[youtuber youtube=’http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pTlDcDYf-ao’]

Today protesters march in the streets of Montreal, opposing the newly announced Quebec Charter of Values.  The government of the Canadian province of Quebec has declared that certain values define their society, which has often had a fractious relationship with the rest of Canada.  Among those values – valeurs québécois — are ones that would broadly capture agreement from Canadians, such as the religious neutrality of the state.  It is the application of this principle that has provoked outrage and political opposition within Quebec and across Canada.  As I write, crowds representing multiple faiths are marching with their placards: “NON!/NO!” How does this “Real Life Situation” provide illustrations for TOK discussions?


In this controversy, certain perspectives are relatively easy to identify, in this case the basic stand of the Bloc Québécois and the basic stand of the protesters (though of course there are variations within it):

  • Bloc Québécois: With the stated intention of entrenching  “the religious neutrality of the state and the secular nature of public institutions in [Quebec’s] Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms,” the government proposes (amongst other things) forbidding public employees from wearing “ostentatious” religious clothing or ornaments during business hours. They have provided graphic illustrations of examples of unacceptably ostentatious and of acceptably discreet use of such symbols.
  • Protesters: Religious groups within Quebec and the rest of Canada see the restrictions as discriminatory, and political parties in opposition to the Bloc Québécois argue hotly against the Charter.  Rights groups argue that the prohibitions violate religious freedom and are ready to take the Quebec Charter to court as conflicting with the Canadian constitution.

Simply identifying differences in perspectives, however, does not go very far into TOK.  It can be tempting for students simply to describe what group A thinks, and what group B thinks.  But this descriptive summary is only the beginning.  What knowledge questions arise from the controversy, and how can they be analyzed in TOK terms and understood?

In this situation, knowledge questions could be posed about ethics, and its relationship with politics – a huge topic.  With a tighter focus, we might look first at how the situation illuminates the relationship between language and other symbols, and then at the relationship between language, emotion, and reason.

Symbolism and meaning

ToK looks at language as a way of knowing and examines the nature of symbolism.  Language, our powerful system of symbols, exists in context of sounds and images often charged with cultural, national, or religious meaning. Crucifixes, turbans, yarmulkes—depending on where we live we may barely notice such ornaments or clothing, or we may find ourselves intrigued or curious.  What exactly are we to make of someone wearing a religious symbol? How charged with significance is a head scarf or a necklace?  The illustration here, from the Quebec government website, shows clothing that is unacceptable under the proposed Charter.

History, even recent history, reminds us that religious symbols have become flashpoints for conflict. Like many other symbols, too—cultural and national ones particularly—these particular symbols have been have given rise to conflict because they can be viewed as conduits to underlying principles or beliefs, almost as fundamental as the beliefs themselves.

Explicit statements, implicit meaning interpreted

Displaying or denying symbols – using them in any active way – can also take on symbolic meaning, interpreted differently from different perspectives.  As we might expect, the proposals of the Quebec Charter of Values have been interpreted in many different ways — illustrating the crucial ToK point that the implicit  “meaning” of statement or action can be seen to be significantly different from its explicit statement.  In this case, for example, the action has been interpreted as an attack on:

1. All religions

2. Islam in particular

3. Multiculturalism (both as official policy and as social behavior)

4. Immigrants and/or immigration policy

The motivation for the government’s initiative has likewise been claimed:

1. To deflect attention from the economy

2. To make a populist move, trading in on the xenophobia of the majority

3. To maintain a white, Francophone domination in the province by alienating immigrant minorities to the point that they will leave the province.

In fact, of course, the intention behind the bill may be any or all of these.  Given the number of politicians involved in framing the bill, their own semi or sub conscious thoughts and feelings, not even the most scrupulous ToK analyst can ever know the real intention, or even if there is a single one. All anyone can know is the declared intention—namely to reinforce the secular nature of government offices.

It is fact that the government has declared certain values in their charter. What that fact implies, and what significance is given to it, demands interpretation.

Knowledge questions, symbolism

While the Quebec Charter and protests against it raise innumerable knowledge questions, these ones so far could be fruitfully explored and developed, with lots of scope for bringing in other relevant situations:

  • How can we determine the difference between “fact” and “interpretation”?
  • To what extent is the meaning of a symbol – symbolic language, symbolic objects, symbolic actions — dependent not on what is explicit but what is implicit?
  • To what extent does symbolism, in objects or in language, depend on ambiguity and emotional overtones for its full meaning?  (or further: In what areas of knowledge is ambiguity a problem to overcome in its methodology, and in what areas a feature to be used as part of its method?)

Please feel free to use the “reply” to this post to add more knowledge questions that arise from this particular situation of the Quebec Charter!

Language, emotion, and reason

In addition to ideas of symbolism and meaning, a second thread of TOK examination of this situation could be directed toward how language interacts with emotion, such that reason can be undermined.

For the ToK teacher or student, some of the most fascinating and jaw-dropping insights into the way controversial subjects lead to purely emotional rather than rational responses are available on news media websites where the public is given the opportunity to comment.  In some ways, these sites provide the most useful windows on the raw stuff of argument:  in these sites the public seems to be at its most unguarded and spontaneous — and, let’s face it, given to thinking uncritically.

Logical fallacies

Awareness of common logical fallacies helps us to maintain our own critical thinking and awareness of the influence of perspective on: what is selected, what is emphasized, what values are apparent, and what the implications are of accepting knowledge claims or recommendations toward action based on them.  (See TOK course companion (2013), page 28/29.)

Logical fallacies involve using ways of knowing uncritically – using emotion, language, or reason in particular without sufficient awareness.  Identifying them and naming them can sharpen awareness of them and help to build arguments better.  It can also make us appreciate why areas of knowledge develop careful methodologies!

Can you find in the following posts any of the following fallacies: hasty generalization, misinterpreting the grey scale, problematic premises, flawed cause, straw man (Course Companion 126-129 on reason); innuendo, persuasive metaphors (148-151 on language); appeal to pity, fear, belonging, appeal to the source, borrowed associations (171-173 on emotion)?

The responses in the list below are on the news website of the National Post:

“Banning such harmless items as this can only open the door for further government interference in people’s way of life. You many not care about a certain piece of jewelry or headwear, but eventually the government will come after something you DO care about.”

“What if they arbitrarily said no one can own cats.”

“The next step Marois [the premier] will take is to proclaim that all non white people must have their skin lightened, to even more look like a Pur Laine Quebecer.”

“Well in short Canada loves Officially Multiculturalism, Quebec prefers Integration to foster harmony. Integration the melting pot has made the USA a great nation. Such charter of values exist in many other countries without problems. We did not have in Canada a policy of Muticulturalism before 1968, it was integration or nothing. Despite the comments of Federal Politicians it is a fact that in the Federal Government you better not display your religious beliefs or else you will be asked to have a little chat with your manager. The Quebec Government is only proposing that Public Servants would fall under this Charter, fine with me.”

“So, if it’s really cold in your office and you are a public servant, a head scarf will not be permitted because it looks like a hijab, right?”

“Let’s face it multiculturalism is a lie, if it wasn’t why is their a majority in Quebec willing to back this legislation?”

“The sign should read that ” Canada Is Full ” I’m getting pretty tired of the signs that I can not read or the street signs being put up in foreign languages. This is Canada and if you do not want to follow our ways than you should stay where you are, learn my language and leave the baggage from your country at the door.”

From responses to a different article on the National Post website come the following:

“Ban one ban all. Like chemotherapy to kill the cancer, one needs to be able to sacrifice some good cells during the radiation process to preserve the body as a whole.”

“Cynical politics that will fan the flames of intolerance right across the country.”

“If a female teacher insists that she has to wear a burka or any face covering because of her religion, can she be trusted to teach secular subjects or will she be tossing in her religious beliefs, since her religion is so important her?”

And from the CTV news site come the following reader responses:

“If you want to practice your religion and culture here, then do so in your own home. Do not try to impose it upon true Canadians.”

“The next step in the “master plan” will be to make sure that all government workers will have to wear plain green, brown or grey clothing – uniforms if you like. Perhaps carry a little book of all the proper things to say and do. A nice homogenius secular society, no outward symbols of anything, all speaking the same language, distrustful of outsiders, etc.”

Arguments and perspectives

After reflecting on such arguments, we may feel uneasy for several different reasons:

1. Coming from different sides of the controversy, do the arguments seem more or less fallacious depending on our own values? Are we more likely to identify a fallacy if we disagree with its point?

2. How easy is it to separate full blown fallacies, from merely exaggerated or inflamed claims which might—just might—have some (or a lot of) truth behind them?

3. How and when can we tell that an argument is “just wrong” and still find it difficult to disentangle the various fallacies that underlie it?

It is not the purpose of ToK to paralyze discussion by concluding that all positions are equally flawed, that no values are better or worse, or that no actions are better justified than others. Quite the contrary, it is the business not just of TOK but all responsible citizens to make careful distinctions between sound arguments and spurious ones and to recognize, equally, that sound positions can, alas, be voiced by those who undermine their credibility with spurious arguments.  We have to be especially alert to such issues when powerfully loaded symbols are at play.

This post is by Theo Dombrowski with Eileen Dombrowski.


“Montrealers protest the proposed Charter of Quebec Values”, The Montreal Gazette, September 14, 2013 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pTlDcDYf-ao

Eileen Dombrowski, Lena Rotenberg, Mimi Bick. Theory of Knowledge Course Companion.  Oxford University Press, 2013. http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/education/international/ibdiploma/theoryofknowledge/9780199129737.do#.UjTYe-CfNUT