Reasonable Accommodation, Reasonable People
The issue of reasonable accommodation, now headline news in Quebec, has been met with academic responses. Villages are adopting “codes of values”. Professors are being appointed to commissions, and politicians are discussing constitutional changes. Reasonable accommodation is being treated like a graduate seminar on constitutional law.
On the face of it, reasonable accommodation is a legal issue. Even basic constitutional rights like the freedom of religion are not a blank check, and may be limited in order to insure public wellbeing. Legally, the precise line for reasonable accommodation is unclear, and two recent cases from Quebec on the issue have appeared before the Supreme Court (the Succah case of 2004 and Kirpan case of 2006). So, the focus on the legal realm is understandable.
Unfortunately, it is the elephant in the room that is being ignored: poor relationships between various groups within Quebec society. In any conflict, you go to court only after the two parties have had a failed relationship. I remember a lawyer once told me that anytime he’d get a call from a client asking to look up an old contract, he’d get a sinking feeling in his stomach. If the two parties with an ongoing relationship couldn’t work things out on their own, they were destined for litigation, no matter what it said in the contract. Contracts are only necessary when relationships fail. The legal system is truly the court of last resort.
The same is true of Quebec’s reasonable accommodation debate. At issue is not head coverings or the gender of driving test examiners, but the very sense of cooperation and trust required in a functioning society. Reasonable accommodation would be a moot issue if people with different cultural backgrounds treated each other with genuine respect.
Simply put, reasonable accommodation requires reasonable people.
This is why the innocuous (and silly) code of “norms of life” adopted by Herouxville is upsetting. This code reeks of condescension and rigidity, explaining how in Herouxville one can drink alcohol, and female doctors can minister to male patients. The real point of this code is to mock the religious practices of Muslims and Hassidic Jews. Completely lacking in this code is a true sense of “reasonable accommodation”, where fellow human beings are treated with respect and compassion.
Reasonable accommodation requires a live and let live spirit. Why can’t we be reasonable about cultural differences? For example, let’s take an issue that relates to the majority of Quebec society. The much ballyhooed “War on Christmas” going on south of the border has made its way into Quebec. Now, we have debates over whether politicians should say “merry Christmas” or “happy holidays”, as well as debates over public Christmas displays and the crucifix in the National Assembly. On these issues, it is important for non-Christians to have a sense of respect for those who celebrate Christmas and are practicing Christians. I happily tell Christian friends “merry Christmas” and they will respond with “happy Hanukah”. Two people, two cultures, and yet with mutual respect, you have reasonable accommodation.
Similarly, this sense of respect needs to extend to immigrant communities. How difficult is it to relate to a woman wearing a hijab? In busy offices everywhere, people with urgent needs are accommodated and allowed to move forward in line. So why should an Orthodox Jew at a CLSC asking to move forward in line in order to return home in time to observe the Sabbath be a media event? With reasonable people, this would never have been an issue.
To achieve reasonable accommodation all we need is civility. No need for constitutional changes, “norms of life”, or bureaucratic remedies. With mutual respect, we can create a truly civil society.
Stephen Carter, a Professor of Law at Yale, recounts how one person’s civility had a profound effect on his own life. In 1966, when Carter was 12, he and his family were the first blacks to move into a lily-white neighborhood. The day they moved in, everyone ignored them, until a woman named Sarah Kestenbaum came along. He writes that:
“a white woman arriving home from work at the house across the street…. bustled into her house, only to emerge, minutes later, with a huge tray of cream cheese and jelly sandwiches, which she carried to our porch and offered around with her ready smile, simultaneously feeding and greeting the children of a family she had never met—and a black family at that—with nothing to gain for herself except perhaps the knowledge that she had done the right thing..”
This is exactly what we need in Quebec: reasonable, respectful people. People who do the right thing, who welcome strangers and act with civility. Reasonable, accommodating people like Sarah Kestenbaum.