Thursday, March 02, 2006

Today, a kirpan, tomorrow – what...

...A headscarf? A skullcap? A cross?

The Supreme Court of Canada handed down a very significant decision today.
It ruled – unanimously - that a Montreal teenager was within his rights when he wore a Sikh ceremonial dagger (kirpan) to school.

This case has been going on for about four years, and I’ve followed it in the local media.
It finally reached its conclusion after wins and losses through the court system.
Details of the case and background are on the CBC website; I don’t want to rehash the whole thing here, just comment on it.

This case is about an issue that speaks directly to the heart of society: what is more important, freedom or safety?
There’s no easy answer and compromises are made all the time. People have to submit to rigorous screening in order to board airplanes, and teens have to walk through metal detectors in order to attend a school dance.

Such measures, while inconvenient, are generally deemed worthwhile for the risk reduction that they bring.

Benjamin Franklin (not a Canadian but we respect him anyway) said,

the man who trades freedom for security does not deserve nor will he ever receive either.

That’s perhaps a little simplistic but Franklin lived in a simpler time.

These days, organizations have to take liability and civic responsibility into account. Public schools, for example, answer to taxpayers, parents, and society in general. They are expected to provide a safe, secure environment for learning and growth, and to teach students life skills of all sorts, not just the technical ones of the three Rs.

No easy task in today’s culture.

I understand the concerns of the parents who discovered that a twelve year old boy was carrying around a knife at school, but it would have been nice if educating the community about this particular custom were enough to allay those fears.

While the kirpan is technically a knife, sword or dagger, its significance is in its wearing, not its use. It is one of five distinctive symbols that must be worn by baptized Sikh men at all times, the others being uncut hair, a comb, a steel bangle and certain specific undergarments.

According to this UCLA Social Sciences website, the way the kirpan is worn is considered “ritually constrained”, to be used only to help others and in self-defense; to do otherwise would go against the tenets of the religion.

However, the argument put forward by the lawyers for the school board and the Quebec Government, that schools are so dangerous now that any potential weapon must be banned, reflects more than just concern for safety, but a myopic view of our society’s rights and responsibilities.

Potential weapon?

Potential weapons are everywhere. Some may be in the form of religious symbols; I could poke someone in the eye with my Christian cross medallion, or strangle someone’s neck with my Muslim head scarf.

Other potential weapons come disguised as everyday objects long tolerated - even encouraged - for use in schools, such as the geometry compass (very pointy!) and the pencil (good for causing messy, infection-prone wounds.)
We won’t even go into the issue of sports equipment.

But when you get right down to it, closed fists are weapons. Do you tell your child to check his hands at the door?

Clearly this argument is absurd. There IS a problem of violence in schools but eliminating “potential weapons” is not the way to deal with it if for no other reason than it is impossible to do. This way of thinking is part of the reason why people today have so much trouble with personal responsibility – because it has been withdrawn from the educational curriculum. All children are automatically assumed untrustworthy, aren’t given a chance to prove otherwise, and never learn about accountability, earning privileges, and consequences of mistakes.

If the kirpan-carrying child, or one of his peers, uses the kirpan in a violent manner, that is a behaviour problem, not a religious one. It has to be addressed, but it’s much easier to ban objects than to instill values and mold social skills. Unfortunately, the banning, besides being useless, sends the wrong message to students. It teaches them that differences are to be treated with suspicion, and are to be feared until proven otherwise. It reinforces the childish tendency to discriminate against others who don’t fit in with the majority, whether they be too large or too small, differently-coloured, differently-clothed, speak with strange accents, or whose parents don’t drive the right type of car.

What an opportunity was missed by that school board, to educate, to celebrate diversity, to open up students’ minds to another culture, to teach not merely tolerance, but acceptance.