About consequences

by Yule Heibel on January 27, 2008

A slight departure from matters of urbanism, if you will.

When the spouse & I became a parents, we were compelled to re-examine all sorts of ideological beliefs, opting instead for principles and for what works (vs. principles and what we’d like to have work, or should work, or would be nice if it worked… etc.). I realize this makes us sound like perfect jerks, but that’s what biology will do to a body. The spouse even took a parenting workshop called “Redirecting your child’s behavior,” which at its core was all about natural consequences and how to implement them.

I sometimes joke that I’m a “permissive parent,” but that’s just a way of differentiating myself from a mainstream that seems to me increasingly suspect: I’m not permissive, because for starters I don’t believe that I’m in control of everything, which leads to two fundamental insights. First, I do not tolerate being treated like a doormat or made responsible for things beyond my control. Second, that first insight lends focus to the things I can control, including not overprotecting my kids from natural consequences. I permit natural consequences to take place. I have discovered that this is becoming a rare principle in the increasingly professionalized world of managed parenting.

Let’s take that as a sort of preamble to this: an editorial in our daily newspaper, which prompted me to write a letter to the editor (which actually got published, with relatively minor editing). First, the editorial:

Freedom rests on responsibility
Times Colonist

Sunday, January 13, 2008
We pride ourselves on being a tolerant and liberated society. And certainly we enjoy a degree of freedom unknown in earlier times. But has our sense of personal latitude come too far?Let’s start with the notion of a responsible adult. Increasingly, it’s hard to find anyone, at least in public life, who fills that description. In government, senior officials used to resign if errors were committed on their watch. Now we have buck-passing and displays of contrition. In the last few months, there have been three major events where resignations would once have been likely.

There was the Taser incident at Vancouver airport, in which Polish passenger Robert Dziekanski died. The RCMP inflicted more harm on Canada’s international image in a few minutes than anyone has caused in decades. But no one has stepped forward to shoulder the blame.

Then came the admission by Premier Gordon Campbell that the Vancouver convention centre is massively over budget. No minister has accepted responsibility.

On the heels of those two blunders came the medical isotopes fiasco. In November the Chalk River nuclear reactor in Ontario closed after failing to meet licensing standards. The plant produces two-thirds of the world’s supply of radioactive materials for medical imaging. Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. gave no warning of the shutdown. Hospitals around the globe were scrambling and the affair blackened Canada’s other eye. Yet the minister in charge, Saanich-Gulf Islands MP Gary Lunn, has not accepted responsibility. Instead, he’s threatening to fire the nuclear regulator.

It’s not just in politics that personal responsibility is becoming a rarity. In sports, serious doping allegations have been made against some of the best-known athletes. None have left the game and fans still turn out in record numbers. In the celebrity world, scarcely a week goes by without some outrageous antics. But a few days in rehab clinic, a talk-show apology and all is forgiven.

Even in the workplace, employees are excused for egregious misconduct. Here in Victoria, a few members of the Liquor Distribution Branch staff became falling-down drunk at a Government House ceremony. One had to crawl up the stairs to receive his award; another tried to steal the cutlery; and a third heckled then Lt.-Gov. Iona Campagnolo. But no one lost his job.

While we’re increasingly unwilling to accept responsibility for our own actions, we’re quick to force our sensitivities on other people’s ideas. Four students at Ontario’s Osgoode Hall law school have launched a complaint against Maclean’s. They charge that an article in the magazine was offensive to Muslims. Three human rights commissions across the country, including B.C.’s, have agreed to hear this complaint. A plainer attack on freedom of speech would be hard to imagine. The magazine must now hire lawyers and defend itself in three separate tribunals.

In 2006, when the Calgary-based Western Standard printed cartoons that had provoked outrage in Denmark, it was summoned before the Alberta Human Rights Commission.

Many Canadian universities have adopted harassment policies that impose sweeping limitations on freedom of speech. The University of British Columbia, for example, prohibits statements of opinion that “burden” anyone on the basis of “age, race, colour, ancestry, place of origin, political belief, religion, marital status, family status, physical or mental disability, sex, sexual orientation, and unrelated criminal convictions.” The “burdening” doesn’t even have to be intentional.

Civic life requires responsibility. Hiding from it, or waiting for someone else to impose it, is self-indulgent. So is turning a difference of opinion into a legal confrontation.

When the complaint was filed against Maclean’s, civil libertarians who had pressed for the appointment of human rights commissions were aghast. “During the years when my colleagues and I were labouring to create such commissions, we never imagined that they might ultimately be used against freedom of speech,” said Alan Borovoy, who was general counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

We need to restore some measure of self-restraint, personal responsibility and accountability in our daily lives.

© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2008

Next, my letter to the editor, in response:

Use your judgment and think critically
Times Colonist

Published: Monday, January 21, 2008

Re: “Freedom rests on responsibility,” Jan. 13.

Thank you for an important, thought-provoking editorial. To understand why Canadians can get away with “buck-passing and displays of contrition,” look at how you or your neighbours raise children. If there are no natural consequences for bad behaviour, and missteps are ignored because criticism allegedly inhibits “self-esteem,” is it any wonder that personal responsibility shrivels or that narcissism is normal?

The 30-something Cobble Hill real-estate agent currently facing charges in Colorado for drunkenness and sexual harassment on a plane would probably have avoided the prospect of a $500,000 fine and years in prison had he learned earlier there are significant consequences for gross misbehaviour.

Why should union officials or people in government take responsibility when it’s easy to avoid consequences, provided you say the right words of contrition, versus going to jail or paying biting fines?

If you substitute groupthink for consequences, you’ll dig an even deeper hole, which the example of Maclean’s being charged for offensiveness to Muslims illustrates well. Robert Latimer isn’t “contrite,” so the Orwellian parole board denies him parole (as if he would ever reoffend by murdering another’s daughter). But drunk drivers who kill cyclists practically walk away unpunished. Why? Their “displays of contrition” appease the thought police.

Collectively, our obligation to be “non-judgmental” overrides critical thinking. The latter is a far bigger human right and duty than not offending anyone or mouthing mealy words of contrition.

My only gripe is that the paper edited my second to last sentence, which read “Collectively, we are dumbing ourselves down into sheep whose obligation to be ‘non-judgmental’ overrides critical thinking,” and the edited version fails to convey that meaning.

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