Entry #25 – Tuesday July 14th, 2015 — “Reasonable Limits”

In my view freedoms are a lot like a movie. In order for everyone to enjoy them, they have to be edited. Luckily, I do not like my movies with too many special effects or fancy explosions. Creative cinematography and a decent sound track are usually enough for me. Anything less than that and the movie runs the risk of appearing incoherent; anything more and the movie leaves no room for the imagination. An example of the former is the United States while the latter is North Korea.

The problem is that people’s views on the degree that a movie should be edited vary just as much as their views on freedom. So, how do we reconcile different editing preferences? In the film industry it is not that challenging: make a variety of movies and everybody is happy. In the government industry, however, things get a little bit trickier. After all, everybody cannot have their own personal constitution tailored to their specific preferences. That’s not a society, but rather a Hobbesian state of nature. In that regard, if we are to live together then to what extent should our freedoms be edited? Further, are there reasonable limits to the amount of edits a state can make on its citizen’s freedoms?

It is pertinent to provide a bit of theory before I explore these questions in light of my time in Uganda. If you need something to lull you to sleep then I recommend you do not skip the theory.

Many of our gun-wielding, war waging, Twinkie eating, monarchy hating friends south of the 49th would probably say, “Edit freedoms? I’d sooner vote for a democrat than let the state edit MY freedoms!… stupid commie democrats and their Obama Care gay marriage mumbo jumbo… CLEADUS! GET ME MY RIFLE AND SOMETIHING WRITTEN BY MILTON FREIDMAN – I’M FEELING FREE TODAY.” In fact, our socialist-fearing comrades (see what I did there?) have been forcing people to be free since the 1700s!

A few years back, two dead fellows by the name of Jean Jacques Rousseau (Jackie), Alexis De Tocqueville (A-Town) picked up on the dangers of unedited freedom. Jackie, the closet monarchist that he was, said that rule by the people is alright so long as it is subject to reasonable limits. Jackie’s problem with unedited freedom was that it paradoxically created a situation whereby people forced others to be free. Post-9/11 wars, anybody… ring a bell?! Similarly, A-Town says that freedoms should be edited because, if left unchecked, large groups of people will oppress marginalized groups of people. He calls this, the “tyranny of the majority” and already saw it forming when he visited the United States shortly after the last Ice Age. In fact, A-Town, the closet aristocrat that he was, wrote “In America the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion, an author may write as he pleases; but woe to him if he goes beyond them”.

Given the thoughts of Jackie and A-Town, it seems like a few edits to certain freedoms might not be so bad. Heck, they might even turn freedom from a shitty home video into the next “Good Will Hunting”.

In the Great White North (as opposed to the, well… White South) people are a little more willing to let the state edit our freedoms. We Canadians understand that a few edits here and there are reasonable, so long as they keep everybody happy and healthy. That is, unless you are a Conservative. In that case you are probably too busy reading Milton Freidman or destroying the environment to really consider whether or not your freedoms should be edited. Either that or you are illiterate and therefore do not possess the capacity to ponder my increasingly pretentious blog entries. My guess is the latter given your support for Bill C-24. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

Anyway, the rest of Canada refers to a little document called the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms when they want to know what edits can and cannot be made. I, for one, have a copy framed in my room because I am really, really pretentious. Section 1 of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms is known as the “Reasonable Limits Clause” because it allows our governments to edit our freedoms with reasonable limits. It says that our governments and legislatures can make and pass laws (respectively) that directly contravene our rights and freedoms so long as they can prove them to be “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society”. Sounds pretty broad and ambiguous, doesn’t it? After all, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (or North Korea) claims to be a free and democratic society; yet, the government imprisons hundreds of thousands of North Koreans in concentration camps. Luckily Canadian courts recognize Section 1’s inherent ambiguity*. They even have a legal test that makes editing freedoms a little more difficult than editing a video on a Mac… okay much more difficult.

The reasonable limits test is known as the “Oakes test” and here’s what it looks like…

In order to create a law that infringes on a Canadian’s constitutionally given rights, government must prove that:

  1. There is a “pressing and substantial” objective to the legislation
  2. a) The legislation must have “rational connection” its objective
  3. b) The legislation must “impair rights as little as possible”
  4. c) The effective of the legislation must be in proportion to legislative objective

*Constitutions are known as living tree documents. That means that they are made to grow and adapt according to the changing values of society. Broad and slightly ambiguous wording allows for constitutions to grow (like trees) without constantly having to be amended.

Annnnnnnnd theory sermon OVER! Congrats! You made it.

After all of that you are probably wondering why I am so concerned with freedom while I am all the way over here in Uganda. Well, as usual the answer lies in a story.

My Father has worked as a teacher and principle in Seven Oaks School Division for nearly 30 years. My brother and I attended schools in this division from k-12 and with some luck my brother might teach in the Seven Oaks one day as well. It is needless to say that we are a ‘Seven Oaks’ family. During his time in the Division my Father has accumulated a number of colleagues. One of these colleagues happens to be a lady from Uganda – we’ll call her M. M, like my Father, is a principle. Unlike my Dad, she is a principle at my former elementary school, Ecole Riverbend. Small world, I know! As such, when my Father found out about my internship in Uganda, his second reaction was to contact M and link her up with me. His first reaction was something along the lines of, “oh crap”.

As it happens, thanks to the hard work of M and other educators, Seven Oaks School Division has a sister school right in Kampala! More, M is in Uganda to visit family as I write this very entry. Consequently, the two of us made a point of linking up and paying the sister school a visit. And what a visit it was.

Seven Oaks School Division’s sister school is located in the center of a slum in a neighbourhood called Kamwoyka. Oddly enough, before visiting the school, I viewed Kamwoyka as one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in Kampala. It houses a number of upscale bars, restaurants, and one of the fanciest malls I’ve ever set foot in. However thanks to our friends: colonialism, imperialism, and neoliberal globalization, Kampala’s slums and areas of affluence live in close proximity. In fact, the school is no more than 300 metres away from Kampala’s nicest mall. Of course, the slum dwellers’ freedom to access the mall has been edited by security guards, high prices and tall fences.

My fellow Scholars and I met M at a gas station close to the school. After a few minutes in the car, the four of us arrived at a playground swarming with children in blue uniforms. M explained to us that we just missed the spectacle that is lunch time. She told us that every day 2000 hungry children storm a few brave staff members for their lunch, which can be both entertaining a terrifying. We stepped out of the car and were immediately met with friendly calls: “Hey, Muzungu!!!”… “look, look, muzungus!”….. “muzuuuuuuunnnnnguuu!”.

As we walked to the main office, M explained to us that many of the children live in the surrounding slums. As a result, they the nicest kids you will ever meet, but that their stories would break your heart. The sad reality is that most of the children in the school live in poverty and, as Amarta Sen argues, poverty in and of itself is an unreasonable infringement on freedom. Briefly, Sen’s Nobel Prize winning thesis, “Development as Freedom” suggests that freedom is a means (but not end) to achieving development. As such, Sen argues that all human capability requires a level of freedom – not merely to make choices, but to have assurance to resources. These resources include things like food, water, education, health/sanitization, and housing. By doing so Sen topples the neoliberal argument for “unedited” freedoms by suggesting that regulation and public support are required for well-being. Pretty smart guy.

We continued through the hallways towards the office. As we reached the second floor, M pointed to a Seven Oaks School Division banner hanging on a wall. I was immediately overcome by a mixture of shock, euphoria, and nostalgia. The banner had the same Seven Oaks logo plastered on the bottom that I saw every day from Kindergarten to Grade 12. And there it was, in Kampala. As we reached the top of the stairwell, my Scholars and I were shocked to see a Canadian flag hanging from a nearby railing. First the Seven Oaks banner and then a Canadian flag?!! I was home.

No more than a second after we reached the main office we found ourselves locked in the bear hug from the school’s principle. We will call her J.

J (as she pulls the four of us into her embrace): “YOU ARE WELCOME, YOU ARE WELCOME! MY NAME IS J, MY NAME IS J! YOU ARE SO WELCOME!”

Upon releasing us from her ironclad grip, J ushered the four of us into her office. J and M went on to share extended greetings. The two have worked closely over the past few years to set up the sister school program and their bond showed. In fact, last summer M and a few other teachers from Seven Oaks spent a few weeks teaching at the school in Kampala. More, in 2012, J and a few other teachers from her school visited a number of schools in Seven Oaks, including my very own high school! SMALL WORLD.

After our introductions, J took the four of us for a tour around the school. M was quite familiar with the lay of the land due to her several visits over the years, but for me, Rachel, and Shelby the experience was nothing short of fascinating. We started with a P7 (or grade 7) class. The five of us (Scholars, M, and J) walked into the classroom and all 100+ students immediately stood up. Without prompt they recited:

“Good afternoon headmaster, you are welcome”

J: “pupils, I have a few visitors with me, can you tell me where they are from?”

Class (in concert): “CANADA!”

J: “Very good! And people in Canada are our what?”

Class: “OUR FRIENDS!”

By this point my cheeks were in agony from smiling. Little did I know that the pain would soon become much worse.

J: “Pupils, what do we do at all of our assemblies?”

Pupil: “We sing the Ugandan and Canadian national anthems, headmaster”

J: “Well, then let us sing it with our Canadian friends”

The class immediately started singing the opening lines of “O Canada”. Granted, the juxtaposition of a Ugandan accent with the lyrics was a bit jarring at first – nevertheless, I immediately felt at home. Based on the look of my fellow Scholars, I think they did too. There we were, signing our national anthem with a room full of Ugandans. I know that there were a number of weird power dynamics at play, but for a split second our shared appreciation for Canada and Uganda seemed to outweigh the neocolonial undertones of the day.

The same pattern occurred in every subsequent class we visited. Thanks to the sister school program, the entire school knew about Canada. I cannot say for sure, but I hope that children in Seven Oaks schools share the same level of appreciation for Uganda.

We continued through the school and made our way back up to J’s office. Along the way I saw several chairs and computers marked with the Seven Oaks School Division logo. It is not unlikely that I sat on those very chairs and used those very computers during my 13 years in Seven Oaks schools. As we sat down in J’s office, she and M started to talk about differences that exist between Canadian and Ugandan pedagogy. The largest difference is structural in nature. Quite simply, there are more children and fewer teachers in a Ugandan class room than in a Canadian one. As a result, Ugandan teachers emphasize obedience and individual learning in order to manage the 100+ students in their classrooms. Canadian teachers, on the other hand, tend to structure their lessons around group work and experiential learning.

As J explained, Ugandan children are just a free as Canadian children; however, in order to manage all of them their freedoms in the classroom have to be edited to a higher degree. In this case, such edits are not an unreasonable infringement on freedom. After all, by editing their freedoms, teachers are able to give large sums of children quality education. The Ugandan teachers might want to adopt an experiential approach, but factors beyond their control have forced them to edit instead.

So, if we are to live together then to what extent should our freedoms be edited? Further, are there reasonable limits to the amount of edits a state can make on its citizen’s freedoms?

In my view, freedoms should be edited to the extent that they allow everybody to live happy and equitable lives. The reasonable limits to freedom are those that otherwise prevent the latter from happening. If a gun, for instance, inhibits somebody from living a happy and equitable life, then people should not have the freedom to easily access such a weapon. More, if obedience enables education, than children can be reasonably deprived of their ability to run around like the crazy sociopaths they are for a few hours a day.

Society is not the film industry. It cannot create several films and edit them according to individual preference. Rather, societal “directors” (or government) must edit different parts of the movie in different ways if they wish to be popular at the box offices. Every good movie has a few over edited car chases and a few under edited love scenes. The trick is finding the right balance between the two; a balance that assures everybody is happy with the movie.

Signing off from the cutting room floor,

Jeremy

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