(Image Credit: zeevveez via flickr.com; the image is at this link. Used without modification under Creative Commons Licence)
The controversy over flying the Pride flag in York Region schools is an example of how, by demanding unquestioning acquiescence, Progressivism has acquired one of the characteristics of totalitarian ideologies.
PRIDE OF PLACE
In the waning days of the month of May, the news that Trustees at York Region’s Catholic District School Board (YCSDB) in Ontario had voted against flying the Pride flag attracted much criticism. What is noteworthy here, before we jump into a discussion of the issue itself, is that while this majority 6-4 decision is vehemently contested in the public square, elsewhere in Ontario, the shenanigans under way at Waterloo Region District Board to replace two Trustees haven’t elicited nearly as intense a response from an equally wide cross-section of the Canadian society. In both cases, the core issue is the functioning of a democratic institution involving elected representatives of the people. This disparity in the public awareness of and reaction to the two issues is a sad reminder of the polarization that has taken place in the society in Canada.
In the case of the YRSDB / Pride flag issue, the criticism of the decision boils down to the claim that not flying the Pride flag would make the schools there unsafe. After observing the controversy for a couple of days, I tweeted a question that (I think) is obvious: How does not flying the flag make these schools unsafe? My tweet elicited much response, and I am grateful to everyone who replied to it; the replies have helped me delve deeper into the aspects and concepts involved in this matter.
The way I see it, the contention that not flying the Pride flag makes the schools unsafe is based on three premises: (1) that the schools are otherwise dangerous places for LGBTQ students (pardon me if the acronym isn’t complete; it changes too often for me to keep track of the latest version), (2) that the LGBTQ students (and possibly others) sense this danger, and (3) that the flag, once flown on the school premises, removes this danger. To the best of my ability, I tried to engage with everyone who replied, especially when the reply was in the tone of justifying the claim that not flying the Pride flag makes the schools unsafe. My conclusion from the extensive dialogue is that no one was able to prove premise # 3. It is clear to me that we are supposed to accept the claim as an article of faith.
FEELINGS V/S FACTS
The most common response in favour of keeping the Pride flag was that it is a message of ‘acceptance’ to LGBTQ students, which would put them at ease. My view on this is that to the extent that the flag does reduce their anxiety or fear, there is some value in the symbol – but this still does not explain how the actual danger, on the presence of which the whole exercise is premised, gets eliminated by that flag. The simplest analogy to explain my point is if a house or community has a wildfire raging nearby; the arrival of a firefighting team would be a great relief to the inhabitants – but the risk of their houses going up in flames would still remain. It is only if and when the firefighting crew manages to tame the wildfire that the danger will have passed. And unfortunately, there are times when all the valiant efforts of the firefighting teams to prevent the house(s) from being consumed by the wildfire come to naught – as we saw in 2016 at Fort McMurray. In a nutshell, the visible presence of a remedy (if the Pride flag is one) does not suffice to extinguish the presumed danger.
This distinction between a sign of hope and the removal of danger is the key here, but my correspondents were either unwilling or unable to see it. Instead, they said that I was ‘being obtuse’ or ‘arguing in bad faith’ or that I was ‘just asking questions’ (which is supposed to convey mocking disagreement in the meme-world) etc. Also, while the presence of the flag has a clear meaning, its absence can be ascribed to various factors, but the pro-flag crowd insists that it can only be due to bigotry / transphobia / hate / (insert negative motivation here). This denies the other person the opportunity to explain why they don’t want the flag to be flown. As someone put it succinctly in my twitter thread: “How does refraining to display a symbol cause harm?’
THE ’WHATABOUTERY’ AREA
At the risk of inviting accusations of engaging in ‘whataboutery’, I will ask if this danger is also perceived / existing in relation other identity groups, and whether flying their respective flags will also eliminate that risk. If flying a flag is a panacea for making a school safe from danger, that should be a no-brainer, no? The same people who are adamantly – perhaps even vehemently – in favour of flying the Pride flag are also of the view that Islamophobia is a grave concern in Canada. Should we have a flag with the Islamic Shahada on it flying at schools during the Islamic Heritage Month of October? And a flag with the Sikh symbol of Onkar during the Sikh Heritage Month of April? And a flag with the Aum on it during the Hindu Heritage Month of November? What about a flag with the Star of David on it for the Jews in the month of May? As we know, the highest number of hate-motivated acts are consistently against the Jewish community. If schools are instrumental in eliminating danger based on the identity of its (potential or actual) victims, then they should offer that protection to all victim groups, surely? And while we are at it, can we have a flag with the Cross on it as well? There are many countries where Christians are a persecuted minority, so perhaps we should declare solidarity with them?
On the other side of the ‘whataboutery’ coin, there is the question of whether religious schools of the non-Christian faiths can be forced to fly the Pride flag. I don’t believe this has been tried yet, but if that happens, then the legal fight on it should be interesting. It is fashionable on the Progressive side to talk about ‘intersectionality’ when it suits their narrative, but when the LGBTQ section intersects with the BIPOC / non-white / non-Christian section, the intersectional dynamics are bound to cause some uncomfortable moments for the Progressives.
My final point of ‘whataboutery’ regarding the Pride flag relates to all the other places where the flag is not flown / displayed, such as offices, warehouses, factories, other paces of business such as restaurants and banquet halls and even private homes. If we accept the argument that danger to LGBTQ students exists in schools, then one cannot avoid saying that it exists for all LGBTQ people everywhere. Further, if we accept the contention that the mere presence of a Pride flag is sufficient to make this risk disappear at schools, the unavoidable conclusion is that it would do likewise everywhere else, too.
Of the above, the strongest test of the pro-flag argument is when it comes to private homes. Schools now have a policy that when a student declares a gender identity there that is different from the one ‘assigned to them at birth’, then this other identity would be kept secret from the student’s parents. The stated justification for this is that parents may react negatively to this revelation. In other words, the contention is that LGBTQ children are in danger in their own homes. Given that the Pride flag supposedly makes this danger disappear at schools, there is no reason why it would not do the same in homes. This is not a purely hypothetical argument. As CTV News reported on June 1, no less than 9 schools in Ottawa saw student absenteeism shoot up to 40%, with 2 of these schools registering 60% absenteeism, ‘due to possible Pride activities’. Previously, we have seen similar reports from other places in Ontario. While many people would see this as simple disagreement, the Progressive side is given to calling it ‘bigotry’ or ‘transphobia’. Would they want the Pride flag to be mandated for all homes to obviate the ‘danger’ to any LGBTQ students who may be ‘trapped’ in their homes? Given the authoritarian impulses that we have seen them display over the past few years, one cannot rule out the possibility that they would at least try.
AN INQUIRY INTO ORIGINS
About a decade ago, when several armed groups in Libya – largely organized around tribal lines – were fighting the forces of the dictator Muammar Quaddhafi, long-time New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in an article that ‘some countries are no more than tribes with flags’. It is because of statements like this one that I consider Thomas Friedman to be America’s leading pseudo-intellectual; the fact is that the very origin of flags is in tribes. Way back in the past when humans were hunter-gatherers or nomads, it was vitally important for a group of people roaming the wilderness to know, well in advance, whether another group of humans approaching from a distance was friend or foe. It is an interesting topic of investigation in anthropology as to how, across the globe, groups of humans devised the same solution, viz., a flag (or a standard) which it was the duty of designated members of the group to keep aloft (which is how we got the terms ‘flag-bearer’ or ‘standard-bearer’). If the other group was carrying the same flag, or the flag of a friendly group, then one could relax – there was no danger of an attack.
As societies settled down and grew, the use of the flag as a collective identity became more entrenched, ultimately yielding the national flag. Over time, we have forgotten that a national flag is meant to convey collective safety. The reason why I am able to articulate this is because in my mother tongue (Gujarati), one of the expressions for ‘under the protection of’ is ‘under the flag of’; the connection between a flag and safety is still alive in that expression.
Therefore, I believe that the Canadian flag represents safety for all Canadians; the State is under an obligation to uphold every one’s safety (although in terms of performance, there is much improvement to be desired; as I have written in my article ‘A State Of Dereliction’, the Canadian State has been shedding ever more parts of its sacred duty on this front). Therefore, once the national flag is present, there is no need to declare that any specific group shall be protected; all groups are included in the State’s protection by definition. The Pride flag may indeed be relevant elsewhere, especially at special events, but as far as public institutions go, it is redundant.
THE LIMITS OF TOLERANCE
In addition to being redundant, however, it also has the effect of creating a preferred group – at least in the perception of others, in whose view, the State is saying that their safety is less of a priority. Things aren’t helped when the national flag itself is relegated to a secondary position vis-à-vis the Pride flag, as the Simcoe County District School Board has done (see this tweet by Chanel Pfahl). Also, the ever-increasing commitment of time to Pride is bound to evoke a negative reaction; what started out as a day for Pride parades has become a full month of Pride activities, with the Royal Canadian Navy deciding to have Pride activities from June till September (see their tweet here). People who may not necessarily object to a parade on one day – or even over a full week – are likely to express irritation at the festivities being carried on for one-third of the year.
Tolerance is a virtue, but as the East African saying goes, ‘Anything in excess is poison’. Even people who are unfamiliar with that saying have the capability to have an intuitive understanding of it. At some point, they ARE going to prioritize their own desires and convenience over the demands to exercise tolerance. These aren’t bad people. They aren’t ‘transphobes’ or ‘bigots’. They aren’t ‘hateful’. It is just that they believe (justifiably) that they have ceded enough of their personal priorities to the cause, and now their wishes must take precedence. Ironically, tossing epithets at them would only serve to strengthen their resolve to preserve their (dwindled) personal territory. A true leader would look to defuse this tension between the two groups (or indeed any tension between any groups), but in politics, careers thrive on the continued existence, and preferably exacerbation, of tensions and disputes. Therefore, it is unsurprising that we haven’t seen any politician seeking to strike a conciliatory pose in this particular dispute, and the two warring sides remain entrenched in their respective positions. Normally, I say that whatever issue the politicians fail to solve will get solved by the society, but given the polarization on the issue, that also seems unlikely. Sad as it is for me to admit this, it appears to me that this fight will be over when it gets over.
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