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When rights become wrongs

DONNA YAW CHING Sunday, December 2 2012

Canada prides itself on its commitment to human rights, fairness, equity, and so forth. These are desirable goals, which no doubt elevate the country above other, less scrupulous, nations.

But sometimes, virtue can be taken to excess; as my mother used to say, too much of a good thing is good for nothing. It’s certainly true that the sublime, garnished with a good dollop of self-righteousness, can slide rapidly towards absurdity. Consider three recent news stories in Toronto: A woman decides she needs a haircut. (Subsequent reports describe her as a lesbian, but that’s neither here nor there, except insofar as it influenced her choice of hairstyle.) She desires a “manly” cut, one known as The Businessman — short-back-and-sides, essentially. She decides the best place to get this is not at a women’s salon, where a cut can average $50-$100, but at a barbershop, which is substantially cheaper. Makes sense, so far.

However, of all the city’s thousands of barbershops, this madam chooses one run by Muslims (bypassing, it should be noted, an equally cheap unisex salon a couple doors down). Politely, the owner explains that his religion prohibits him from touching any woman who is not a family member.

What’s the sensible response? It’s obvious: find another barbershop. Instead — despite the man’s offer to pay for her haircut at another establishment —, the woman launches a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

She views this barber’s refusal to cut her hair as an act of gender discrimination, unacceptable under Canadian law. She is not seeking financial compensation; she merely wants the tribunal to compel the barber to offer his services to women. The fact that he might consider this sacrilegious is immaterial. Her RIGHT to service is all that matters.

Pragmatic Trinis may have a hard time believing this, but the consequences of this case could be far-reaching. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms gives everyone the right to practice their religion; it also forbids discrimination on the grounds of gender, race, sexual orientation, et cetera , et cetera.

In this instance, the two “rights” clash, and clearly make a wrong. In a place like Toronto, both multicultural and progressive, it had to happen sometime. The case will come before the tribunal early next year. I am not religious, but were I a judge, this would be a no-brainer: surely a person’s devout religious beliefs (assuming they cause no physical harm) must trump the need for an ugly haircut.

(Not that logic necessarily counts for much, here: consider the infamous case of the Chinese greengrocer who chased down a well-known serial shoplifter and held him till the police arrived. The thief admitted his guilt; yet the shopkeeper was charged with assault and illegal confinement. He was eventually vindicated — but not before a whole lot of court appearances and legal expense.)

The second story entails nuts: both the human and the botanical variety. In Canada, every second person appears allergic to something or other; and everyone else is expected to bend over backward to accommodate them. Hence, my son can’t take a peanut butter sandwich to school, in case your (allergic) son grabs it from him and eats it. You can’t wear perfume to the gym, in case it triggers my asthma; and so on.

Well, one parent recently took this to extremes. Noticing some oak trees near her child’s school, she made a request for them to be cut down, because they were dropping acorns and her young son has a nut allergy. (This, in a city that actually forbids homeowners to cut down trees, for environmental reasons.)

The fact is, only squirrels eat acorns. Acorns have a very hard shell. The child would need a hammer, and a determined death-wish, to trigger his allergy. And what next: would every oak tree in his neighbourhood also need to be cut down? What about those in city parks? It hasn’t occurred to this mother to simply teach her son not to eat stuff off the ground. The jeers of public ridicule eventually caused her to back off, averting a probable court battle; and Toronto’s oak trees are safe — until the next nut comes along.

Finally, story number three. Bullying is a big buzzword these days; it’s held responsible for everything from childhood depression to teen suicide. These are serious issues, because young people don’t appear to have the resilience they once did (not surprising, when their mothers want to clear trees from their paths!); and the Internet has taken the cruelty of youth to new and dizzying heights.

Still, it’s a whole different matter when their teachers complain of being “bullied” on the Internet. Recently, several high school students were caught posting nasty things about their teachers on Twitter. The latter were devastated, apparently. They felt bullied. The school even summoned the police — who, happily, declined to get involved. It was left to the principal to issue suspensions.

Okay, sure: children should respect their elders. But guess what: students have ragged on their teachers for millennia. It’s what children do; it helps them blow off steam. And what they do outside of school should surely be their business.

But the level of political correctness in Canada is so acute that no feeling must ever be bruised, no “right” must ever be slighted. It’s the mark of a society with good intentions; but as my mother would say, too much of a good thing.

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