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Caroline Elliott: Defending individualism and objectivity from Global Affairs

Commentary

There’s no question that racism and white supremacy are atrocious realities faced by racially marginalized populations in Canada today. We need to do more as individuals and as a society to condemn and combat these injustices, and we need to make sure we do it right.

Doing it right includes identifying and addressing aspects of our institutions that serve to perpetuate racism, while preserving those that offer protection against it.

Unfortunately, documents used by Global Affairs Canada as part of anti-racism training (recently highlighted by Tristin Hopper in the National Post) show that the federal government seems to be getting it wrong in deeply concerning ways.

The government’s materials identify certain commonly-held principles as “characteristics of white supremacy,” including individualism, objectivity and the “worship of the written word.”

Far from being tools of racism, these values are typically more consistent with shielding minorities from racism than they are with subjecting them to it.

True, these issues are highly complex and oversimplification is inevitable in a column of this length. But that is precisely why the government’s fleeting yet denigrating treatment of these values is so troubling.

By identifying widely-accepted principles as “characteristics of white supremacy,” the government may inadvertently trivialize and even perpetuate the abhorrent reality of racism itself. Regular people’s very reasonable support of norms like individualism and objectivity might wrongly make them think that perhaps the horror of white supremacy is based on tenets they can relate to.

That would be a tragedy and it is why the government’s endorsement of this approach must be challenged.

It has long been recognized that one of the best ways to protect minority interests is through individual rights.

Let’s start with individualism.

Individualism holds that every person is an inherently worthy being who ought not to be used as a means for something (or someone) else’s ends. Each of us has as much right as any other to set out our life plan, to live freely, and to flourish without our interests being subordinated to other purposes. By placing a high value on personal freedom, individualism rejects uniformity and facilitates true diversity.

Individualism offers important protections to minorities in majoritarian political systems like ours. When we place all of our trust in majority-based decision-making, history has shown that the interests of minorities are the first to be set aside for the purposes of the greater number. John Stuart Mill called this “the tyranny of the majority.”

That’s why we have things like the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada and the Bill of Rights in the United States — because it has long been recognized that one of the best ways to protect minority interests is through individual rights.

Next up, objectivity.

Put simply, objectivity can be defined as freedom from bias in one’s judgements. It seems like quite a stretch to suggest that the malicious reality of white supremacy is served by the ideal of being free from bias in one’s judgements.

Admittedly, the idea of setting aside one’s prejudices to achieve impartiality is not always easy and often unsuccessful. But one would think that we ought to at least strive for it, whether it comes to our justice system, policing, journalism and much more.

As in the case of individualism, objectivity is especially important when it comes to protecting minority rights. For example, racial prejudice among the police and judiciary has frequently been highlighted as a problem by marginalized groups. As we work to address this, one would think objectivity gets us a whole lot closer to where we should be than subjectivity does.

Last but not least, it’s worth discussing the “worship of the written word.”

The written word includes, among other things, the very Charter of Rights and Freedoms that has been used time and again to protect minority rights. And in addition to being the format of choice for many of the world’s religious records, literary masterpieces and great philosophies, it also provides the legal embodiment of the rule of law, which (at least notionally) places all citizens equally before the courts.

Of course, the written word isn’t the only way of doing things. After all, much of our constitution is unwritten, and many Indigenous groups celebrate oral traditions. It’s also true that the written word doesn’t guarantee equal treatment in practice, but the concept is not something that is intrinsically evil.

What we risk losing sight of in all of this is the fact that racism is a very real and very urgent problem.

Despite what the government’s anti-racism materials suggest, though, there are aspects of our political and social foundations that are actually worth defending for the various roles they can and do play in protecting minorities. That includes individualism and objectivity, along with the respect we have for the written word.

Sure, these aren’t the only important values in our society. And it’s also true that in practice they don’t always work out as well as they do in theory.

At the end of the day, though, there’s no question that all three principles are things Canadians should be able to believe in without feeling complicit in something as repugnant as white supremacy. If anything, these values at least try to counter injustice and prejudice, and our country ought to be celebrating them, not vilifying them.

We’re at a critical juncture where racism is finally being recognized as the problem it is, and we can’t allow our government to malign the very aspects of our institutions that arm us in our fight against it.

Harry Rakowski: We can’t shame people out of their vaccine hesitancy

Commentary

Democracy is all about allowing citizens to enjoy enshrined freedoms of choice and freedom of movement.

China rapidly curtailed the initial outbreak of COVID-19 infection by isolating Wuhan and imposing harsh penalties for disobedience. Facial recognition and closed circuit cameras were and still are routinely used to track people’s movements and compliance with government will. Communist and other authoritarian countries encourage people to monitor and disclose unwelcome behaviour by friends and neighbours. They can force their will on their population. Canada is very different, we will have to convince people to be vaccinated.

Mass vaccination is essential to curtailing the devastating effects of COVID-19 to our personal health, the health care system, our economy and our national psyche. We routinely accept that if you want to drive you have to pass a test and get a licence. You also have to wear a seatbelt since it clearly saves lives. Children have to be schooled and get a basic education. You don’t have the freedom to sell illegal or dangerous products, unless of course they are taxed by the government like cigarettes. You do however retain the freedom to make personal medical decisions.

The World Health Organization estimates that vaccines prevent 2-3 million deaths a year by protecting people from dying of hepatitis, measles, diphtheria, cervical cancer, pneumonia, tetanus, polio, diphtheria and whooping cough.

There is an important difference between vaccine hesitancy and extreme vaccine deniers. Vaccine deniers believe no vaccine is safe, that paediatric vaccination causes autism, that vaccines will change your DNA and that toxic additives cause more long term harm than any exaggerated benefits of vaccination. The lack of any true scientific basis for these claims doesn’t shake their belief. They are highly unlikely to accept vaccination for COVID-19.

The shaming and blaming of those uncertain about vaccination only makes their refusal more entrenched.

Vaccine hesitancy is much more common and has many more superficially reasonable arguments.

The largest group who are hesitant are those whose political views colour their decision to decline vaccination. Up to 40 percent of Republicans indicate they will decline vaccination, especially older white men. The polarization of the last U.S. election makes them underestimate the risks of infection just as many Democrats may overestimate what is truly a considerable risk.

The higher risk for people of colour, essential workers and those in a lower economic class makes many older white men feel less at risk. The shaming and blaming of those uncertain about vaccination only makes their refusal more entrenched. Their hesitancy can best be overcome by those they respect continuing to emphasize the benefits of vaccination. Unfortunately it often won’t come from sensible words from Dr. Anthony Fauci whom they see as someone restricting their freedoms.

In Canada there is much less political polarization but it still exists.

Hesitancy by people of colour distrustful of government and religious groups uncertain of benefit or convinced that God alone will protect them has been blunted by wise words from peer groups, trusted physicians and counsellors.

There is also a divide based on age and personal risk. In Israel, over 90% of those over 60 have accepted vaccination and 99% of those above 90. In Canada those over 60 aren’t vaccine hesitant. They know their risk and want to reduce it as quickly as possible. Their fury is directed at the inept procurement of vaccines and the resulting need for a 16-week delay between shots.

Many younger, healthy people reasonably believe that if infected they are highly unlikely to die and question why they should take any risk of vaccination. This concern is magnified by the hyping of rare complications, fear of needles and the belief that natural treatments rather than vaccines from mistrusted big Pharma are the answer.

Our population is becoming less vulnerable as more at-risk individuals are protected. That protection may wane if we wait too long between shots, but for now mortality from COVID-19 is well below 1 percent. What needs to be emphasized is that with the dominance of variants of concern, becoming infected conveys a higher risk of bad outcome even for young and healthy people. Many will also have months long symptoms of fatigue and sensory abnormalities that limit quality of life.

While Canada may not have formal vaccine passports, many restrictions will be imposed on those not vaccinated.

We need to reach about a 70 percent level of vaccination to achieve relative herd immunity. Otherwise we will continue to have a reservoir of unvaccinated people that can get infected with newer variants not yet widely circulating that could pierce vaccine immunity for others. Vaccines have not yet been approved for children under 16 who represent more than 20 percent of the population. We therefore have to convince many hesitant younger people that our future safety depends on their compliance for the benefit of others, even if they are not fearful for themselves.

Those vaccine hesitant also need to see a benefit beyond disease prevention. While Canada may not have formal vaccine passports, many restrictions will be imposed on those not vaccinated. The ability to travel to other countries, enter the workplace, cruise, fly, enjoy indoor venues, and to have others feel safe in their presence will all rely on vaccination.

It will be important to not overly restrict those who are vaccinated with excessive quarantines and restrictions based on the minimal chance of harbouring infection. A major benefit that will overcome hesitancy will be the ability to take off masks to enjoy outdoor activities and to increase congregation. People desperately want to resume a better quality of life and vaccination is the way to do so.

We can’t force people to be vaccinated just because it is to the benefit of society. We don’t shame or exclude people who are obese, unfit, smoke or don’t exercise, even though their unhealthy behaviour taxes our health care system. Overcoming vaccine hesitancy in a democracy will take patience, honest information about the risk-benefit of choices and the advice of trusted friends and advisors. Some people will overcome their fear for altruistic reasons and others because the alternative is less attractive.

We greatly value our freedom of choice even if those choices seem unwise to many. Those who are vaccine hesitant need to be convinced that with vaccination they will enhance their freedom to be both healthier and free.