Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann. Compassionate Canadians: Civic Leaders Discuss Human Rights. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003. 272 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8020-3664-3.
Reviewed by Michael Kocsis (Department of Philosophy, Queen's University at Kingston)
Published on H-Canada (February, 2005)
A Measure of Canadian Compassion
If you ask citizens from other countries you are likely to hear that Canadians are a courteous and kind people who tend to be habitually polite, by and large respectful toward the cultures of other people, strong advocates of humanitarian efforts around the world. Descriptions like these are used frequently, both at home and abroad, to characterize Canadian society. They are the fixed points in what can be described as a "Canadian personality."
In this stimulating new book, Rhoda Howard-Hassmann ambitiously attempts to deepen our understanding of this personality by probing Canada's celebrated "human rights culture." Howard-Hassmann explains how Canadian citizens' human rights are protected not just by government institutions and courts of law, but also by a unique social atmosphere where the commitment to the public good frequently takes priority over private interests of dominant groups. The book's optimistic conclusion is that the qualities of Canadian political culture are collective achievements of a social order deeply committed to the protection of each citizen's basic entitlements.
The starting point for Howard-Hassmann's study is a series of interviews conducted in 1996-97 among seventy-eight opinion makers in Hamilton, Ontario. Subjects of the interviews were "civic leaders" (Canadians who occupy positions of influence in civil society organizations and NGOs) in and around this primarily industrial region immediately southwest of Toronto and north of several U.S. border crossings.
Considerable variation was to be expected in the opinions expressed by interviewees. But Howard-Hassmann explains that, taken collectively, her subjects showed a strong allegiance to social values like equality, civic duty, non-discrimination, and multiculturalism (p. 4). "The civic leaders do not all speak with one voice," reports Howard-Hassmann, "but ... they do speak with the same tone: one of compassion, empathy, and reason" (p. 23). "Almost all [subjects] thought in terms of rights and responsibilities and in terms of [both] religious and civic duty" (p. 13).
One important feature of this book is its novel methodology, which falls in-between two more familiar methodological approaches. Studies of political culture and social justice usually adopt either a "descriptive" approach that makes use of opinion poll data obtained by social scientific methods, or a "normative" standpoint in which theorists evaluate the underlying moral principles of specific political ideals. Descriptive studies typically provide factual information about the views of actual citizens or social groups, whereas normative studies focus mainly on moral principles and concepts that are best evaluated in the abstract.
These dominant approaches have yielded many informative studies, but each has important limitations. Data gathered from opinion surveys rarely penetrates further than the opinions of citizens in the here and now, and in most cases it provides inadequate guidance on how opinions should be assessed. Survey data is unable to distinguish thoughtful and deeply held opinions from temporary impressions or knee-jerk reactions. Normative studies, on the other hand, focus on developing criteria for distinguishing "reasonable" or "justifiable" political views from unreasonable ones. But it is often difficult to apply such abstract normative criteria to the real-world flux of political debate, and so normative studies cannot always be translated into constructive conclusions or beneficial policy recommendations.
Howard-Hassmann's book is meant to be more penetrating and more relevant than these conventional approaches. It describes the moral reasoning of average Canadians by recounting survey-style interviews, without falling prey to the "static choices" offered by quantitative analysis (p. 14). It is also identifies, interprets and evaluates the moral principles articulated by interview subjects, who are not expected to present perfectly coherent political viewpoints, but whose views are often shaped by fundamental moral precepts.
Each chapter is focused on an important Canadian policy debate, and introduced with background information on the issue. Chapters are divided as follows: freedom of speech; punishment for hate crimes; employment equity programs; the limits of multiculturalism; employment equity; indigenous rights; rights for gays and lesbians; economic rights; and obligations to non-citizens.
These disparate topics are unified by Howard-Hassmann's fundamental claim about the processes of moral reasoning utilized by interview subjects. The Hamilton civic leaders, Howard-Hassmann explains, were repeatedly capable of thinking about human rights issues using perspectives other than those scripted in advance by their particular social positions or identities. People personally at risk of victimization by hate crimes, for example, such as women and members of visible minorities, were not always the same as those favoring stricter punishments for these crimes (pp. 76-77). Personal identity is shown as secondary to in civic leaders' views to principles of public good (p. 136).
In the eyes of many theorists, the form of community that exists in democratic societies is an excessively "thin" one. Citizens of democratic societies are each legally protected in their free choices about religious viewpoints and cultural choices--this protection takes the familiar shape of rights to freedom of expression, conscience, and thought. Since each citizen is entitled to public protection for their privately-held viewpoints, the "thick" bonds of nation and community found in societies oriented around non-individualistic ideals do not take root.
Howard-Hassmann incisively points out that there is more to this community/individual nexus than the "thick" and "thin" vocabulary allows us to explain. The outward manifestation of community in countries like Canada at first appears minimal, but its character is far from trivial. In Canadian society, the bonds of community are more accurately viewed as a deep manifestation of trust and confidence amongst members of the political culture. Because citizens are able to act with compassion, empathy, respect, and shared responsibility toward their fellow citizens in most of their public dealings, trust amongst citizens serves the same cohesive function that religious and cultural bonds serve in non-individualistic societies.
Trust and confidence in fellow citizens, Howard-Hassmann argues, is a positive consequence of Canada's human rights culture (pp. 70-71, 218). Because citizens have confidence in the social atmosphere of human rights protection, "thick" ethnic identities are not necessary in order to maintain high levels of support for shared social institutions.
This phenomenon is reminiscent of the process John Stuart Mill had in mind when he discussed the public interest-seeking "national character" that he thought could be brought into being by mature democracies. Mill believed that mature democracies could develop a high degree of intellectual and moral "competence" among the populace that would enable citizens to "seek civic values in public life" and create meaningful bonds of commitment between individuals with divergent political interests and views.
This tradition of trust facilitates consensus among citizens, and enhances the capacity to advance collective projects and deliberate collectively on matters of shared importance. Howard-Hassmann's findings suggest that the tradition is so entrenched that even perennially unpopular policies such as restrictions on free speech and employment equity programs can garner wide public assent as long as they are widely seen as measures necessary to advance the public good (pp. 70).
Howard-Hassmann states early in the book that she hopes to advance Michael Ignatieff's advice that intellectual elites need to "listen to the voices of ordinary men and women" (p. 3). She acts on this recommendation by listening to the views of seventy-eight representatives of civil society organizations, each of whom presumably has some influence over a large number of both active citizens and citizen activists, and each of whom represents views held widely in particular segments of society. Her interview subjects are not drawn from exclusively left-leaning (or right-leaning) activist groups.
This technique, which the author describes as "qualitative"-as opposed to quantitative-sociological research (p. 6), enables Howard-Hassmann to sample a range of relevant views held by ordinary citizens across the political culture. The results in many cases are quite edifying. By asking her subjects about policies associated with multiculturalism, for example, Howard-Hassmann shows that there exists among Canadians a quite sophisticated understanding of the political principles and justice-based arguments supporting these policies.
Civic leaders largely endorsed the view that the legitimacy of the Canadian government is derived from equal concern and respect for each citizen (p. 74). Equal respect, interviewees also realized, occasionally requires special courses of action tailored to the special needs of minority and immigrant citizens (p. 116). Sometimes these courses of action might simply include tolerance of the religious customs or cultural practices of minority citizens or restrictions on speech in the public domain (p. 56). On other occasions they might involve official policies aimed at advancing economic and social equality, such as employment equity programs (p. 139). Whether or not one agrees with arguments (such as these) that support "multiculturalist" policies, Howard-Hassmann has achieved a fascinating result by demonstrating that public opinion leaders appeal to these arguments as they grapple with human rights issues.
Moreover, the civic leaders were well aware of the fact that the "special rights" accorded to minority groups were not without limits: they apparently understood the underlying rationale for fair limits and restrictions (pp. 119-123). By choosing to make a new life in a democratic country, immigrants accept a certain "cultural risk," to use Michael Walzer's term. They agree to accept certain fair restrictions on the cultural practices they will be able to maintain. Equal concern and respect for citizens requires us to disqualify (those rare) cultural practices that suppress women, subject children to injury, or give certain members of a culture inordinate power over others.
This way of thinking, Howard-Hassmann suggests, is a distinctive feature of the Canadian understanding of multiculturalism, and it is by and large accepted as an essential component of the "Canadian way" (p. 128). Whereas other immigrant societies (like the United States and Australia) have often viewed cultural differences as characteristics that should be diluted by assimilation and integration, Howard-Hassmann's civic leaders were able to grasp the complex moral claims that both reinforce and constrain public recognition of cultural difference. Interestingly, the views of Canadian "opinion leaders" often resonate with the positions defended by prominent Canadian intellectuals.
In general, Howard-Hassmann has provided us with an honest and perceptive insight into the views of her subjects. However, questions can be raised about her method, or at least about the conclusions she attempts to draw from it.
Despite the intriguing results presented, the book's methodology has its limitations, which call some aspects of Howard-Hassmann's portrayal into question. For example, she describes her study as revealing aspects of Canada's "national" political culture, but one could ask whether the findings are instead much more local. The book's title (Compassionate Canadians) suggests that Howard-Hassmann is trying to identify definitive conclusions about the character of Canadian society, not just the local characteristics of Hamilton. The views of the Hamilton civic leaders are said to be "possibly typical" of the broader Canadian public (p. 231), and Howard-Hassmann often suggests that her study of local activists can be extended to a larger domain. She often substantiates this suggestion by pointing to national opinion poll data. Even so, not all readers will enthusiastically accept the inference from the data gathered by Howard-Hassmann to the descriptions of national personality that form the main conclusions of the book.
Firstly, it could be argued that her interview results are tainted by demographic characteristics. The group of subjects was highly educated, has a high level of activity in civic organizations, and has an average age of fifty (p. 10). And, of course, they are all urban. A high proportion of subjects were either recent immigrants or new citizens. These characteristics, critics might say, suggest that the group of subjects represents not "ordinary" Canadians but a rather specific sample of Canadian views.
Additionally, the local character of the city of Hamilton is perhaps relevant. It would have been helpful if the book had spelled out the relationship between patterns of immigration, civic institutions, and the acceptance of newcomers in this major manufacturing center with a history of accepting large numbers of immigrants and refugees in order to enhance economic growth. The city of Hamilton is currently in the midst of an economic and political transformation, due to a spate of recent failures in local industrial operations as well as municipal restructuring imposed by the Government of Ontario. The book leaves these potentially informative and interesting local implications largely unexplored.
Other surprising omissions include "the complicated question of language rights in Canada," and the "division of responsibilities between the rest of Canada and Quebec" (p. 3). It would have been interesting to hear what Howard-Hassmann's interviewees would say about the issues of Quebec nationalism and division of federal powers, issues that are relevant to any discussion of Canada's political culture. One cannot think of a more contentious issue within the Canadian human rights scene than the debate about language restrictions in the province of Quebec (Bill 101).
These issues are about collective rights, Howard-Hassmann suggests, and therefore they fall outside the scope of the book. Nonetheless, to the extent that these issues are really matters of collective rights, so are the other questions taken up in the sections of the book dedicated to multiculturalism. Additionally, Howard-Hassmann says little about the human rights of the physically and mentally impaired, even though this constituency has often been at the forefront of the movement to develop human rights protections in public institutions and Provincial Tribunals.
Another point worth mentioning concerns the concept of "human rights" that underpins the book. Like many other experts in the field of human rights, Howard-Hassmann adopts a broad and inclusive interpretation. Because it has become the dominant approach in Canadian political life, this is a natural interpretation to adopt in a book like this. In public institutions and large organizations of all kinds, the broad conception is used as the basis for a very important and successful series of government policies. Those who experience inequality, unfair treatment and injustice within universities, for example, can often find representation and redress at their "Human Rights Office."
However, there is also a narrow or "minimalist" interpretation of human rights. On this minimalist view, human rights comprise the special class of basic legal rights, such as the right to life and personal safety, rights against torture, and rights to food and shelter, which protect the most basic aspects of human well-being. To take into account the minimal content included in basic rights, the philosopher John Rawls has referred to them as "human rights proper."
It is an interesting question why the concept of human rights used widely in Canada is not the minimalist sense (as "human rights proper"), but the more expansive sense applied by Howard-Hassmann and other experts. To my mind, the rights described in Howard-Hassmann's book would best be described as "equality rights," or "Charter rights" (referring to the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms). The more we expand the concept of human rights to include (for example) gender equality rights, labor market rights, economic rights, and other "higher-order" entitlements, the more we are likely to encounter debates about whether human rights are "Eurocentric," and about whether it is appropriate to impose such expansive human rights norms on non-Western societies and cultural groups.
The widespread use in Canada of the more expansive interpretation is easily explained by the power of this concept for motivating social advocates and for mobilizing public opinion. It would not be prudent to attempt to constrain the use of this concept after advocates have enlisted it so effectively in their efforts to promote social justice. But perhaps we should also ask what is lost by too quickly assuming that aspects of social inclusion and social justice are matters of "human rights."
In the end, Howard-Hassmann concludes that the basic rights of Canadians are for the most part secure. Because the Canadian population has accepted and entrenched human rights as a core value, these rights are likely to withstand the challenges they will face in the years to come (p. 232).
Like the others in Howard-Hassmann's book, this is an optimistic conclusion to draw. Still, there is something distinctively Canadian about these conclusions that undoubtedly brings us a few steps closer to understanding the Canadian personality.
. Some examples of this descriptive approach are Paul M. Sniderman, Philip E. Tetlock, Peter H. Russell and Joseph F. Fletcher, The Clash of Rights: Liberty, Equality and Legitimacy in a Pluralist Democracy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996); and James Q. Wilson, The Moral Sense (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). One example of the normative approach is published as a collection of essays by Canadian political thinkers; see R. Beiner and W. Norman, Canadian Political Philosophy: Contemporary Reflections (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); also see Will Kymlicka, Finding Our Way: Rethinking Ethnocultural Relations in Canada (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998); and Charles Taylor, Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994).
. For the original argument see John Stuart Mill, "Considerations on Representative Government," in On Liberty and Other Essays, ed. John Gray (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), especially chaps. 3-6. Also see the in-depth analysis of Mill's view contained in Dennis F. Thompson, John Stuart Mill and Representative Government (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1976), especially chap. 2.
. Representative works by these intellectuals include Will Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); Margaret Moore, "Liberal Nationalism and Multiculturalism" in Beiner and Norman, Canadian Political Philosophy, pp. 177-193; and Taylor, Multiculturalism.
. John Rawls's use of this terminology is found in The Law of Peoples (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001). A recent clarification of the minimalist interpretation is found in Richard Falk, "Human Rights," Foreign Policy (March/April 2004), pp. 18-28.
. A detailed description of some of the challenges facing cross-cultural implementation of human rights norms can be found in Joanne R. Bauer and Daniel A. Bell, eds., The East Asian Challenge for Human Rights (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
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Michael Kocsis. Review of Howard-Hassmann, Rhoda E., Compassionate Canadians: Civic Leaders Discuss Human Rights.
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