To be or not to be … a brat

Is anything in the world more important than my rights?

My parents taught me the answer when I was seven. One day there were visitors to our home, and my brother, two years older than me, secretly prepared a snack of cookies for them. Seeing this, I knew he would be complimented, and that made me jealous. So I scooted into the living room and announced that Michael was about to bring in a surprise snack.

Did I gain anything through this exercise of freedom of speech? No. My parents made it very clear to me that I was a little brat for spoiling Michael’s surprise.

Three items in the arts section of the January 9 Globe and Mail caught my eye. What connects them is the issue of how much we should care about other people rather than act like brats.

On page 2, Kate Taylor (“Who owns a family’s history?”) presents a copyright and intellectual property issue that is before the Federal Court. Someone has published a “young-adult Holocaust novel” that is based on a documentary made by a descendant of family of Holocaust victims and survivors. The documentary has been broadcast so the information is in the public domain; the family’s story is public domain, right?

A page 3 article touches on property rights and title. Alex Bozicovic (“A brownfield of dreams with a burdensome history”) details the plans for mixed-use development of the former industrial properties on islands between Ottawa and Gatineau. Built on by the lumber industry in the early 1800s, the area had been used for thousands of years by Indigenous peoples and is unceded Aboriginal territory. Some Indigenous representatives are fighting any new use, no matter how enlightened the urban design.

The last page presents an opinion piece on freedom of expression. The Charlie Hebdo massacre was a year earlier. John Semley (“That joke isn’t funny any more”) supports neither side: “That Charlie Hebdo was racist and idiotic doesn’t justify the murder of its staff. But it doesn’t justify their work, either.”

Each of these issues is complex when seen strictly on its own terms. But I want to propose a different way to see them. What happens to our ethical dilemmas if we care a lot about other people?

In the first case, can you imagine writing, for commercial gain, about a family that underwent tragedy without contacting them, without developing any sort of personal relationship with them, without caring about how they feel, as if they were plant or fossil specimens? I can’t.

The second item: with all we have learned about Canada’s colonial past, does it seem right to insist that the property concepts and laws of ‘we the settlers’ take automatic precedence over those of ‘you the Indigenous people’? I don’t think so.

And about the Charlie Hebdo affair: what of the feelings of our friends and neighbours for whom the religion of Islam is meaningful? Seeing ugly, crude, nasty drawings that reference what they consider most precious and holy must hurt them terribly. Shouldn’t that count for something? Yes.

What strikes me is that caring about others would make a difference in all three situations. As a starting point, care is at least as compelling and legitimate a principle as the rights of intellectual property and land ownership and freedom of expression. An even stronger position would be to make care the first consideration, the general starting-point. Vaclav Havel endorsed that view, finding civility to be the necessary condition for public morality.

Care doesn’t make tough situations disappear, but it leads to other alternatives. For instance, I can imagine a Jonathan Swift criticizing criminal behaviour that uses religion to justify itself, but he would employ the literary wit of Gulliver’s Travels to make his points in ways that engage the mind and lead to discussion, not crude drawings that only disturb.

What I learned as a child was that I should care about others, even my brother. Now, sixty years later, I see far too many brats at large, all too ready to pursue their own interests without regard for hurting others. So long as it’s legal it’s OK, right? Wrong. I don’t want to live in a world of legally justified brats. I want others to be civil and to care about each other, including me, and I know that I must, first and foremost, care about others.

Posted February 4, 2016


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