Can ‘Canadian niceness’ see itself?

Who do we think we are?  That’s the question the CBC asked Canadians a few years ago, and what do you think we answered? The New Yorker  might have answered for us with the above cartoon. Because, cliche notwithstanding, this is pretty much how we see ourselves.

We are gentle people

wrote one Canadian, gently. A hopeful called ‘Future-PM’ declared,

Canada is a land of beauty, tolerance, and compassion.

‘IdealCanadian’ said that Canadians

still hold the ideal value, ‘Do unto others as you would wish them do unto you’.

Another said,

My Canada is beautiful with its … mix of cultures, tolerance, and its greatest qualities being open-mindedness and freedom of choice.

We are apparently

the United Nations of the World where people from all nationalities live peacefully without hate or prejudice.

If this is us my heart is not warmed. Frankly I think this makes us more than a little scary. Of course it’s not very scary, is it, to be met at the elevator by a master of self-abnegation. But you should take care to note that that person is an extremist. (If in any doubt look at that cartoon again.) And this extremism will show itself in more ways than this.

To make matters worse, Canadians are that kind of extremist who thinks all extremism is just awful. In other words, it is highly likely that the average Canadian – an extremist-against-extremism – is a deeply confused person. And every deeply confused person who at the same time thinks he or she is a model citizen  (a beacon to the entire world, no less) is someone to be feared.

Just to be clear, the problem isn’t the extremism. Everybody  is an extremist. Everybody is committed to holding, and holding with utter fierceness, some position on the continuum from good to bad. Where, for instance, do you want to stand on this particular continuum?

GENTLE – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – MURDEROUS

How firm are you about that? Could I tempt you to move with a little chocolate, a promotion, a trip to Vegas? Probably not. You are firm: and just as firm about the awfulness of anyone I could tempt.

How about here: what place would you like to take up here?

TOLERANT – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – INTOLERANT

If Canada is a “land of tolerance” do Canadians ever  want to be intolerant? I think not. I think we are all crowded down here around TOLERANT. If Canada is a “land of tolerance” that’s where it plans to stay:  we mean to be tolerant every day of the week.

And what about here: where do the Canadians who wrote in to the CBC rush to stand here?

OPEN-MINDED- – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – MIND RIGIDLY


Let’s put the whole citizenry of Canada over at OPEN-MINDED, a quality that it was said we cherish. And what quality is this, by the way? Let’s check in with Urban Dictionary:

OPEN MINDEDNESS is when even if you think you are right, you know that you can be wrong and are always willing to listen to and hear an opposing or contradictory view. Open minded people have views but know that their views do not have to be held by everyone. Open minded people also know that their views can be wrong.

Wait a minute. Canadians think that their view that open-mindedness is fabulous and something to be nationally proud of … “can be wrong”? Do Canadians live in a country whose “greatest qualities” are “open-mindedness and freedom of choice” – but that is at the same time a land where these views “do not have to be held by everyone”? How do you get a reputation for open-mindedness while entertaining doubt as to whether open-mindedness is good? I bet the open-minded people are in fact pretty convinced  that I ought to be open-minded too.

You can’t be a land of compassion and be unsettled as to whether compassion is good. And by good I don’t mean good on odd-numbered days.

You can’t be a haven for freedom of choice and be iffy as to whether freedom of choice is – and here comes a word the nice Canadian dare not use  – an absolute good.

What people don’t seem to appreciate is that to hold Canadian values, liberal values, humanitarian values, any kind  of values, you have to be committed, and you cannot be at one and the same time committed  and dubious. If you are committed  to something, you can certainly be ‘open’ to hearing unbelievers air their reasons for not being committed,  but what you actually believe about tolerance, freedom, etc., is that everyone else ought to believe it too. The word that defangs that phrase and renders it harmless (that is, not about to oppress) is the word ‘ought’, a word that – surprise, surprise – Urban Dictionary failed to use.

As Urban Dictionary paints the picture, you have only two choices:

A check box be open-minded


B check box think your views “have to be held by everyone,” where “have to” presumably means, ‘If you don’t  hold these views there will be consequences.’ The B-type person, who thinks others should be forced to have  his views, is a person

•  who tramples the expression of alternative views;

•  who works for control of education, so that his views get across to everyone’s children;

•  who fights for laws that punish acts based on those alternative views.

‘Well that’s not us,’  say Canadians, ‘we are open-minded!’

But these are not the only choices. With these phony options people start thinking that they embrace A while tearing out a page from this B character’s script and following it to the letter! (If Canadians are open-minded, why is there a move to bar law-school graduates from practicing law, because the school they studied at holds Christian views of sexuality? Why are Canadian institutions threatening Christian doctors with professional sanctions if they do not violate their consciences and assist in the process of killing what their beliefs tell them is an innocent human being? If you doubt this take a look here.)

If I were concerned to ‘Do unto others as I would wish them do unto me’ I would not be trying to remake Canada in my own image, by having other people’s  religious symbols, prayers, acts of conscience, etc., stripped from them: I surely wouldn’t want that  done to me.

It is interesting that people believe Christians have such an agenda (any Christian who does is getting a good taste of that medicine and ought to take a moment to think his plan through). Jesus had no such agenda. To misread him as the Romans did would be a bad mistake: he had no designs on government. He told his followers: let Caesar govern Caesar’s state, but let there be, in Caesar’s state, people who know who is Lord of all. Jesus did not take from people; he gave them things they knew were good. Let those who see it give thanks, he thought (the rest will just go on as usual).

I think we are seeing evidence now of what might amount to a virtual Law of the Open-Minded – a kind of Law of the Pliant Mind:

Anyone adamant that he is A (open-minded and insistent that there are no absolutes to which we can commit) will lack the awareness to notice that in reality he is B (a person who is quite ready to trample on others living by absolutes that he does not believe in).

So much for the ‘Paradise of Canada’.

The energy that drives this trampling comes from this person’s own absolutes (we all have them), but that it winds up as trampling  is more or less a given if the only channel left for this ‘absolute energy’ is option B. Urban Dictionary says you have two choices, but what about:

C check box you think your views ought to be held by everyone, but they will have to come around to those views by themselves, since

•  you stand up for the expression of alternative views
(instead of entertaining the view that so much as voicing the Biblical verdict on homosexuality constitutes a hate crime);

•  you believe that in a country of free choice, children are in the charge of their parents, whose job you recognize to be shaping their bodies and souls
(thus you don’t work to ensure that your views on sexuality are taught to every family’s children while at the same time barring parents from exempting their children from your instruction);

•  you believe that you cannot use the law to punish a person for acting on his or her beliefs, unless the act in question breaks a law or violates a well-established principle
(thus you don’t seek to punish doctors for acting in accord with cogent moral, religious, and scientific beliefs).

There are sometimes good reasons for interfering with expression,  or setting mandatory teaching,  or punishing values-based behaviour  (what behaviour does not express values?), but if this reason is not a well-founded one  – if the arguments for these interventions are not well-formed or are not widely convincing this interference will simply turn into that B-type behaviour that the C-type person truly rejects (and has no secret hankering to embrace).

The ‘nice Canadian’ who means what he says ought to try passing his own test of tolerance. We could all be quite a bit nicer.

Edward Tingley


“Who Are We?” (2010)

(The great) Roz Chast, “Canadian Standoff,” The New Yorker (26 November 2012)

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