Recently, because I am an idiot, I agreed to go on a Christian television talk show and “debate” a well-known national (Canadian) newspaper columnist on the relative merits of MP Mark Warawa’s proposed Motion 408, which would “condemn discrimination against females occurring through sex-selective pregnancy termination”.
One of the many things that really bugs me about this motion is that Warawa doesn’t even want a change in the law; he just wants the Government of Canada to condemn this particular choice. It’s unclear what form this official snubbing would take, but the idea that people would want to simply codify our disapproval, as a nation, of this choice is almost worse than just making it illegal (in principle, anyway).
The talk show experience was an absolute gong show, but that’s another story. What really surprised me was my debate opponent’s perfectly clear and confident assertion that sex-selective abortion was the immigrant community’s problem, and that it is our duty as Canadians to teach them Canadian values like gender equality. After I was done sputtering in shock at the explicit xenophobia, I managed to respond that we do not, in fact, value gender equality in Canadian society. Both my debate opponent and the host of the show seemed genuinely shocked that I would believe such a thing.
The whole exchange was so strange, so surreal. I felt very conscious that I had said something impolite – that it was uncivilized to talk about gender inequality in Western culture, just as it was uncivilized to engage in sex-selective abortion. We must greet such transgressions with the very strongest, WASPish disapproval we can muster. I am certain that the two very civilized ladies sitting on that set with me would not have opposed a motion to condemn speaking up out of turn to accuse one’s elders of obliviousness to inequality.
I feel the historical context of the word “uncivilized” perfectly encompasses the mindset behind wishing to condemn a practice that is mostly carried out, in this country anyway, by women of Southeast Asian origin. Being civilized has been a cage both for women – in the way we are expected to behave – and for people of colour, in the way their cultures do or do not align with Western standards of order and propriety. A civilized society does not speak about vulgar things like sexuality or reproduction. A civilized person does not veer from the path prescribed to her based on her station in life.
I am thinking about this because in North Dakota, Republican Rep. Bette Grande – the prime sponsor of a bill banning abortion based on genetic defects and gender selection – said that such abortions have “no place in civilized society”.
I wonder about civilized society. Is a society civilized, that cedes control of women’s bodies to the government? To be civilized, must a society force women to carry to term pregnancies they do not want, of children whose needs they cannot afford to meet, without providing a sufficient social safety net to facilitate care for those children? Does a civilized society include poverty? If it does, does that mean it also excludes talking about it?
Can one even talk about what makes a civilized society without being, oneself, somewhat uncivilized?
The positive connotation of “civilization” to many of us is progress. Surely a civilized society would abhor the enslavement of its citizens, in body or spirit. Surely a civilized society demands forward movement.
Surely a civilized society can do better.