How a xenophobic crime in Quebec is used to justify undermining democracy

http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/tony-kondaks/beat-up-for-speaking-english_b_1920390.html

The author describes the crime as follows:

“They came upon a young adult male who took offence, admonishing them that “you are not allowed to speak English here” and blocked their path. Pushing him out of the way in order to proceed, G was then punched in the face. Twice. His battered face can be seen here.”

Then he says:

“[His] reaction upon reading such an account would normally be to chalk it up to raging teenage hormones,”

I disagree my first reaction is to think it is an attack based on the language someone was speaking in public. This is clearly xenophobic, and possibly racist. I think this sort of thing has a lot to do with intolerance, and very little to do with hormones.

That’s for the author’s instincts on what many would consider a hate crime.

The author makes a bold claim, that also happens to be false.

“Let’s be clear: there is no historical, legal, or moral precedent to support the common language must be the majority language dictum.”

To be clear, in the modern period, the common language must be the majority language. That is the language of the French parliament, must be French, same goes for Germany, Japan, China, Iraq, etc. The official language must be the language of the majority. If there are several large ethnic groups then both (or several) languages can be used as official. But in the modern period it is not acceptable for the majority to be ruled and governed by people who run the country in a language they don’t understand. That is a fundamental violation of democracy. The common language of government must be the majority language.

For a thought experiment imagine the results of an election in any country in the world are being announced. Now imagine someone asks you: “does the new prime minister speak the official language?”. In what country does it make sense to ask this question? In what country would the answer no, not be shocking? However historically this was often normal. Romans ruled England and ignored the locals, and the governors spoke Latin and did all the ruling in Latin.

Again the crucial detail is modern period, because the Roman empire took over most of Europe and imposed Latin, while the common population did not learn latin. Same things apply to the Persian empire, and other ancient empires, but continued much later until Napoleon, and the Ottoman empire. But ever since WW1 and WW2, we don’t accept that the majority of the population should be ruled by an outside group.

But let’s review the author’s evidence:

Historical: when the first Habitants paddled their way down the St. Lawrence River some 450 years ago the majority language they encountered upon arrival at Hochelaga and every other spot they landed was an aboriginal language. If the common language principle was in place, we’d all be speaking Huron today. Yet it was the minority French language group that imposed their culture, language, and religion upon the majority language group, often at the end of a musket barrel.”

This is true, the Hurons were expelled and/or exterminated. No one accepts that this should be done to French, or English or Arabic or German or Huron speaking people living in Quebec today. Why does the author bring up this shameful piece of our history that we would not accept today?

Legal: Official language status applies only to services provided by government. That’s it. With the possible exception of para-public and emergency services (e.g., ambulances, social and health services) everything else falls under the private sector and outside the imposition of official languages. In the private sector, Swahili, Portuguese, and any other language that free people decide to speak are on par with French and English. Indeed, because of the incredible advantage that accrues to the French and English languages by virtue of their official status they must necessarily be put at the bottom of the list when any special consideration to a particular language is considered.”

Partly true, but services provided by the government include schools, they include state funded and licensed radio and television. Also the government should insure that all important information is also provided to the public in the official language or languages, this includes cases where goods and services are provided by the private sector. The private sector can operate in whatever language is more convenient when it doesn’t affect the public, but it should be able to communicate with the public in the official language. The idea that the official language should be considered last when dealing with the public is bizarre, since it is the one language that the general public is most likely to know and to have learned in school.

For comparison would we accept that a major manufacturing business in Greece would operate in Russian and would only hire Russian speaking workers? Or the reverse with a major business in Russia, operating in Greek and only hiring Greek speaking workers? Exceptions can be made for things like small family businesses, but large businesses that will need help, cooperation and support from the broader community as well as the government need to work with the official language.

Finally:

Moral: Decent, civilized people simply don’t impose their culture and language on those of other cultural and linguistic groups. If that were the case, English — the language shared by the overwhelming majority of Canadians — could be imposed by force of law on Quebecers.”

Fact: most people speak less than 2 languages. The international average is about 1.5. And that takes into account the fact that most countries are much more multilingual than we are (Nigeria has 500 languages). It takes about 2 years to learn to speak a language, and about 7 years to learn how to read and write proficiently. Modern life requires advanced literacy (not just speaking ability), and that all the members of the community share a common language so that they can live together, work together, study together and solve problems together. This doesn’t mean that a country can’t be made up of multiple communities, but each community needs a common language. Otherwise it is not a community. There can be hundreds of communities in a large country, but no community can exist without a common language. So the idea that English Montreal can separate from French Quebec is legitimate. But then the language in Engish Montreal is English, and the language in French Quebec, and French Montreal is French, etc. etc.

Who gets to decide on the language for each community? In a democracy it is the people, who weigh the pros and cons in each case.

Universal bilingualism doesn’t work, unless people really want it to work. And most people are too busy living their lives to make it work, unless it is absolutely necessary.

That is to say decent moral human beings, living in a modern industrial country, share a common language in each region/community (no matter how large or small), but they are free and it is to their advantage to know as many extra languages as they can. Multilingualism is an asset that allows one to live, work and bridge the gaps between different communities. But a common language is a must within each community.

I am sure many readers who made it so far will not be convinced by my arguments up to this point. Many of you still think that the original author has a point, and you’re right. There is a point but he doesn’t state it: English is more useful internationally than French. That is a fact. But French is pretty useful too. And countries with similar populations to Quebec with their own unique language (with less than 10 times as many speakers as French) can do quite well too: for example Finland and Israel.

But this is where democracy comes in. If we believe in democracy then it is up to the people who live in the country to decide what language or languages should be the official ones. Not some intellectual who decides which one will be of the greatest economic benefit. To force people to change their language because of economics is not only unnecessary but also a violation of human rights, and this is accepted: historically (modern period), legally (the concept of an official language defined in a constitution) and morally (the idea that people should be able to exert democratic control on the culture of their society).

The crime reported at the top is horrible, it should be condemned and is condemned. Even the threat without the physical violence would have been practically as bad. No one should be targeted for what language they choose to speak. But as a society and as members of a community we need to decide together on what language we want to speak, as the official and universal language. If this breaks us up into more than one piece, then so be it.

You can’t have bilingualism without bi-nationalism.

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