Sunday, August 29, 2010


A few days ago I listed to a podcast from The Economist with an episode on doing business in Toronto. Having lived in Toronto for about sixteen years, I was interested in hearing what business people from around the world would be told about visiting the city. One piece of advice that particularly interested me was the warning not to tell Torontonians (or Canadians in general) that they are very much like Americans. To fail to see that Canadians are not like Americans, the commentator said, is likely to make the rest of one's business dealings in Toronto go rather poorly.

It is axiomatic that the more closely two people (or peoples) resemble one another, the more eager they are to have their differences acknowledged. Seen from the perspective of Europe or Asia or Africa, Canadians and Americans probably do look much more like one another than different from one another, just as from a North American perspective Dutch people and Flemish people seem quite similar; after all, they both speak Dutch, and the fact that some of those Dutch speakers live in the Netherlands while the others live in Belgium does not seem like a difference of much significance. The closer one gets to that part of Europe, however, the more it matters to notice subtle differences.

When I was a boy growing up in New Mexico, it was of vital importance to me that people from, say, New England or California know that New Mexicans are not to be confused with their neighbors, the Texans, Arizonans, Coloradans and Oklahomans. Even when I was nearing the age of sixty, I winced every time the friends I had made while living for some fifteen years in Montreal said they imagined I must be very excited to be moving back to my native Arizona. Distinguishing between Arizona and New Mexico was not nearly as important to my dear Canadian friends as noting the vast cultural ocean that divides Montreal from Toronto.

As a general rule, when people are viewed from afar (whether the distance is geographical or cultural), the distance at which they are perceived blurs distinctions that are more apparent from a closer perspective, and there is not much of a price to pay for that blurring. Sometimes, however, failure to notice differences can have disastrous consequences.

An example of a disastrous failure to notice important distinctions that we are all witnessing these days is found in the reaction to many Americans to the proposed Islamic cultural center being planned to be built two blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center. In the minds of too many Americans, the fact that the people who attacked the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001 were Muslims is sufficient reason to be deeply offended that the people proposing to build a cultural center dedicated to world peace are also Muslims. In the minds of some Americans there is no need to distinguish one Muslim from another or one kind of Islam from another. The failure to make that distinction, however, is a tragic triumph of ignorance and prejudice over knowledge and reason.

On the August 27, 2007 podcast edition of the CBC radio program As It Happens there is a segment in which a man who identifies himself as progressive Muslim argues that Canada (and the United States and much of Europe) is endangering itself by failing to find a middle way between two extreme forms of ignorance. One extreme is to regard all Muslims as essentially peace-loving people who are doing their best to fit in and who are entitled to have their differences from everyone else in a pluralistic and tolerant society. The other extreme is to regard all Muslims as belligerent radicals intent on destroying the West and returning civilization to the twelfth century.

The first of those extreme forms of ignorance, associated with the classical European liberal tradition, fails to take into consideration that some people really are malevolent and have every intention of doing harm and feel morally justified to do harm to those whom they see as the enemies of God. Not everyone is equally enthusiastic about democracy and tolerance and freedom of speech.

The second of those extremes, associated with the so-called far right in Europe and the Americas, manifests as the xenophobic fear-mongering that lies behind the virulent opposition to the proposed Islamic cultural center two blocks from the site of the World Trade Center.

The middle way consists in recognizing that there really are Muslims who subscribe to a doctrine of armed jihad against forces of unwelcome modernity—just as there really are bellicose Christians who regard abortion as a form of genocide and who feel called by God to bring death to those who provide legal abortions, and just as there really are biblical literalists in Texas who feel obligated to do everything they possibly can to keep scientific hypotheses out of textbooks used in public schools, and just as there really are people so fundamentally frightened and insecure that they believe that homosexuality poses a danger to traditional marriage and immigration poses a threat to American values.

The middle way consists in saying “Yes, Virginia, there really are ignorant people, and ignorance really can be as dangerous as it is ugly, and as tragic as it is laughable, and it really would be a worthwhile undertaking to eliminate ignorant people, not by eliminating the people themselves but by removing their ignorance.”

The middle way consists in looking at issues and events from as many perspectives as possible and recalling that what looks indistinguishably similar from a safe distance can be importantly different when viewed up close, and that sometimes the nature of that difference is precisely the distinction between safety and danger.