February 24, 2009

Judith Butler's 2008 article “Sexual Politics, Torture, and Secular Time", deals with issues of sexuality, racism and immigration in the post-9/11 world. She contends that citizenship test that require potential immigrants to the Netherlands to look at pictures of two men kissing in order to test whether they are suitably tolerant to gain entrance to the country are very problematic indeed. I agree with her. In Holland, not everyone has to take this test. If you're from a Western country, you don't have to, and if you're rich, your exempt too. The people who take it are poor to middle-class people largely from countries with large Muslim populations. This is ridiculous as countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan do not have a monopoly on homophobia (Proposition 8 in the US, anyone?), but in theory, is there anything wrong with devising tests to see if potential immigrants are tolerant?

If we could devise a test everyone had to take that tested people's open-mindedness to sexual rights, would that be so bad? Hell, we could try to do the same for sexism and racism. If it weren't so practically hard to diagnose prejudice, I'd say testing tolerance is not that bad an idea.

Here's the thing, of course there are homophobic people who were born and raised in the Netherlands. It's not like homophobia only first emerged therewith recent waves of immigration, but when people are born in your country, we DO often attempt social engineering to foster values of tolerance. For example, we don't force children to be friends with children of different races in Canada, but we DID force 7th graders in the Toronto District School Board to write essays about exceptional black historical figures in history class. If one failed to do this assignment, one lost 20% of one's mark. In short, we were forced to appreciate the plan of black people in Canadian history. I think this is a good thing. I was also forced to sit through classes that warned of other forms of intolerance, like homophobia. Because the state mandated I go to school, they knew I'd had this education. No, not everyone bought into these ideals. I still know racist and homophobic people who grew up in Canada, but the the school system did still try to instill a concept of basic human rights. They were told that no matter what you think, at the end of the day, the laws are such that you have to be nice.

When adults apply to immigrate (the ones who write these tests), they are past the age at which one is compelled to attend school. Because we cannot accept all immigrants who apply, one wants to select immigrants that will be happy in one's country and contribute to it. This might sound elitist, but it's the way immigration by definition has to work as long as we have sovereign and separate states. One thing countries do is they often admit immigrants who seem to embody basic policies they associate with their nation. For example, in Canada, where French is one of our official languages, you have an easier time immigrating if you speak French. Why? Because it's something we value and want to preserve in our culture. Sure, not every Canadian who was born in Canada is functional in French despite efforts to make them so, but that doesn't mean that when choosing potential Canadians we shouldn't value French if we think it's worth trying to preserve it as one of our official languages.

Just as Canada gives preference to potential citizens who already speak French, it also makes sense to give preference to potential citizens who know heterosexism and homophobia are wrong. This does not mean they cannot have religious beliefs that dictate otherwise, it just means potential migrants should be cool with living in a society where the law allows queer people basic human rights like the right to adopt children, get married and not face employment discrimination because of their sexuality. In the same way the US didn't allow former Nazis to immigrate, it makes sense that people who aren't okay with queer people are not welcome. Sure, people can lie on the tests, just as I could have lied in my grade 7 Canadian history class and pretended to think Frederick Douglas was an important historical figure while secretly hating him for being black, but does that mean we shouldn't promote tolerance in our immigration laws? Putting the question down is symbolic. It says to potential migrants that this country is only a good fit for you if you are with certain human rights.

Now, I'm not advocating giving this test to refugees. People facing genocide or other unspeakable acts MUST be allowed into the country for moral reasons. It is not fair to let people die because they are prejudice. But when it comes to economic migrants, they are choosing a country as well as a country is choosing them. In such cases, perhaps we ought to think about ways take into account in a nation like Canada not just how proficient people are in English and in French and whether or not they have criminal records, but what their personal opinions are on prejudice, as well...

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