“Culture Wars” Don’t Explain Sex-Ed Uproar

by Robin Brown (@RobinBrown) in Toronto, Ontario

In 1988, at the age of 21 in my native England, I marched through London to protest against the introduction of a law called Clause 28. The law, introduced by the Conservative Party, banned the “promotion of homosexuality” in British schools.

We saw it as discrimination. The use of the term “promotion” was disingenuous. It would prevent gay teachers from being honest about their sexuality and it would prevent teaching children the facts about sexual orientation.

A lot has changed since then. A couple of years ago, my son, aged 11 and at school in Ontario, casually mentioned his teacher was gay, with no judgment or surprise. That change is a result of what has been called a “culture war” that has occurred in Europe and North America in the 27 years since I joined that march. That “war” has involved ongoing debates about gender roles, sexual freedom and discrimination. 

At this point in history, it seems that I and the tens of thousands of others who marched that day have, at least to some extent, won. Clause 28 has been repealed in England. My children’s teachers can present them the facts about sexual orientation without fear of the law. They actively prevent bullying and discrimination based on sexual orientation. I am proud of being part of a generation who helped bring this about.

The Return of the “Culture War”?

So when I heard that parents in Ontario were opposing the new Health and Physical Education curriculum, my immediate reaction was, “Oh no, here we go again.” I felt the progress we fought for was being threatened.

I immediately reverted to the culture-war paradigm. Within that paradigm, there are always two sides. From the progressives’ perspective on one side, there is progress, enlightenment and freedom. On the other side, there is intolerance and ignorance. And the debate around the curriculum now is being framed within this context.

So, it came as a surprise to me when one of my Chinese colleagues said that she and many of her friends are opposed to the curriculum. She did not fit the mould of my culture-war opponents. She is not motivated by religion. She said she opposes discrimination based on sexual orientation and absolutely supports the right to same-sex marriage. Nor does she want to revert to the norms of her native China where she believes that sex education is inadequate.

[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]As we spoke I realized that, although I was viewing this issue through the culture-war lens, she was not. Growing up outside of the “West,” she did not share the same frame of reference.  Nor do many of the immigrant parents in Ontario who oppose the curriculum.[/quote]

As we spoke I realized that, although I was viewing this issue through the culture-war lens, she was not. Growing up outside of the “West,” she did not share the same frame of reference. Nor do many of the immigrant parents in Ontario who oppose the curriculum.

Time to Reframe the Controversy

Many Canadians are surprised by the strength of opposition to the curriculum from the foreign-born population in Ontario. And the Canadian-born tend to try to understand it in the context of the culture war.

[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]The media have framed it in classic culture-war terms: “socially conservative” or “religious” immigrants standing in opposition to Western, secular liberalism.[/quote]

Many assume that is it driven by prejudice. No doubt, sometimes it is. The media have framed it in classic culture-war terms: “socially conservative” or “religious” immigrants standing in opposition to Western, secular liberalism.

But many of the foreign-born parents who oppose it do not see themselves on either side of a culture war. That frame of reference simply does not exist for many of the Ontarians born outside of Canada. To debate it on those terms does not help those wanting to either understand their opposition or to engage them in debate.

To date, the allegedly socially conservative foreign-born populations have largely avoided picking a side in Canada’s culture war. They have not organized against same-sex marriage or any other progressive changes in Canada and polls do not show them keen to do so. Conservative attempts to motivate them using decriminalization of marijuana as a wedge issue have largely fallen flat.

The Health and Physical Education curriculum issue is unique. And to understand its uniqueness, you have to attempt to truly understand differing ethnic cultural values.

Yes, some of it is due to religion, but that tells only a small part of the story. Much of the opposition is driven by differing perspectives, rooted in ethnic culture, on parenting and the role of the family and the child within it. Studies of ethnic culture have shown vastly different attitudes on that aspect of human life. That topic alone could expand this column into a book, but the key point is that it does not necessarily relate to attitudes to sexual orientation in the way that looking at the issue from a Western culture-war perspective would lead you to assume.

Dismissing Difference Is Not the Answer

I support the new curriculum one hundred percent and will argue strongly in its favour. I hope it prevails, as I do see it as a necessary continuation of the progress we have made since I joined that protest almost 30 years ago.

[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]I urge the government of Ontario to truly try to understand the perspective of parents who oppose it and not to drown out the voices of those who object. Many of them are engaging in a true civic debate for the first time since their arrival in Canada. [/quote]

But I urge the government of Ontario to truly try to understand the perspective of parents who oppose it and not to drown out the voices of those who object. Many of them are stepping up to make their voices heard and engage in a true civic debate for the first time since their arrival in Canada. Dismissing them as ignorant or intolerant is neither useful nor just.

[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]It requires that we jettison some of the frames of reference that we find so comfortable when making sense of the world.[/quote]

Multiculturalism is not always easy. It doesn’t simply mean a few extra “exotic” items on restaurant menus. It requires genuine understanding and respect for ethnic cultural differences. And it requires that we jettison some of the frames of reference that we find so comfortable when making sense of the world.

In this case, for me, that means standing down in the culture war to try to understand a truly different perspective. 

Isn’t that also progress?

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