By Navneet Alang
The decline of colonialism and eurocentrism in the 20th century stemmed largely from two, mutually compatible ideas: first, that all humans are equally deserving of basic human rights; and second, that there is no objective scale by which you can determine the worth of cultures or cultural practices.
But while these two concepts formed the basis for many of the great moral victories of the past hundred years or so, there is still an unease lurking behind them. After all, one says “underneath, we’re all fundamentally the same”, while the other says, “hold on now – actually, we all have different ways of seeing things.” And it’s this discomfiture between what is shared and what is culturally specific that is the source of a lot of the tension within modern multiculturalism.
To get to a point where we could talk about ‘respecting difference’ at all wasn’t easy, of course. Much of it began when people started realizing that it wasn’t necessarily true that “west is best”. Despite being told for decades or centuries that their cultures were inferior, barbaric and backwards, people across the world began to ask themselves: why is my stuff considered not as good simply because it’s judged by Western standards?
It’s a phenomenon that continues today. Western understandings of individualism, familial responsibility etc. often dominate multicultural discourse, even among minorities themselves. Though a bit oblique, it seems worth pointing out that, as I type this, spell check recognizes the word ‘westernized’ but not ‘easternized’. Historically, for a myriad of economic and social reasons, cultural change has largely been framed as a one way movement from East toward West. And it’s something that many of us still fight against, as we try and carve out change according to a different, if fluid, set of cultural standards.
All of which is to say the following: when you’re a minority immigrant living in the west, particularly a first generation one, there’s a good chance you’ve expended a lot of energy defending the idea that your culture, identity and beliefs should be understood and respected on their own terms and in their own context. You feel this every time you hear someone ask whether one’s parents are “traditional”, or you read the comments under a story about arranged marriage, the hijab or any other number of topics.
But what, you may ask, has any of this got to do with Pride, gay rights or homophobia? Well, I guess it’s about this: What do you do when different, historical expressions of oppression bump up against one another? What do you do when the need to respect someone’s culture bumps up against the need to protect gay rights? Well, I have precisely no idea. But here’s what I do know: in a day-to-day context, it is impossible to entirely extricate the historical devaluing of non-Western cultures from condemnations of homophobia as un-Canadian, backward, or wrong. That is an uncomfortable truth – and do note where the emphasis in that sentence was – but it remains a truth nonetheless.
So here’s all I really mean to say. For a lot of immigrants in Toronto, including many I know, when someone tells them their homophobia is stupid and barbaric, they feel, as they have so many times throughout history, that their identities are being denigrated, dismissed or ignored. It sets up a dynamic of confrontation in which the issue, instead of being about all of us having the same rights, starts to feel as if one group is being prioritized over another. That there are numerous logical contradictions at the core of the discomfort – that you cannot have your rights unless you also accept the rights of others; or that, of course, it is often people within visible minority communities who are fighting for gay rights – is, I’d argue, only one part of the weird, messy equation here.
Yes surely, basic rights are the most important part of the dynamic, and are what we must cling to as the ultimate principle. Years of the complexity of pluralist democracy have taught us that, at the end of the day, there are certain ideals of equality we have to adhere to, even when they override ideals of multiculturalism. And no, no-one is suggesting that upon hearing the word “fag” or “dyke” yelled at you in the street, you get into a calm, rational discussion about sexual identity, patriarchy and cultural difference.
But at its end, this is about strategy and rhetoric. And here’s why I think yelling “stupid bigot!” at immigrant homophobes is bad as strategy. During the recent historic vote in the New York legislature, numerous affirmative voters claimed it was the religious protections in the 2011 bill that made them change their minds. That, particularly to a Canadian, sounded a bit off – maybe even distasteful. But politics isn’t about achieving what you want; it’s about as getting as close to it as you can given the situation at hand. It’s about dealing with the inevitability of history’s crushing weight pressing down upon you. In the New York vote, that weight was the deep ties between American political discourse and religious conservativism. In Canada’s battle against homophobia, it is often the tenuous balance between a history of eurocentrism and the unequivocal need to protect gay rights.
And if that means softening our discourse to those who disagree with us because we are mindful of both the legacy of colonialism and homophobia – then so be it.