Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Why would Mennonites oppose anti-bullying laws?

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Why are those nice Mennonites upset about Bill 18? Aren't they the ones always talking about peace and justice? Surely they, of all people, want to join the anti-bullying crusade.

Yet it is among Mennonite congregations and Mennonite-majority communities in southern Manitoba that most of the resistance to the new bill has surfaced. And it is precisely because Mennonites know bullying when they see it that they are resisting this new legislation.

Mennonites are Christians with a long history, and a long memory, of experiencing persecution for their convictions. Before they came to Canada, they were expelled from several parts of Europe as outsiders, strangers who maintained their distinctive folkways in their tightly knit communities. They didn't mix well with others, and they typically (although not universally) refused military service as pacifists, a particularly grave form of social nonconformity.

Their refusal to simply join in with the rest of society made them suspect right from their origins in the 16th-century Protestant Reformation. In fact, one of the few things Protestants and Catholics agreed on in that furious century was that Mennonites deserved persecution.

So when a provincial government today orders them to conform, Mennonites do not immediately comply. And in this case irony abounds, for it is in the name of anti-bullying that Mennonites (and other Christians who think as they do) are feeling bullied.

Any civilized, compassionate person wants to keep bullying to a minimum, and we all agree schools must be places in which students are as free as possible to concentrate on learning.

Good intentions, however, sometimes pave the way to bad consequences. From the viewpoint of anyone who holds, as most conservative Christians do, that homosexuality is not just as normal as heterosexuality, Bill 18 has at least two crucial problems. It is at once both much too general and much too specific.

The problem of excessive generality lies in its expansive definition of bullying:

"1.2 (1) In this act, 'bullying' is behaviour that

(a) is intended to cause, or should be known to cause, fear, intimidation, humiliation, distress or other forms of harm to another person's body, feelings, self-esteem, reputation or property; or

(b) is intended to create, or should be known to create, a negative school environment for another person."

Clause (a) seems clear and enforceable enough: strong words indicating a bad situation that any teacher or principal can recognize and deal with.

Clause (b), however, is disconcertingly vague. What constitutes a "negative environment" and who is to blame if someone perceives school to be such? If some students lord it over other students because some are on the hockey team or the student council and some aren't, are they creating a "negative environment"?

Surely they are, but legislation is hardly the answer to that unhappy situation. Couldn't many a teacher, in fact, be accused by many a student of making school a "negative environment"? And vice versa?

Perhaps the key word is environment, a bad situation so all-encompassing that it makes simply coming to school a misery. Clause (a), however, seems to have that covered. Clause (b) adds nothing substantial but instead seems to leave the door open to just about anything that makes anyone feel anything other than happy all the time.

So who is going to use clause (b)? Anyone who is looking for a stick with which to beat anyone else whose behaviour makes him or her unhappy. And Mennonites are understandably wary of any legislation that makes it tough for someone to hold minority views, and particular negative moral or psychological judgments regarding someone else's character or behaviour.

Mennonites have often been persecuted for thinking themselves holier than thou, maintaining a separate community of seriously committed Christians amid a majority of the less rigorous. This legislation can look like it is setting them up for a new round of conformist pressure.

Maybe the Mennonites are just paranoid. Yet while the legislation is too general in a threatening way, it is also too specific in an even more alarming respect. The key clauses are these:

"41 (1.8) A respect from (should be "for") human diversity policy must accommodate pupils who want to establish and lead activities and organizations that

(a) promote

(i) gender equity,

(ii) antiracism,

(iii) the awareness and understanding of, and respect for, people who are disabled by barriers, or

(iv) the awareness and understanding of, and respect for, people of all sexual orientations and gender identities; and

(b) use the name 'gay-straight alliance' or any other name that is consistent with the promotion of a positive school environment that is inclusive and accepting of all pupils."

Clause (a)(iv) carries the loaded term "respect for." There is widespread and dangerous confusion in Canada today about what "respect" entails. In classic terms of liberal democracy, I can think you are badly wrong about an important issue. I can say so. I can campaign to have your wrong views replaced in law by my own.

And I can do all that while respecting you as a person (in terms of your civil rights) and as a fellow citizen (in terms of co-operating with you as you participate similarly in public debate).

What I do not have to do is respect your actual views. I can think they are silly, stupid, or even harmful, and that is perfectly all right. We guard free speech precisely so that public discussion can sort out bad ideas from good ones, and we have schools precisely so that students learn to subject all ideas to rational scrutiny.

So if Bill 18 merely means students must respect each other as fellow human beings, fellow citizens, and fellow participants in the educational enterprise, that's fine. But Bill 18 might entail that "respect" includes speaking and acting as if all "sexual orientations and gender identities" are equally good, and that any moral or psychological questioning of them would be disrespectful and therefore forbidden.

Clause (b) seems to add weight to this worry. It does not discuss a "gay-straight dialogue group" or a "gay-straight mutual education society," but a "gay-straight alliance." Alliances are formed in order to press political agendas, and a "gay-straight alliance" exists for the single purpose of normalizing homosexuality.

Requiring a conservative Christian school to accept such a group with such a purpose is like forcing them to allow a Buddhist-Christian Alliance that would declare the equal religious worth of Buddhism and Christianity. Some people might think that such would be a very good thing, but one can hardly expect traditional Christians (or Buddhists) to welcome it. In fact, this legislation amounts to compelling these schools to allow "Anti-Mennonite Alliances" to form.

And that sort of pressure Mennonites have seen before.

They have traditionally called it "persecution." Others would use a more recent word: "bullying."

John Stackhouse was professor of religion at the University of Manitoba and a former columnist for the Free Press. He is now the Sangwoo Youtong Chee professor of theology and culture at Regent College, Vancouver.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 23, 2013 J12

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