Sunday, March 28, 2010

What Drives Our Values?

Daily news reports from France and Quebec highlight the serious social upheaval resulting from conflicting community and personal values. The debates over the right of religious Muslim women to cover their faces in public are heated, nasty, and divisive. That rancor is not surprising, for our values shape who we are and how we live as individuals and communities.
Yet we often fail to examine what shapes and drives those values. What lies at the root of the powerful values? Are those particular drivers valid? Do they represent the individuals we want to be and the kind of society in which we want to live?
The debate over the niqab- the full-face veil worn by some devout Muslim women- provides fertile ground for this kind of examination. From the viewpoint of the Muslim women opting to wear niqab, it is fundamental to the way they publicly conduct themselves as devout practitioners of their faith. They believe that the Koran dictates the sight of their uncovered faces will cause carnal thoughts in men not their husbands.
Yet there has been long-standing and ongoing debate among respected Muslim scholars as to whether or not wearing niqab is required or optional for women. For those who view wearing the full veil as fundamental to their faith, the question is simple: In a free society, what right has the state to determine and dictate how they shall observe the tenets of their religion?
On the other hand, the perceived sexist implications of niqab offend many women who fought the long and hard battle to ensure societal and workplace equity. They ask a powerful question: Why should women cover their faces and bodies to ensure that men don’t think prurient thoughts? Are men no different than rutting animals?
There are also those driven by the memories of September 11th, 2001. They fear that the niqab may hide the faces of terrorists wishing to do harm to western society, and believe that exposing the faces of those wearing niqab will increase public safety.
Then there are those who see a middle ground. These individuals believe that in the general course of social life, a free society should allow people to wear what they wish. However, they also see a need for citizens to show their faces for specific purposes- for purposes of universal identification such as driver’s licenses and travel security checks.
I’m in the latter group. I can see the need for facial exposure in situations where all citizens comply with a process that is demonstrably for the public good. Beyond that, I am a believer in civil liberties. What people wear- or don’t wear- is their own business, regardless of race, color, or creed. I cherish the opportunity to live a life free of oppression or fear. No one- terrorist or parliamentarian- will take those freedoms away from me.
You may disagree, and that’s as it should be. If we have carefully considered our values, and what drives those values, we can sit down and have a respectful conversation and either come to agreement or agree to disagree. That’s the best way to avoid the ugliness afoot in France and Quebec.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Streets of Springtime

I’ve just returned to Edmonton from a two-week holiday on Saltspring Island. Our traveling threesome-my partner Barb and our English cocker spaniel pup Zak and I - had a great time enjoying the many attributes of Saltspring.
Being a spaniel, Zak is nose-driven, and he was overwhelmed with a whole new array of scents, as well as the croaking ravens and the miniature Island deer. As his primary walker, I experienced his excitement at this new place, and I learned something new about my personal community values.
Community cleanliness is very important to me. I don’t like litter. Those of you who have experience walking a pup know how attractive street trash is to dogs. That attraction means that we clearly see the litter on sidewalks and streets.
There is a huge difference between walking Zak in Edmonton and on Saltspring. Why? There was almost no street or road litter on Saltspring. One sees pinecones, earthworms- even banana slugs-, but none of the coffee cups or empty cigarette packages or takeout food wrappers or flyaway advertising inserts that too often blight the streets and sidewalks of Edmonton.
Why does this difference exist? I have a hunch that it has a lot to do with community values. There is a very powerful community desire and determination to have a clean environment. Students clean the area around their schools, which develops a strong sense of civic responsibility. Service clubs and individuals regularly pick up the small amounts of discarded refuse. As a result, individuals in the Saltspring community feel personally responsible for the cleanliness of their community.
Some of these initiatives are not unique to Saltspring Island. There are communities in Alberta- Alix, which is just east of Red Deer comes to mind- with the same kind of community ethic. Yet I suspect that there are also communities in Alberta where community cleanliness is not a respected value.
Communities can take simple steps to decrease public litter. A municipality can work with advertisers and publishers to stop distribution of advertising and newspapers to households without a secure mailbox. Community associations can work with fast-food outlets to develop outlet-based anti-litter campaigns. School boards can develop anti-litter programs directly involving and empowering students. Dog owners not cleaning up after their pets can be fined.
We’re back home, and Zak and I will continue to navigate the littered springtime streets of southwest Edmonton, picking up trash as we go. We’re certainly open to a change of scenery, so if your community shares our values regarding clean streets, we’d love to visit!