Friday, April 6, 2012

Open to Veganism: a Conference on Creed and Human Rights

As I have indicated in earlier posts, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC), in conjunction with Osgoode Hall Law School at York University, issued a call for papers, as they wished to host a legal workshop on religious freedom (“creed” is a term used in place of “religion” in Commission policies). It was to be on March 29 and 30 at the law school itself. The goal is to foster a dialogue so as to reform existing policy on religious freedom. At the same time in Ontario, Sinem Kitenci has a case before the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. She is an ethical vegan who completed a Master’s degree in social work at Ryerson University in my home city of Toronto. She maintains that she suffered from anti-vegan discrimination, and so is suing the school. Sinem’s case, in conjunction with a call for papers on creed passed on to me by an animal rights lawyer, prompted me to try to put together a case on behalf of vegans who appeal to creed so that they do not have to perform vivisection or dissection in the classroom. Nor be forced to eat non-vegan food in hospitals and prisons—if they are to eat at all. Nor face undue restrictions as to research topics in academia. My first step was to write a long essay on the topic. Then I submitted a proposal to do another, shorter paper (same topic) as the OHRC requested. This proposal was accepted by the organizers of the workshop. I was therefore asked to develop an actual essay. I then went on to write the paper for the OHRC itself, much shorter than the longer piece, and with more of a focus on Buddhism, not just veganism. That was for strategic reasons, because anti-animal-rights attitude is so very common. My submission was approved. There were fewer than 33 people at the conference on the first day: experts and policy higher-ups. Given that most people never get to attend these sorts of gatherings, I thought that I would share something of a sense as to what transpired at this particular conference.

I believe that my presentation went well, along with that of fellow vegan, Camille Lubchuk. The latter is a law student at the University of Toronto. I addressed the general theory of vegan creeds, and Camille and I (along with Mr. Remi Warner, a senior policy analyst at the OHRC) agree that the two papers complement each other well. Hers was a specific examination of Ontarian and Canadian law and policy to indicate that not only is there legal room for vegans to be protected under creed, but that some elements of policy might actually encourage such a development. Camille’s paper was straight-up pro-vegan.

I stated from near the start of my talk that I believe that non-violence includes nonhuman animals. Now one woman was a human rights proponent who has been active for many years with B’nai Brith, a Jewish organization. My own cultural background is Judaic. She asked about kosher slaughter, a typical question at the intersection of animal rights and speciesist versions of Jewish human rights. First I noted that cruelty to animals is prohibited under the rule of law in Canada, although 99% of the animal foods that people eat (I said, gesturing around the room with my hand) are produced under obscenely cruel conditions. I described, in kosher slaughter, the shackling of cows so that, according to Jewish law, they are not killed in another’s blood. In particular, these animals often weigh more than 1,200 pounds. Unnaturally (to say the least) hanging them by one leg, using a shackle and chain, actually causes their flesh agonizingly to tear away from the bone. The activist from B’nai Brith did not argue the point. As well, she was friendly and conversational later on. A man told me near the lunch buffet that there was no way he would eat the meat dish after what was said. I thought that was an appropriate reaction.

I was well-received by many people. Looking back, I see I had positive interactions with more than a dozen people, about a third of the people there, although I am not very outgoing and gregarious by temperament. I am more introverted and the like. Two counsels, women working with the OHRC, came to me at different times and related to me that they were very impressed with my presentation. Mr. Warner, with whom I corresponded about the paper, said my essay and Camille’s were really excellent. Camille no doubt correctly observed that she was the only student there. Remi appropriately said that her student status was not evident in her submission. I agreed. She deserves special honour for achieving so much while still a law student! Remi said the papers were going to be published on the OHRC website. There might be a paper publication too, as publishers have already approached the OHRC about the matter.

We had a small breakout discussion group and discussed tolerance for religion and other differences. A somewhat aggressive, but very intelligent lawyer, whom I will not name, attacked my view that it should be “justiciable,” to use his term (capable of being judged in court with a view to the administering of justice) if others are made uncomfortable or disturbed by remarks about one’s religion. However, one of the counsel to the OHRC, Reema Khawja, parried his thrust, pointing out that people are already protected from poisonous work environments, which goes along much the same lines. (Obviously freedom of speech would need to be balanced in the equation too when we think about upsetting people. And upset born of intolerance does not count just the same.) The somewhat aggressive lawyer attacked again at another point, saying that I could not simply speak of “homophobia”. I think the idea is that the Catholics also oppose bullying, say, gay people, and so these Catholics purport that they are not homophobic. I said I’m sorry if I need to make a two-hour talk in order to make an adequate contribution to the break-out discussion group we were in, and I offered that I do not mean to dismiss what he is saying, that I take it seriously. But homophobia is still a problem, I insisted, without going into any details. I wanted to get on with the point I was making at the time, in relation to which homophobia was just an incidental example of social violence. The counsel, Ms. Khawja, said that I held my own well with the lawyer who challenged my assertions. He is a tough cookie, so I take that as a real compliment. He liked another idea that I offered at another point and said it was helpful. In any case, it is a pleasure to disagree with highly intelligent people, but to more or less enjoy an atmosphere of mutual respect at the same time. That is an achievement that a lot of Francionists have shown they do not even so much as wish for.

Barbara Hall, former mayor of Toronto, and now Chief Commissioner at the OHRC, told me that she found my presentation to be very clear. Especially for an academic. (Her actual words were slightly different.) And she liked my sense of humour. I opened my talk by musing, “Philosophers almost inherently cut a weird figure at a proceeding on law and policy reform. Nevertheless, they have a role to play because they reflect on concepts such as freedom, democracy, and rights.” On the second day, as we stood with our lunch plates, Barbara noted that she was very interested in what I had to say, particularly about non-violence. I elaborated the theory to an extent, and she seemed to find that to be very plausible.

There was a deeply kind and thoughtful lawyer who does human rights law who said that he read my paper twice in order to be sure that he understood it. I said I was flattered. There was a constitutional lawyer, Dick Moon, who had a great sense of humour, and was very positively oriented towards me, as was Bruce Ryder, a law professor at Osgoode Hall law school, who said he believed most people in the room would be willing to agree with me that vegan prisoners deserve to have their diets respected. Another female counsel with the OHRC (whose name I sadly never learned) said she had never heard of ethical veganism before and was interested to go to my website to read my essay,“Veganism versus Violence.”

The lawyer whose views clashed with mine briefly (whom I told, with respect, over the lunch buffet that he has “a very challenging intellect”) said in the final plenary session that he wondered about disagreement when it comes to creed. I addressed his point by suggesting that if a church is frankly going to be homophobic (noting to the plenary that the lawyer in question and I had a disagreement about that term earlier), then I favour not forcing my views upon others and believe they need to evolve to their own view. No one can simply force anyone else to adopt a different view. However, when they offer to be hurtful towards, say, gay and lesbian people, then their actions must come under the scope of the law. We cannot, for example, outlaw the Roman Catholic Church.

I also said, with reference to the topic of disagreement, that we all should be able to agree on non-violence. The term does not occur in policy documents or the law, and that is a social tragedy, because each of us wants it for ourselves, I said, gesturing around the plenary room. “It’s what we all want. It’s what we all need. It should be a point of consensus from which we can develop law and policy.” And as I stated earlier during my presentation, we can all agree to afford to others the non-violence that we desire for ourselves.

An education policy worker named Moira Wong took a keen, positive interest in my work and asked me to elaborate it, an exercise that she found helpful. I was the only philosopher present, by the way. Someone asked about accommodating Muslim prayers in public schools and reported much hostility and flack he encountered when people have tried to do this. I noted that he could respond that he supports non-violence, including making people feel at peace, comfortable, welcome, and accommodated rather than cold, alienated, or in a metaphorical “chilly climate”, which not accommodating results in. Lack of accommodation amounts to a disturbance of the peace. Since the latter violates peoples’ peace, there emerges an inconsistency with non-violence.

I exchanged friendly chatter with Henry, who was a learned and very practical church representative with a doctorate, and is obviously well-known to many of the “policy people” at the workshop. He was very warm, and when I arrived at the second break-out session, he said to me, “Welcome back.” What a fine fellow! A lot of them knew each other, including those not formally affiliated with the OHRC, and they joked playfully about each other in plenary. They also referred to “the usual suspects” appearing at some events. I can believe that! One woman present was the head of the Royal Commission of Ontario, I think it was. It is very good to see female higher-ups such as her and Ms. Hall.

I sat down in my seat at lunch on the second day which was directly between two animatedly conversing people: Suzanne Chiodo (a wonderfully intelligent and sparkly fellow presenter) and a man in a suit. I soon learned that the latter was none other than the Honorable Justice Peter Lauwers, of the Ontario Superior Court, who was giving a talk shortly at 2:00 p.m. He was a very interesting individual, and when I called him “your Honour,” he affably urged me to address him as “Peter.” But at the end, after thanking him for a stimulating talk, I addressed him with “your Honour” again as a reflex action. I instantly realized my gaffe., but he did not seem to mind.

He said that judges are like “philosopher-kings”, whom Plato says should rule all of society. I tried to point out that one difference is that judges do not legislate. He ignited with a bit of energy and offered in a benign but vigorous way, “No, judges do legislate. Do not think for a second that they don’t.” Judges, after all, contribute to the body of law and its meaning. Sometimes laws and policies are submitted for judicial review too. He helped shore up my sometimes scanty knowledge of the law in this respect, given that I am a non-specialist jurist. (A religious studies professor from the University of Western Ontario mused jokingly with me, standing around the lunch buffet, about how we were both a bit at sea because our specialties are not the law per se. He and I are from different disciplines too, but at least we shared that much in common!)

Judge Lauwers asked if I was familiar with the famous Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, who helped to form the backbone of the judge’s later remarks during his talk. I said I took a graduate ethics course once that focused entirely on Taylor’s book, Sources of the Self, a book about which the justice knew. Also, I chaired “A Brown Bag Lunch with Charles Taylor” when I was President of Philosophers for Peace at University of Toronto Philosophy as a graduate student. Taylor was visiting and graciously agreed to come and chat. Also, Professor Taylor happens to be the Godfather of my wife. The Taylors chanced to live across the street from Cassandra’s family, the Princes, in Westmount. The latter is still predominantly a so-called “white” Anglo neighbourhood in Montreal. Two of the Taylor daughters recently came to Cassandra’s mother’s wake.

Intriguingly, the judge said that he distrusts long, philosophical formulas. Instead, he favours the great common law tradition of adding bits of case law—in response to specific situations—to existing understandings. Thus we accumulate a series of precedents concerning like cases. “Small steps, small errors,” he enthused. Very interestng. Ultimately, I held off submitting my longer paper on vegan creeds which I wrote prior to my OHRC submission to see if I could get fresh ideas for that longer paper after the conference. I became rather inspired with new ideas during the conference. Remi encouraged me to stay in touch and was interested to hear further ideas through, for example, e-mails. In general, the OHRC told the attending experts that “We have each others’ numbers,” so to speak, and they intend to involve us in their process of reform, which they predict will take a number of years. I intend to write the OHRC a response paper in relation to the workshop and try to provide some helpful framing. It is the best kind of conference when you can actually advance your thinking, if only as an indirect result.

Professor Gary L. Francione states in his book, Rain without Thunder (1996), that animal rights people need to be “outsiders” to the legislative and presumably also the public policy arena, otherwise our animal rightism will be watered down. His statement says something about how actually outside legal policy circles animal rights folk often are. My experience, however, demonstrates to me how very wrong he is about a “need” to stay away from law and policy making, and that although he may be an outsider—not least of all because that is his choice—that is not a necessary lot for animal rights people. Plus, I was as radical as animal rights needs to be to indicate that non-violence extends to nonhuman animals too.

There were a few very mild anti-animal rights manifestations at the legal workshop. But only a couple. The first was that in question period, after Camille and then myself had spoken, someone’s remark had a tone of “you people, the vegans”. But it was not overt, nor something that would necessarily move me to feel offended. The second was that someone made a negative reference to “vegetarian rhetoric” towards the end of the first of the two days. However, it was more like an outburst of semi-humorous, mildly adverse cat-calling, not to be taken too seriously. It fell dead in the air, apparently unsupported by anyone else. At least as an overt expression. It would have been different if the outburst resulted in derisive laughter, knowing smiles, “Here, here,” disrespectful comments, and the like. But it did not. And of course the person in question, whoever it was I am not sure, has the right to dissent from ethical veganism. It was rude and unprofessional, though, to say the least. The lawyer who read my essay twice out of interest asked me about plants, but that’s okay. Context is critical. That sort of question can be derisive. But in his case, it was just a sincere, gentle, and relevant line of questioning with which I was pleased to engage. We had a really interesting chat about that topic.

The food provided for me, which was vegan (and also accommodated another special dietary need of mine) was terrific. A special salad was packaged for me on the side. The best occurred on the last day, an Indian food lunch complete with fragrant rice, curried cauliflower, chickpea curry, and more. I tried not to gorge myself on gorgeous fruits and vegetables that were often served. There were pitas made with little fruits in the dough as an example of other thoughtful fare. For these people, accommodating vegans was not just an abstract idea to be more or less indifferently entertained. The OHRC put this noble sentiment into practice.

Here is a LINK to the paper I submitted to the conference, which all attendees received in a nicely finished volume of essays. Due to the input of the conference, I will submit for publication in a journal unrelated to the OHRC the much longer and significantly improved essay on the topic of veganism and animal rights, as something that should be protected as a matter of creed or freedom of religion. Overall, the conference was a considerable success. I have high hopes that our discourse over vegan creeds will make much progress over the next number of years.

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