by Willa Marcus
One of my first jobs in journalism, back in the 1970s, was as researcher on CBC radio’s Cross Country Checkup, the national phone-in show. Generally it was serious political stuff, but around April Fool’s Day we decided to go light. In the era before the top ten list, we hit on a novel idea: plumb callers for Canada’s best jokes.
Because the rules governing radio required it, the program was broadcast on a seven-second delay, a safety valve to excise that which should not be broadcast. On this occasion, we used that heavy, whirling delay mechanism over and over. As the technician deftly pulled the tape so we went to dead air (the biggest no-no in radio), I kept muttering, “Another dirty joke, without the joke.” It turned out that for many callers, Canada’s best joke involved either a Newfoundlander or a French Canadian along with the back end of female livestock. The cynic in me says they stuck to these tried-and-true themes because there were too few visible minorities in Canada at the time, too few gays out of the closet, for jokes honed over generations to have incorporated them.
People still tell the same kinds of jokes. The biggest difference is that today there’s often the preface, “I know it’s not politically correct, but …” It doesn’t make the jokes any better. I still think that the mix of minorities (or gays or women or the disabled) with scatology is about as funny as the mix of alcohol with cars. Yes, I’m politically correct, and to borrow from the burger chain with the Scottish name, I’m lovin’ it.
In today’s world, seeking equality is the frontline of democracy. We’ve moved beyond the crucial democratic precept that the majority, not a self-chosen elite or a dictator, must rule. In addition to majority rule through free and fair elections, Western democracy has embraced the idea that equality for everyone, especially marginalized groups and minorities, is key to democracy.
Our own founding father who lent his Scottish name to the burger chain waxed eloquent about minority rights. “The test of a democracy is how it treats its minorities,” Sir John A. Macdonald is said to have quipped. “And the rich are always fewer in number than the poor.”
On this matter we have come some distance in 140 years: minority rights are no joke today. From the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 through the Canadian Charter of Rights in 1982 and the 1996 Constitution of South Africa to the 2006 Fundamental Rights of the European Union, rights-based documents with significant equality provisions have become enmeshed in modern law. Even the 200-plus-year-old American Bill of Rights, one of the granddaddies of the genre, has seen renewed vigour over the last half century, and it’s not because of Viagra. Rather, it’s because more and more, movements of the marginalized assert equality rights under such documents, combining social activism with legal action.
It’s the correct thing, politically. And if saying so makes me a strident scold from the fire-and-brimstone brigade, then pass me my asbestos bucket. But why does the admission of political correctness put me in line to shoulder a Fox-News show’s worth of pejorative attributes, while an assertion of political incorrectness would put me in line to, well, be considered as a guest on the same show?
For one thing, “politically correct” as a term has the odour of extremism, a whiff of Mao’s Little Red Book and the Cultural Revolution. It evokes the “It’s our position or the Inquisition” approach. And that’s the point. It’s designed precisely to put people like me on the defensive. It was popularized in the 1990s, primarily by those distressed by demands for equality in relation to ethnicity, race, gender and sexual orientation. Whether the issue was gender-neutral language, affirmative action or Mounties wearing turbans, one side would accuse the other of being “politically correct.”
The “politically incorrect” portray themselves as buffeted by the excesses of movements for equality. In their telling, we’ve done what we had to do. You no longer see signs that say “No Jews” or “Whites Only.” But dammit if the demands don’t just keep on coming. So when I hear comments prefaced as “politically incorrect,” I take it as a warning that the speaker is about to tell us that equality is a good ideal that has been achieved, and demands today are out of control.
But democracy is not static. And as it advances, its issues become more complex. Even majority rule through free and fair elections is not so simple. Proportional representation (an issue extensively debated in Inroads) adds a big wallop of complexity to simple, traditional first-past-the-post. But because it suggests a bigger wallop of fairness that would enhance majority rule, it merits our attention.
So it is with today’s frontier of democracy: equality. Thirty years ago, suggesting that two men or two women should be able to marry would have only engendered laughter. Twenty years ago, it had started to engender scorn and anger. Today’s commonplace same-sex wedding is more than an advance for gays. It’s democracy moving forward.
Last fall, it was Elections Canada’s turn to be plastered with the epithet of political correctness. The issue was head coverings and voting.
If you’ve voted in a Canadian federal election, you’ve never been required to show photo ID. I’ve only been asked for ID of any kind when I didn’t have the voter card sent to me in the mail.
That’s now changed.
Voter ID laws are a post–2000 American presidential election thrust, extruded through post-9/11 security. There is no evidence in the United States suggesting a problem with voter impersonation, and the irregularities in Florida in the 2000 presidential election had other explanations. But several states have enacted laws requiring government-issued photo ID at the polls. Critics say these laws further marginalize the marginalized, who are least likely to have driver’s licences, passports or the like.
In Canada, too, there is no evidence that voter fraud is anything but very rare. Still, swept up in the prevailing logic of election security, Parliament last year, with no controversy, passed a voter ID law. It requires every voter to show one piece of government-issued photo ID or two pieces of non-photo ID, or else to swear an oath and be vouched for by another voter.
At a press conference related to byelections last fall, the first votes after Parliament changed the regulations, the new stew of rules got mixed with the hot sauce of fear that Canada is being overrun by Muslims. A journalist asked an Elections Canada official whether people with covered faces could vote. The answer was that there is no rule against it. The brave elections official went further, stating that the rules were up to Parliament; his job was to implement the law to promote free and fair elections that are as accessible as possible to all voters. Later, he refused to use his emergency power to invoke a no-covered-faces rule on grounds that there was no emergency.
These were the comments that set off a firestorm of “political correctness” invective. Prime Minister Harper castigated Elections Canada, stating that Parliament had passed a law intended to require visual voter identification – even if that’s not what the law said. And here was an elections official more focused on making it easy for everyone to vote than in securing the ballot boxes against a problem that didn’t exist.
Don’t misunderstand me. Confidence in the fairness of elections is very important. So it’s legitimate to discuss what ID voters should present. We recognize one another by our full faces, so government-issued photo identification might be the answer.
But that can’t be the end of the discussion. First, there’s the issue of who doesn’t have government photo ID and the importance of bringing the maximum number to the polls. Second, there had been no demand by Muslim women to vote covered up (during the controversy a representative of a Muslim group said Muslim women are always willing to show their faces when asked, whether at the border or at the bank). Third, although we identify one another by our full faces, if both Julia Roberts and I were wrapped up head to toe, you’d still be able to tell us apart – unfortunately for her.
Okay, maybe that last argument is a bit rich for your – or Julia Roberts’s – taste. But it doesn’t really matter how many arguments I present, or how valid they are. Because this swirl wasn’t about the legitimate debate of what is appropriate as identification at polling booths (the answer to which might be photo ID). Instead, this was a platform to attack the “special” privileges allegedly demanded by Muslims, and to imply that their clothing options (and their presence too?) are attempts to undermine democracy.
Convinced that it hadn’t gone far enough to solve the problem that didn’t exist, the government is currently stickhandling new legislation through Parliament to require all voters to present themselves with heads uncovered. You’ll still be able to vote with two pieces of non-photo ID – otherwise too many people would be denied their right to vote. So, as one commentator said, all the new law will do is make you prove that you have a face. That is, unless you are ill, in which case you’ll be able to keep your face covered for health reasons. As there are no reports of voter fraud on any scale to begin with, it’s hard to conclude that the ill are less likely to perpetrate voter impersonation than Muslim women. But the Muslims are precisely the point here, aren’t they? And our government seems to be proud of kicking some good old-fashioned political incorrectness into that patsy of political correctness, Elections Canada.
I say, good for Elections Canada. They’re politically correct and I’m lovin’ it.