I had originally intended on covering the Ontario election. Not with the same frantic pace with which I posted during the Federal election, mind you, but I was planning on writing a post or two. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. The last month has been my first of a year in Edinburgh for grad school, and it turns out that drinking, dancing, and exploring in one of the world’s most beautiful cities is a more attractive way to spend my time than reading Sun News’ coverage of Tim Hudak’s campaign stops. Go figure.
I haven’t entirely abandoned you, though. With just three days left in campaign season, I have come across something that has driven me back to my keyboard. That something is this:
Apparently the Ontario Provincial Conservatives, failing to make any headway with serious policy suggestions, has decided to take a page from Charles McVety’s book and try to scare Ontarians with horror stories about the gayroller. The ads are contemptible not just because they are blatantly homophobic, but because they are also undeniably wrong. There is no evidence whatsoever that exposure to different sexualities will ‘confuse’ children, and make them become gay or transsexual. Even that refutation neglects the fact that the (literal) poster-children in Hudak and McVety’s advertising could theoretically be gay themselves. The implication of the advertising campaign is that such children should be swept under the rug for the sake of the narrowminded moral scruples of a small minority of parents. I’ll let you form your own judgments of that position, but I can assure you that mine are not very kind.
I’m not content with a simple refutation of these ads, though. Despite their obviously flawed argument, they contain a deeper premise that is both more plausible, and also somewhat worrisome. When Hudak’s poster ominously underlines the words ‘not to inform parents’, it is implying that this is the most henious aspect of McGuinty’s entire sex ed plan. The suggestion, which is shared by the video released by the Institute for Canadian Values, is that parents should be the final arbiter of their childrens’ education, and that no government has any right to force any education on the young. The notion is appealing at first glance. Forced government indoctrination of children raises the spectre of totalitarianism in our minds, and so parents are right to be skeptical .
That does not mean, however, that the government has no right to impose curriculum independent of the wishes of parents. Racist or xenophobic parents, to take a very noncontroversial example, should not be able to excuse their children from learning about other cultures. The fact that homophobia is a bit more common among Ontario families does not change the validity of that argument. We teach our children about other cultures so that they can function effectively in a multicultural society. Teaching children about sexual orientation has a similar impact, but may be even more necessary, as shown by the recent tragic suicide of Jamie Rodemeyer. Rodemeyer, and other gay teenagers who have taken their own lives tend to have experienced extreme bullying due to their perceived sexual orientation. This is the result of entire classes of high school students who, being inadequately educated about sexual orientation, see their gay peers as easy targets for bullying. If classes of children can be innoculated against this problem through appropriate diversity education at an early age then such education should unquestionably be mandatory. No parent has the right to exempt their child from education that could potentially save lives.
This argument goes beyond the obviously utilitarian example of sex ed. No parent can reasonably expect to have total control over all the messages their children receive. I would argue that this, in addition to being practically impossible, is also ethically undesirable. Children do not belong to their parents. While parents have the temporary task of bringing their children to adulthood in one piece and with as much imparted wisdom as possible, they do not have any rights over the kind of people that their children will eventually become. When a child emerges into their teenage years and then into adulthood, they should have some latitude with regards to the kind of person they will become. While they should certainly have absorbed enough wisdom from their parents to have the option of following in their parents’ footsteps, such a choice means nothing if it is the only one available. Children should be exposed to as many ideas, lifestyles and worldviews as possible during their formative years, so that they have more options than to simply grow into the mold their parents have set for them. From being a mere instrumental good, compulsory education without parental exemption should be considered a child’s right.
Those election ads are awful, but they reflect a real and legitimate anxiety about government influence over children. This anxiety can be dismissed through the recognition of a society’s obligation to ensure that children are properly socialized so as to not harm one another. More importantly, however, it must be recognized that an overapplication of parental protection can imply that parents have exclusive rights over their developing minds of their children. They do not. Parents may teach their children whatever they want, but they must accept that they will never be the only influence on their children. A good parent should not want to be.