Two White Men Discussing Reasonable Accommodation (or Dear Charles)

There have been several exemplary articles over the last couple of months challenging and exposing a euro and ethno-centric point of view of looking at Cultural Transitions. There was the explosive “Can Non-European’s Think” (Al Jazeera, Jan 15) by Hamid Dabashi. There is also the response– “Yes We Can: Non-European Thinkers and Philosophers” (Al Jazeera, Feb 19) by Walter D Mignolo. As well– Robyn Bourgeois’ “Is Anyone Listening to the ‘Forsaken’, Marginalized Women of Vancouver” (Huff Post, December 18) and Angelina Chapin’s “Canada Immigration: Foreign Skilled Workers Struggle to Find Jobs” (Huff Post, Jan 30).

Of course, over the last year, there have been a bevy of other examples perhaps also worth citing, like Teju Cole’s “White Savior Industrial Complex” (The Atlantic) on last year’s KONY video farce; various articles citing like T’Cha Dunlevy’s “The Race is Off” (Montreal Gazette) regarding Hollywood’s apparent ethnocentric transgressions in films like Argo, Cloud Atlas, and Lincoln; Dark Zero Feminism by Zillah Eisenstein (Al Jazeera); Noam Chomsky’s “The Responsibility of Privilege” (Al Jazeera); Rachel Decoste’ s “The Whitewashing of Canadian Money” (Huff Post); the many views in the media of Django as a true black hero; the Africa for Norway fake charity; the Idle No More movement in general; and the very recent coverage of the re-emergence of Mexico’s Zapatista movement.

What all these scattered examples of an ethos of speaking about and against ethnocentrism have in common are that “the centre” is no longer just talking or being talked about, but being talked to/ back to, and or at least what is being alluded to, are “other stories and figures” that are emergent.

Such exposés and challenges to a “centric gaze on things”, have brought to mind an “incident” I was involved in some months ago, with the famed Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor.

Two White Men

On November the 19th, I attended Professor Norman Cornett’s Dialogic Series forum to engage with the invited guest, philosopher Charles Taylor. The Dialogic Series forum’s main purpose is real dialogue with invited experts on various topics. There is no presentation. Audience members and the guest arrive, questions begin immediately and serious discussion ensues. The subject of discussion that night was to be the contentious Bouchard Taylor Commission on Reasonable Accommodation Related to Cultural Differences, co- chaired by Charles Taylor and Gerard Bouchard in 2007. The 2007 Commission covered topics like xenophobia, immigration, racism, Quebecois identity and Quebec’s secular future.

At the forum that night, an attendee named “David” witnessed the disturbing experience I had in an interaction with Charles Taylor. “David” wrote the following about my exchange with Charles Taylor on the Dialogic Series’ website:

“A man raised his hand and spoke, saying he had been writing a book called “Dear Charles.” He read a passage that I found searing. He asked “isn’t it a problem that neither you nor Mr. Bouchard is an immigrant? How can you understand what it is to immigrate here?” Professor Taylor’s response was essentially “we held consultations and immigrants came and told us what it was like.” He also added “we took a lot of taxis”…The young person, who by the way was black, seemed to be sulking throughout the rest of the session, occasionally raising his hand in vain. He was not called on – and I wish I’d raised my hand just to give him another turn. “Oppression is invisible to white men.” This is what I’ve always been told and this has been my experience about privilege. Most of society conspires to conceal oppression from white people, especially men, and it has taken me and every white person I know, a tremendous amount of time and effort to learn about the lived experience of people of a race, or women, or anyone LGBTQ, or from a different class.  I do believe that Professor Taylor probably did a better job than I would have done, but  the gentleman’s question remained  unanswered. au-gesu-charles-taylor/

The “young person, who by the way, was black” was of course myself and the observations I have been making on racial/ cultural exclusion in Quebec, loosely collected in a work provisionally titled “Dear Charles”, was what was referred to. The unanswered question was mine.

To be more precise, my unanswered question to Charles Taylor, was regarding whether he agreed there was a need for a mutuality in the discussions about rights, meaning you have to have intellectuals/thinkers from “minority” cultural communities at the same decision making table as the Taylors and Bouchards. Taylor refused to address my point. As “David” pointed out, “the gentleman’s question remains unanswered….”

Further, as I stated that night, Taylor and Bouchard are formidable intellectuals, but they are not immigrants in danger of not being accommodated. And, as was very clearly quoted by Amy Gutmann, in the introduction to a book of essays on Multiculturalism, Charles Taylor in fact was a part of what “the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas argues that equal protection under the law is not enough to constitute a constitutional democracy. We must not only be equal under the law, we must also be able to understand ourselves as the authors of the laws that bind us”. (Multiculturalism, Princeton University Press 1994, Ed. Amy Gutmann).

Therefore, if one takes this quote to heart, there is an absolute imperative to include intellectuals/ thinkers from “minority” cultural communities at the forefront of the discussions in question.

In refusing to address my point, Taylor assumed the kind of arrogance and “absolute authorship” that excludes rather than brings to the table. Charles Taylor’s refusal certainly precludes me as a thinker of color from “ever” being an author of the laws that “govern me”.

Halfway through the event that night, after realizing that I was the only black male in a sea of subdued heads, I realized that Charles Taylor had no intention of addressing the questions I had asked. I was also not permitted any supplemental questions, as “David” noted:

“The young person, who by the way, was black, seemed to me to be sulking throughout the rest of the session, occasionally raising his hand in vain. He was not called on …”

In this respect, Charles Taylor was an absolute failure that night. To speak of the hallowed Charles Taylor and failure, in general, would of course be absurd, but one must begin to seriously take to heart the possibility of some criticism of his unquestioned authority on subjects of great importance to our provinces and country.

The other question I had asked Taylor was regarding the problematic nature of a “politics of recognizing” Others and the problematic nature/ language/ idea of “granting” Others rights – the very nature of it sounding like a feudal lord granting his subjects freedom. Again no bite from Taylor. And thus, halfway through the event and after those realizations of complete indifference to my questions, I had to ask myself a very honest question: Can two white men (Taylor and Bouchard) really take to task, not as a gloss, but rather in a seriously engaged fashion- the issue of racism and exclusion that they had broached in their Commission on Reasonable Accommodation, five years ago. Was the Commission on Reasonable Accommodation a mere theatrical exercise?

Having intellectuals from “minority” “cultural communities” (whose stake is being discussed after all) at the table in decision making positions with the Bouchards and the Taylors, can more reasonably insure that the real nature of the “state of emergency” at stake for “cultural communities” in Quebec, is not just “known” or “understood”, and then translated and streamlined into whatever report is produced. Instead, having competent intellectuals from “minority” “ cultural communities” who are not willing to acquiesce, ensures that the immediacy of the needs of these communities in relation to the “host” population becomes part of the very fabric of a report and not just a “concern” that may not be acted upon.

Dear Charles – Where is the consideration and engagement with immigrant intellectuals like Stuart Hall, Homi Bhabha, as in in the British context who have been vital to England’s own similar discussions. Is there a deliberate exclusion taking place in these discussions in Quebec? Yet another point of corruption? Theater?

Dear Charles – Where is the inclusion of young intellectuals from minority communities like myself in discussions that concern the very fabric of our lives in La Belle Province.

Dear Charles– A serious discussion on Accommodation Related to Cultural Differences has to have a coalescing with intellectuals from “minority“ “cultural communities” who are “native sons”, aware of the inner workings of Quebec, and not just those who are ready to acquiesce in the heat of discussions along and about those rights.

Charles Taylor slept on my questions and refused to answer or have any kind of mutual discussion with me as a thinker from my “cultural community”. The Commission on Reasonable Accommodations invited people from many “cultural communities” to bring their concerns, and one must ask if The Commission was a problematic one way street of “them” (immigrants) to “us” (Bouchard/ Taylor). Taylor and Bouchard, of course did say, they learned a lot from what people told them. The reality, however, is that “minorities” must not simply be given the stage to express, but in fact, must be in the foreground to dialogue not just to speak “to” those in positions of  authority.

The discussion, that November 19th evening at the Dialogic Series, was highlighted by a lot of self -congratulatory comments from the audience on “how we are not as racist as we used to be” in Quebec. There was one vital comment by a woman identifying herself as a Feminist and Muslim, “that what was needed was basic dialogue between citizens” (for instance, ”why do I wear a veil, what does it mean to me”). There was also one stand out set of questions which sought to really get the evening moving. These were made by the mixed race freelance journalist and filmmaker, Anita Aloisio.

Miss Aloisio, poised and eloquent, asked Taylor about his and Bouchard’s recommendation in the 2007 Commission regarding the competencies of newly arrived immigrants being recognized in highly specialized fields. She noted that Bouchard and Taylor’s own recommendations to address this was virtually still left unnoticed by the Quebec government. Miss Aloisio also asked about Quebec provincial owned media not reflecting the reality of Quebec’s demographics: a lack of content being produced by and reflective of the province’s cultural reality/ “cultural minorities” (we are also not looking for the age old ”immigrant story” type narrative).

As with my own questions to Charles Taylor, as Miss Aloisio stated, “Charles didn’t give me a clear answer- only that he agreed with me.” Again, as this witness “David” at the forum noticed, “the question remains unanswered….”

Charles Taylor did say yes it was painful to see doctors and architects from the third world driving taxis in Quebec for the rest of their lives, but he also showed a kind of distanced engagement. His unclear answer, to Miss Aloisio, was stoic, distant, muted, and effectively an act of silence towards Miss Aloisio, another thinker of color.

Charles Taylor did concede with her that these deep racisms are painfully real/crippling/persistent issues without resolve in Quebec, but it did not seem that the man, whose name is used for the country’s most prestigious non-fiction literary prize, was ready to “throw on a Carre Rouge” and fight for these glaringly missing rights.

In another context, Charles Taylor has spoken about tone and piousness being key in addressing these social issues. However, one must realistically question such an approach in the very “rebel cities” (the term is David Harvey’s) we are now inhabiting, and in a deeply corruption-plagued Quebec. Certainly, the gentleman “David” who wrote about Taylor’s refusal to answer me, probably would have agreed that I should have dropped my patient tone and piousness, and demanded an engagement from Taylor.

The Baby

A real pointed discussion, which would go beyond what Charles Taylor refers to as the importance of “tone” or the “pious”, knows that muffled exchanges on serious topics are no longer a possibility.

Public intellectuals have a duty to doubly seek out exchanges on equal platforms. Yes, exchanges possibly with pious and tempered tones, but ultimately deep meaningful exchanges that address a Quebec, tottering on a daily basis, from its civic to its provincial present realities and proclivities- where a kind of social death seems to be hanging over public and private space. The paradoxes, complexities, and challenges of understanding the intricacies of private and public space (exclusion, isolation, malaise) must be addressed by public thinkers from all communities working together to look for equally intricate resolutions to encapsulate diverse yet colliding views and consciousness’ within a shared space, on equal planes.

As I did read to Taylor that night,

The nation grows its own tentacles, its tentacles reach back into it, its adherents become its detractors, its detractors become its adherents, and then one hopes the nation will not be built up again and again. One hopes that the nation’s optical nature will be apparent, translucent to all who walk along its glass highway, suspended above the banks and the green spaces and the oceans…

Yes, we cannot continue to build the Quebecois social space back up the way it has been in the past. This requires serious exchange among thinkers from all communities.

Dear Charles, this is a utopic hope for something nascent. The “baby’ in question is a very propitious baby that would be unicultural, cosmopolitan, multilingual multicultural, intercultural, dipped in the Printemps Erable with the weight and poise of an Ondatjee, sounding like bands like The Dears, Godspeed, with tones like singers like Lhasa de Sela, sardonic like Sean Nicholas Savage , Ira Lee or Beaver Shepard, with breadth like the pianist Chilly Gonzalez, and willing to experiment with new forms like poets Erin Moure, Oana Avilaschoei, Kaie Kellough – all arbiters of cool experimental creativity- and therein lies somewhere in the reaches a new generation of critical “minority” thinkers, whose parents or themselves came from elsewhere, ready and willing to engage as central characters in a discussion which involves them and their society’s future here in Quebec.

Dear Charles…Dear Charles….