Borders and Birthrights: The Moral Inconsistencies of Liberal Citizenship

Living in Canada is a privilege I enjoy by birthright, and which only exists as a privilege for me to the exclusion of others. How does this fact not squarely contradict my belief that all humans are equal?

The more I think about it, the more the concepts of citizenship and borders seem to be problematic ideas. At the philosophical level, establishing ‘self-determining states’ makes sense. Pragmatically speaking, resource management and geopolitical sovereignty seem to require power structures. But it feels like there is a disconnect between borders as a political necessity and borders as a morally justifiable tool of exclusion.

Once you accept the basic idea of universal human rights and the equality of all people, it becomes tedious and inconsistent to argue that some humans are ‘allowed’ to inhabit an arbitrary section of the earth that is forbidden to other humans. Ironically, often the very same people with the special privileges and permissions to occupy a particular piece of land simultaneously sing the praises of universal human equality. Living with this paradox requires some serious mental gymnastics and contortions of logic.

I live in Canada. I am a citizen. Canada is a wealthy, resource-rich nation that is desirable for many people at the moment. (Say, for example, families fleeing violence, corruption, or poverty elsewhere.) Why do I have the privilege to live behind these borders? My justification is nothing more than a birthright. I did nothing to earn the opportunity to settle in Canada as my homeland, any more than my ancestors possessed the moral authority to take this land from the people who were here first. I adopt this place as part of my identity out of sheer luck — an incredibly comfortable present delivered by a dark and bloody past.

I inherited the right to live here by a roll of the pedigree dice. I’m a bingo number in a genetic lottery. The privileges I possess are not historically random, but they are wholly unearned.

One does not hear kind words spoken about people who inherit privileged lives unwarranted but through parentage. But inherited privilege is the logic we must use to declare ourselves Canadian. What did I personally do to earn the right to live in this ecology and participate in this economy? Nothing. I am not speaking of nationalist exceptionalism or cultural superiority here, but rather of concrete material opportunities, protections, and privileges that are at my disposal by the simple fact that I was born here, relative to being born in some other places. For me to speak ill of anyone born into wealth is hypocritical, is it not?

Of course, many other people have indeed arrived here by other means. Some migrate here for work. Some immigrate for family ties. Some flee to this country as refugees. Citizenship is achieved by many, and there are many paths. We are a nation of immigrants, it is often observed. But the very plurality of these pathways only further emphasize the moral question at hand: by what moral authority is anyone granted or denied the right to set up their lives on this particular soil?

Statecraft, especially in the so-called ‘Western’ tradition, largely boils down to the process of keeping most people out and letting specific people in. Gatekeeping is executed under the pretext of security: to protect our population, we must hold the rest of the ravenous humanoids at bay. (And how could we possibly provide adequate healthcare to ‘our’ population if we opened our borders to everyone?) But the contradiction of the security discourse is that it implies being complacent (or non-interventionist) in the suffering of non-citizens while claiming the moral high ground and the rhetoric ‘universal equality’ for the rights of people who happen to hold passports. Fundamentally, the whole idea of guarded, militarized borders seems to clash with so many basic principles of universal human rights that we must wonder if liberal political dogma boils down to sheer self-contradiction.

I hear contemporary thinkers often ask how America — a nation supposedly founded on the principle that ‘all men are born free and equal’ — could have possibly enshrined slavery for so long? The incoherence is glaring, right? But how do we morally justify national borders while claiming adherence to doctrines of universal human equality and the supposed inherent rights of every individual? This is an awkward moral conundrum that liberals — even liberals who ramble on about the evils of overt nationalism — find suspiciously easy to ignore. Instead, we proudly congratulate ourselves for welcoming some arbitrary number of refugees in a crisis, which, by sheer logic, is as much about celebrating who we’ve kept out as much as it is about achieving some moral high road of humanitarianism.

However, borderlessness seems equally problematic. How could there be any guarantee or protection of human rights in a free-for-all, winner-takes-all, zero-accountability, libertarian world? Are not human rights themselves ultimately a product of state protection? A quick tour of the globe demonstrates all too well that the absence of government strongly correlates with massive human rights abuses. (And yes: governments themselves are often the perpetrators of such violence and violations, but their absence seems to almost be a guarantee of abuse.) What is a human right, anyway, if there is no authority to enforce it or hold perpetrators accountable? Borders, in this sense, seem to be the vehicles of human rights, even while they contradict the logic of the universalist rhetoric they preach comfortably from behind their walls.

Thus, the puzzle remains: national borders seem to be both an political and pragmatic necessity for the protection of human rights while they are simultaneously a contradiction of the equality and universalism advocated by liberal states. Can we reconcile this contradiction? Is there an alternative strategy for the liberal vision of equality that doesn’t amount to barricading ourselves into our national forts and sending out troops to assume the role of world police?

Thanks for reading and engaging. This is an on-going and unfinished thought project. I am eager for input, ideas, and critiques.

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What do you do when you realize you are the colonizer?

Let’s begin with a hypothetical situation. Let’s suppose that I become aware that another group of people do not share the same access to material opportunities, cultural perks, and civil rights that I enjoy. Let’s suppose that this segment of the population is historically and regularly racialized, marginalized, or stigmatized by other social groups. (Such as my social group, for instance.)

As a result of this discovery, I realize that people face systemic disadvantages — disadvantages that are mostly alien to my experience. This realization is not only a theoretical idea, but it is the acute awareness that the oppression of others is inseparable from opportunities that I possess (and leverage) as a member of my social class. Put it this way: the very same cards that have been dealt in my favour are simultaneously stacked against other people. I not only see the inequitable, self-reinforcing power disparity at play: I see myself as a player in the equation.

Now, what should I do?

This post is about articulating a hypothetical response to this scenario.

For the sake of the thought experiment, I imagine my range of potential responses as points along a continuum. (Of course, every continuum is an arbitrary model. And this model is surely as flawed as any other. But given these caveats, I share this completely arbitrary idea because it highlights a ‘problem’ I cannot easily reconcile.)

On one end of the continuum, I stand up and declare that I will advocate for you. I have power and resources at my disposal. I will use all the social levers I can get my hands on to make your life better. But in my campaign for the ‘improvement’ of your life, I will militarize my implicit biases: I will inherently assume that I know what you need and want. (And, as it turns out, I think you just want to live more like me!) I proudly declare myself to be a voice for the voiceless — your saviour and your ally. In this, I inadvertently reinforce and amplify the discrepancy between us. Yes, you need me. As I self-righteously claim to ease the burden of your oppression, I only re-entrench myself as the colonizer — a colonizer who is blind and ignorant of the empire and patriarchy that they so dutifully spread with their philanthropy. (Hey, can I get a tax receipt for this, by the way?)

On the other extreme of the continuum, I humbly announce that I will wholly defer to your knowledge. Therefore, You must advocate for yourself. In my deference, I bestow upon you the responsibility of educating me. I am the researcher, and you are the subject. Just as I refuse to speak on your behalf, I also positively refuse to act unless you direct me to act. As a result, you must take up the not insignificant labour of managing me. In my so-called solidarity and allyship, I am a burden. A piece of well-intentioned deadweight. Yes, I will assure a token voice for the plight of your people is always represented. I will champion the input of those with lived experience at every opportunity. I will write policies for your inclusion. I will host your workshops. But the ‘identity labour’ costs hereby fall entirely to you. And along the way your identity is evermore defined by this new multicultural role I set for you. You bear the burden of my endless consultations. Here, again, the power discrepancy is only magnified. I, the so-called woke colonizer, have a new assignment for you: you must advocate for yourself at every opportunity I provide you. Thus, in decrying the disparity of our relative privilege, I enjoy my new privilege of deferring everything to you and excusing myself of any liability for the outcomes.

The ‘poles’ of this continuum present a real problem. To the extent I act on your behalf, I entrench my position as a patronizing member of bourgeoisie performing the same-old song and dance in the hazardous haze of their ignorance. To the extent that I refuse to act without your explicit direction or insist on your volunteer leadership, I effectively abdicate all personal responsibility (and accountability) for contributing to the cognitive and material tasks of reparation and equity. The balance of these two poles is tedious and fragile. How maliciously and subtly the power imbalance tips the scale in either direction. Perhaps the most important ‘test’ for any given action is the extent to which the activity holds these dynamics in balance.

At either end of this continuum, oppression merely switches the garbs of its outer shell. But both ends of the continuum seem to represent the ‘default’ responses of people like me (that is, folks who fancy themselves as advocates and tweeters for the idea of ‘social justice’ from the position of their economic and class privilege). In trying to determine the ‘middle,’ I confront the heart of the complexity at hand: what does it even mean to ‘decolonize’ one’s social position? And if one cannot ‘decolonize’ oneself, does it not follow that another must always be the colonized?

If this model reflects anything about reality, the way forward seems disturbingly foggy. In my commitment to avoid the poles at the extreme, I step timidly towards the centre of the continuum. But what is the centre?

How do we solve this dilemma without parroting the same old platitudes about the importance of ‘active listening’ and ‘building bridges’? How much time must we usurp at our roundtables, panels, and conferences? How do we find the middle of the continuum without merely describing new, normative roles for the oppressed to play in our newly reordered order of things?

At this point, I have come to the tentative ‘conclusion’ that there is no secret solution for ‘solving’ the problem raised by this continuum. The ‘right’ answer appears to be: continue muddling along with as much grace and trust as we can muster. Or, perhaps, revolution. Chucking the ‘continuum’ out the window might be a good start, too. Thoughts? There could very well be no answer key at the end of the book we are writing here. Admittedly, I’m a bit suspicious of people who think they’ve got all this figured out. But I am reasonably confident that the people who are running ahead blind to this inherent dilemma are teetering recklessly close to the historical status quo.

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What does ‘Reconciliation’ mean for an individual Canadian like me?

The last few years aligned a series of events, the sum of which have yielded unsettling realizations for many Canadians.

A brief account: On June 11, 2008, the Government of Canada formally apologized for the Indian residential school system. The emergence of the Idle No More movement in 2012 (and onwards), the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in 2015 (and the subsequent launch of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls later that year), and several on-going, high-profile water and resource disputes, have collectively culminated in a significant shift in the way that many Canadians think about the history of colonization. Self-awareness of the doctrine of discovery has been, well, rediscovered. Most recently, this growing openness to learning about the history of the indigenous experience squarely collided with the celebration of Canada 150, forcing the cognitive dissonance into personal reckoning for many of us.

Sprinkled throughout the last paragraph is also an account of my journey over the past few years as well. My perspective and awareness have been evolving alongside and with my compatriots. At present, however, I find myself struggling to determine what to do next. I strive to understand what ‘reconciliation’ means for me in practical terms. Maybe it is a problem of semantics. Perhaps it is a problem of definitions. This post is about wrestling with next steps by wrestling with the term ‘reconciliation’ itself.

In common parlance, it appears that the word ‘reconciliation’ has at least two working definitions in Canadian society. The first and primary usage of the word is (and must be) wholly political. Let’s call this national reconciliation. In this sense, we speak of reconciliation as an intentional shift towards equity and reparation, manifested principally in formal negotiations between the federal government of Canada and autonomous, sovereign First Nations, Metis, and Inuits. The national reconciliation agenda involves honouring and enforcing past treaties, politics of recognition, restoring resource and land rights, and so on. National reconciliation, therefore, must involve band councils, politicians, and lots and lots of lawyers — all collectively navigating the thorny moral and legal landscape created by the Indian Act of 1876 and subsequent policies enacted in its wake.

Whatever ‘reconciliation’ is, exactly, it seems evident that it must be grappled with here — at the level of federal negotiations — first and foremost. At a minimum, if reconciliation doesn’t happen at this level, it seems unclear that any other activity could be considered ‘reconciliatory’ in the long run.

Simultaneously, this concept of national reconciliation is often mentioned in parallel to some notion of personal reconciliation. This version of reconciliation begins with consciousness-raising about the historical sins of our forefathers but quickly moves to an understanding of privileges that non-indigenous people hold today that come at the expense of the people we have colonized. Here, ‘reconciliation’ is where I confront my individual, internalized racism, stereotypes, prejudices, and bigotry. When Canadians talk about reconciliation in these personal terms, we often seem to imply nurturing and building interpersonal and communal middle ground. We employ lots and language about ‘understanding’ and ‘bridges.’ There’s much said about ‘learning from the other.’

I think a difficulty for non-indigenous Canadians — those of us privileged to enjoy existences and identities that are not seen as a perennial ‘problem’ for the government and ‘mainstream’ culture — is understanding how reconciliation can be both personal and political, simultaneously. Those of us who can conveniently separate our ethnicities, identities and politics into separate categories risk underdeveloping or under-imagining our sense of how others might feel and find ‘belonging’ in society.

It seems to me that we must define reconciliation as both a national and personal endeavour. If we define reconciliation primarily as a process of political reparation, it might seem to absolve everyday citizens of any and all personal responsibility. Of course, this is false, as we are all political — no less so even in our political apathy — with respect to holding our elected leaders accountable to concrete action on reconciliation. But if reconciliation is only the work of politicians and band councils, the onus for making lasting change is only as strong as an election cycle, at best. Surely, supporting the cause of reconciliation means something more than casting a ballot once every four years.

As a result, it seems incumbent upon everyone to adopt and internalize a pursuit of personal reconciliation. How do I, as an individual, act in such a way as to thwart the centuries-old inertia of racism that hues the psychology of a nation? But wait! Reconciliation must remain much, much more than white folks contemplating their colonial privileges and writing blog posts about it — getting ‘woke’ does not, on its own, restore land treaties or clean up industrial mercury spills. Perhaps we should say that ‘personal reconciliation’ is not truly enacted until the personal becomes political. Until your reconciliatory kumbaya becomes political action, don’t think of it as anything more than guilt-happy, liberal feel-good.

I was recently chatting over coffee with Joe Anton, a friend of mine from the Oneida Nation of the Thames, who currently works as an addictions counsellor here in London. I shared my struggle to forge ‘personal’ and ‘national’ reconciliation into coherent personal activity. After a moment, Joe responded, “Reconciliation is what is going to emerge — it is a new reality that we are going to create together.” These words might be one of the most decisively wise nuggets of insight I have heard in a long time

Let’s not get so caught up in all the ways that we can define reconciliation as a verb that we forget the ultimate goal: reconciliation as a noun. A state of things. A different order. A relationship. A rearrangement of power. A generative way of being together and learning from one another that leads to a reality that is different than what we know at present. It’s personal. It’s political. And it is unknown: it is a future that will only exist if we make it.

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As one of many citizens

As one of many citizens who depend on safe and accessible sidewalks for work and daily life — no less than motorists depend on safe roads — I wonder how much more tax we’d need to pay to become equal citizens to drivers in snow removal prioritization?

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Gender and Leadership: redefining and reconceptualizing power

When you think of the word ‘leadership,’ what comes to mind? What are your top three word associations? Got your list? Now, how many of the words that you just imagined reflect traditionally masculine characteristics?

In this episode, Shawna Lewkowitz (@ShawnaLewk) and Anne-Marie Sanchez (@anma_sa) discuss some big questions about gender and leadership: How has our contemporary concept of leadership evolved over time? Is our current idea leadership sufficient to encompass the many skill sets and ways of being in the world that have been traditionally considered as ‘feminine’? Would a society of gender parity have a different definition of leadership than we do?

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