The Bicameral Mind

Time to unwrap the Jeremiad again, I’m afraid; I’m getting tired of this. Really tired. I know it’s an American thing, but stop it will you? Or can you? Every time there’s a bicameral shift it tears the fabric a little more and unravels what I want to believe about your country. Yes, I’m Canadian and watching with unvetted eyes I guess, and yet sometimes it is good to hear from the other side of the mirror. To listen to the indrawn breath and pause to look around. Sometimes acumen travels in disguise: the dusty traveller leaning on the fence, the unwashed face of Vishnu. Wisdom does not always wear a flag.

One of the things I’m referring to, of course, is the perpetually probationary status in the United States of both family planning and pregnancy termination. Women’s rights seem contingent upon the prevailing ideology, their status as stable as the government in power -guaranteed only conditionally, and as changeable as the pen that underwrites them.

As a non-combatant, I suppose I should only listen with firmly closed lips; perhaps the border should be a closed curtain so I cannot see through. And maybe I should apologize for being so critical, but when is this vacillation going to stop? I accept that there are valid differences of opinion, and that any decision is inevitably temporally adjudicated. Times change, and so do populations and their ethnic and cultural compositions. It’s happening to us all. But surely the answer isn’t to retreat behind the doors and barricade the walls.

And defunding organizations that seek to address the issues of involuntary overpopulation would seem unduly parochial and even internationally misunderstood. It is the special duty of an enlightened nation to accept that there are many roads and many destinations. It has, it seems to me, the burden of reasonable neutrality, grounded observation, and judicious guidance.

The issue, I think, should be one of choice not fiat. Conscience, not doctrine. To offer alternatives is not to coerce, nor to prejudice the selection; it is surely to achieve the goal for which the options were offered in the first place. Not all things are equally acceptable; not all choices are politically or culturally permissible, to be sure. So a variety of solutions might have a greater likelihood of admissibility. A greater possibility of success.

Several years ago, I travelled to the States to attend a gynaecological convention and discovered that not only was pregnancy termination still an inflammable topic for many delegates, but even the provision of Family Planning counselling for whoever requested it. I found this hard to understand, especially at a meeting of specialists in the field.

I remember questioning one of the doctors I met there and she rolled her eyes at my Canadian naïveté. “Do you remember that fable of Aesop called ‘the Belly and the Members’?” Now I felt really naïve because I had to shake my head.

She seemed surprised. “Well,” she said, after interrogating my face for a moment to make sure I wasn’t kidding her. “The version my daddy told me when I was young went something like this. One day, after carrying the body through a long day of heavy work, the feet complained that they seemed to be the only ones in the body who had to work. Of course the hands argued with them that they were the ones who should complain -the feet may have carried the body, but they had to carry and even balance the load. The only thing they could agree on, after a long argument, was that although the four of them worked all day, in the end it was the stomach who got all the food.

“So, they devised a plan. The feet refused to walk to the stove, and the hands refused to pick up any food.”  The doctor smiled at this point and pierced me with her eyes. “And you can guess what happened after a while… They all got weak and finally had to agree to work together. Only the stomach could give them the strength they needed.”

She giggled at the end and touched my arm playfully. “I can’t believe you didn’t know that one, doctor.”

I hate it when a colleague calls me ‘doctor’, but I let it pass. “And I take it the fable is telling us that we all have to work together, no matter that we’re different? And that we can all have different opinions?”

Her expression changed and a puzzled look crept onto her face. “Never thought of that, actually… My daddy said it meant that we all have our jobs, but need someone –something- watching over us to give us strength and direction… Reminding us of what we should do. He said the Stomach was our Conscience… But I think he really meant the President… Or maybe the Lord…” She shook her head in apparent disbelief at my interpretation. I blinked, because it didn’t make sense to me. I wondered if she’d remembered it wrong.

“You must have similar fables even up there in Canada…” I could tell she was trying to understand my confusion. Transcend boundaries.

“Well,” I started, just like she had, “I do remember one about chopsticks…” She smiled at my multiracial example –so Canadian. “It was something one of my Chinese patients told me after giving me a little gift for delivering her baby. She said her father had told her this when she was a child.

“’There was an old man,’ she said, ‘who was close to death, and worried about what would happen after he died. He decided to ask the wise village elder if he knew what it would be like in Hell. The elder smiled and told him to imagine a large room filled with people. ‘They are all thin and hungry,’ he said ‘even though there is food everywhere.’

“’Then why are they so thin,’ the old man asked?

“’Because their chopsticks are each ten feet long,’ was the answer.

“The old man thought about it for a minute. ‘And Heaven,’ he asked, ‘What’s it like in Heaven, then?’

“The elder laughed. ‘Imagine another large room. There is food everywhere, but the people are fat and happy in spite of their ten foot long chopsticks…’

“The old man was puzzled. ‘But… I don’t understand.’

“The elder smiled and put his arm around the old man. ‘In Heaven, they feed each other…’”

Perhaps, I thought, after watching my colleague’s reaction, perhaps there is something more profoundly different about our two countries than simply the colour of our mailboxes…

Prostitution Laws

Okay, I think you’re going to have to help me with this one. Suppose you have a product the courts have decided you are legally entitled to sell, but a new law is enacted making it both illegal to advertise or purchase it… Am I missing something here?

In December 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada, in a unanimous 9-0 ruling, struck down Canada’s prostitution laws as violating the Constitution guaranteeing Life, Liberty, and Security of Person. The law it disallowed had prohibited brothels, street solicitations, and living off any money derived from prostitution. The government was given a year to come up with a new law.

http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/12/20/supreme-court-prostitution-canada_n_4478127.html   

So, six months later in early June, they did just that, closely following the so-called Nordic model: selling sex is legal; paying for it is not There are a few subtle Canadian twitches to this model (of course), but it pretty well boils down to the the same result. Which brings me to the issue with which I need some help.

The problem that the government is trying to solve -apart from what they perceive to be the moral one- is the crime that often accompanies prostitution: drugs, violence, and the nuisance to the community where it occurs. And when pressed, they seem to subscribe to the views of Gunilla Ekberg, a lawyer in Sweden who played a role in that country’s adoption of the Nordic Model in 1999. She described prostitution as a form of male sexual violence and has said that the law focuses “on the root cause, the recognition that without men’s demand for and use of women and girls for sexual exploitation, the global prostitution industry would not be able to flourish and expand.

The problem with that argument, of course, is that it doesn’t get rid of prostitution; it merely drives it further underground unsupervised, and into dark and unsafe alleys. It is an approach that, to be polite, is naive, and dangerous for prostitutes -who, remember, are legally recognized as such. And as citizens living within the law, they are entitled to its protection. That, I think, was the intent of the Supreme Court’s decision.

There are various models in other countries that have also attempted to deal with the issues surrounding prostitution. None is perfect, but some appear to offer more protection than the one proposed as a reaction to the Supreme Court. The New Zealand approach seems popular with sex workers in Canada:(http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2014/06/05/sex-workers-like-new-zeal_n_5450692.html)

And as the linked article states: Prostitution, including brothel ownership and pimping, has been legal in New Zealand since 2003. The sex industry operates under employment and public health laws. Prostitution that is not consensual or involves someone under 18 years is illegal. It’s also against the law to compel or induce someone into sex work, or to provide their earnings. Larger operations must be certified. Prostitutes are still vulnerable if they work on the streets, of course, but the brothels at least allow better working conditions and protection.

It seems to me that offering safe working conditions for a service between two consenting adults goes a long way towards the intent of our constitutional protection. To ascribe denigrating moral attributes to a consensual act ignores the overriding necessity of security of person. To fly in the face not only of the intent of the Constitution but also the ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada which acted to defend it, merely to punish those who, in your opinion deserve it, strikes me as arrogant in the extreme. Intolerant. It smacks of a fundamentalist omniscience, a disinclination even to attempt to view society through the lens of those with whom you disagree.   http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/daniel-tencer/prostitution-law-canada_b_5451466.html 

I hasten to add that I know we all have strong beliefs surrounding this issue -myself included- and I understand the disparate feelings the ruling seems to have unleashed. I also recognize that there is likely no solution that can satisfy everybody. Debate about it is not only appropriate, it is necessary. But to debate, one needs to hear both sides of the argument. The merits and problems with each and every viewpoint need to be explored. There should be no monopoly on interpretation. No unilateral power politics. It is not the prerogative of any elected government to legislate morals at the expense of constitutionally guaranteed rights.

Personally, I object to any government assuming it knows what we should and must believe. And I object to a government that is so convinced that prostitutes are on the wrong track, it thinks it should commit $20 million for a program to encourage them to change their ways. Not all the electorate subscribes to this evangelistic approach:

I’m reminded of a quotation from Oscar Wilde: Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people we personally dislike. Is that what’s going on here? The government says it’s not… so it can’t be. Right?