate that asks people if they would steal food to feed their families? This is one example of a polarizing topic that is bound to have strong arguments on both sides. The freedom to disagree with our criminal laws is a right that we have, and one that should never be taken for granted. Not everyone on Earth has this right, and our veterans fought for us to keep such rights, some of them ultimately giving their lives for it. 

In some cases, disagreeing with the laws helps governments decide to change them. This was the case with public opinion regarding recreational cannabis, which was ultimately legalized in Canada in 2018. Elected governments gradually realized over the span of many years, and on the advice and lobbying of regular citizens, that recreational cannabis was similar to alcohol in the way people use it. Having it illegal to possess, sell, and use therefore caused more harm than good in many situations. Taxpayers were on the hook for the bill each time we locked up a cannabis offender, despite such an offender rarely being a danger to society. Criminal gangs were formed which primarily focused on selling and distributing cannabis illegally, with such criminal organizations often leading to other forms of criminal behaviour behind the scenes. Raids and car chases undoubtedly added a certain level of danger for the public as well. All in all, we realized that we were wrong. Legalizing cannabis was a decision that came about from our right to challenge our laws. 

There are certain things that we shouldn’t be proud to be wrong about. It is a person’s right in this country to oppose gay marriage, just as it is (thankfully) a right for gay people to get married. This “right to be wrong” may not be something to be proud of, but having such a right certainly is. This is because those who are wrong rarely think they are wrong. Ethics refers to competing notions of right from wrong. To think that we can neatly categorize, with any sense of finality, what is right and what is wrong, with an “in-group” who conforms and an “outgroup” who disagrees, sounds like a loose definition of a dictatorship to me. 

The reason why we need the right to be wrong even though the wrong is often ugly, is simply because we sometimes get it wrong when it comes to what is right. Think of that same topic of gay marriage – our laws now agree that gay marriage is right and is therefore a freedom that we enjoy in this country, but this was not always the case. Decades ago, Canada’s citizens could be jailed simply for entering into a homosexual relationship. Those who were “wrong” back then, were those who supported the right to marry for love. Thank goodness for the right to be wrong, or who knows where we would be?

A significant portion of the veterans who served in World Wars I & II likely did not believe in gay marriage or any other number of human rights that we enjoy now. This is due in large part to the fact that these were the prevailing views at the time. Around that same time in history, it was also common to treat people differently based solely on the colour of their skin, with little to no fear of consequences or even disagreement for such views. These facts do not make us honour our fallen soldiers any less. Those who serve in Canada’s armed forces do not do so to preserve the status quo; they do so to protect the freedom that allows us to do what is right for generations to come. 

Regardless of changing opinions throughout the years, and ever changing notions of right from wrong, fundamental freedom has always been and will always be what our beloved service men and women fight for. The best protection for a well functioning, happy society is not protection from any specific harm which may or may not change year to year or decade to decade. Rather, the most important thing to fight for in a society that has already attained true, sweet freedom for its citizens, is the fundamental right to be wrong. 

 

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