Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
June 28, 1999
From rights to solidarity
"If we commit ourselves to the making of a society in which we are concerned only with our own rights, then that society must become more and more closed in on itself."- Jean Vanier
Those words by Jean Vanier, the son of Canada's most eminent governor-general, should be a cause for reflection for all Canadians on our country's 132nd birthday.
Canada is repeatedly described by the United Nations as the best country in the world. But when one looks at the criteria, it is evident that "best" means most materially comfortable and secure. We've surrounded ourselves with safety nets ranging from private insurance to government-funded health and welfare programs to ensure few will become destitute. All this is good.
But one suspects Vanier would describe the best country in the world differently - the best country is the one where people most generously give of their time, talents and money for the good of others.
On that score, we may not be doing badly either - although there is no measuring stick. Millions of people volunteer their time for reasons other than self-interest. They give of themselves to volunteer organizations, visit the sick and help others in need with no pay or recognition. Millions more give money to charity. And by and large, we are a law-abiding nation without a lot of corruption.
Still, there is a growing self-centredness in the land. We have a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but no Charter of Social and Personal Responsibilities. Because of an over-emphasis on rights and freedoms, we glorify individualism. We end with court judgments protecting "self-expression" in actions that only a scant few years ago would have been thought despicable.
We also move more and more towards a trickle-down economics which assumes that if the rich get richer, the poor will benefit too. Piling up mountains of wealth for oneself thus becomes an exercise in social responsibility. Except that it doesn't work. As government social spending is eroded to promote entrepreneurial initiative, the lines at food banks get longer.
It is perhaps true that some are poor because they don't have their lives in order; it is certainly true that some don't have their lives in order because they are poor. Our prisons are full of the poor and aboriginal people not because those groups are morally degenerate.
The safety nets which can catch the middle-class when they hit hard times are far less likely to help those raised in situations of poverty and cultural dislocation. When you have little education, have been raised on a poor diet in a troubled family, and have no life, disability or medical insurance, you are far less able to bounce back from tragedy. No matter what your natural talents, you are far more likely to fall to the bottom of society than rise to the top.
But even good government social programs are not enough. The greatest human need is not for material support, but for friendship. Even more important than social programs is social solidarity. In a healthy society, there are no gated communities. The bonds of friendship and mutual aid cut across the lines of race, ethnicity, wealth and intellectual ability.
Here is where Canada needs moral leadership. Social solidarity cannot be compelled or enforced. It must be chosen. We need political leaders who, rather than appealing to the lowest common denominator, challenge us to give more to the community. Instead of giving more rights and fewer responsibilities, they will insistently call us to work for the common good.
If Canada is the best country in the world, it will be because we as a people work for something greater than the desires of the individual self. We will not be satisfied with trickle-down economics. We will know that no genuine community is happy when the poor and marginalized are stuck with the leftovers. It is imperative that they, like everyone else, be friends and partners within the family.
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
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