Lara Millman argues that preserving narratives of Canadian moral superiority and the comfort of privileged people inevitably harm our social justice pursuits.
Content warning: the following post discusses transphobia and racism.
Conservatives in the United States are increasingly attempting to control gender and sexuality through government mandates. Perhaps most infamously, Governor Greg Abbott issued a letter to Texas health authorities in February aiming to criminalize those offering gender affirming healthcare to underage trans persons. Texas is not a singular problem here, though. In a Washington Post article, Elizabeth Sharrow and Isaac Sederbaum outline the concerning action being taken against trans kids in more than a dozen state legislatures.
As Canadians, we often look at problematic American political movements and think to ourselves, “at least it’s not that bad here”. We hear chatter that implies our political climate, both historically and today, is much more laudable than that of our American neighbours. For example, recall the Canadian commentary during the Trump administration. Many Canadian news outlets offered speculation that we could expect Americans to move north en masse once Trump entered the White House (both after his 2016 election and during his 2020 campaign). This mass exodus, of course, never occurred. Furthermore, I’m sure we are all familiar with the (quintessentially Canadian) pity for Americans over the course of Trump’s presidency, again seemingly rooted in a sense of moral superiority.
Historically, too, we seem to think our “progressive” politics deserve praise—often without evidence or self-reflection. For example, Canadian news outlets have lauded our government’s role in dismantling South African apartheid. Never mind the fact that Canada effectively supported apartheid through “a duplicitous policy of publicly opposing the country’s racist system yet continuing to do business as usual” with South Africa. More than this, Canadian apartheid preceded the South African regime, and lives on today.
In a 2019 article, Rhea Rollmann outlines Trump pity, South African relations, and many other instances of this Canadian appeal to a misguided or mistaken moral superiority. From these examples, we can see that romanticization of our own moral status can significantly contribute to harm. When we believe (mistakenly or not) that Canada represents a progressive standard in political conduct, it prevents us from seeing how marginalized populations are suffering within our borders. (Forget the fact that we don’t tend to act when we do recognize atrocities are being committed in neighbouring countries).
Feminist epistemologists have long been pointing out that we systematically prevent ourselves from seeing injustice when we ignore the accounts of marginalized groups. This is in part, due to the ways privileged folks are capable of seamlessly interpreting the instances of injustice embedded in larger systems of violence as exceptions to the norm, when this is not the case. Insistence on Canadian moral superiority, then, contributes to ignorance on both of these fronts.
Believing that we are politically miles ahead of other nations will inevitably involve ignoring accounts of marginalized groups in Canada. Moreover, thanks to the social dynamics of belief, privileged Canadians can see and hear the accounts of identity-oppressed individuals, and still lack the social awareness to see that there are rampant systemic issues contributing to the oppression of those marginalized communities.
When it comes to trans healthcare and protections for underage trans individuals, then, we do ourselves a disservice if the only takeaway from the horrific news across the United States is an affirmation of our moral standing. While it is true that Canada implemented a federal ban on conversion therapy practices at the end of last year, bioethicists, doctors, and trans activists are still concerned that this ban will let trans conversion practices fall through the cracks.
As Canadians, we should be criticizing the concerning transphobia and anti-LGBTQ2 legislation in the United States. We should also take transgender people seriously when they relay information about the systemic discrimination and harm they face at the hands of our healthcare, education, and other social institutions. This is the bare minimum.
The rampant transphobic violence on display in the United States should indicate to us that more than empty affirmations are needed when it comes to protecting trans kids. Sharing inclusive educational resources, writing your government representatives about how they plan to ensure the ban on conversion therapy will adequately protect transgender people in Canada, and furthermore, insisting they take a stand against transphobic violence in the U.S. is one place to start.
Lara Millman is a PhD student in Philosophy at Dalhousie University. @larammillman