It seems that our society, particularly in Canada, is near the tipping point at which we must change our mindsets away from many policies and customs established according to the values of the majority. One size does not fit all and everyone, including today’s “marginalized,” must be respected and served in a way that keeps majority values from harming others. The example which prompts me to write is the call to regulate drugs which are currently considered illegal. The harm being done by those who overdose is extraordinary, actually decreasing the life expectancy in the U.S. and Canada. Putting anyone outside the mainstream, particularly in Canada, where health care is supposed to be universal, is ineffective, because many such people are too addicted to the things which kill them. Rather than leaving them to suffer the fatal consequences of their addictions, we are told we should care for them through the same drug regulation system we use to dispense prescribed drugs. This will probably require a great shift in mindsets.
But we’ve come to terms with such requirements before. Consider the change of mind and program to deal with the AIDS epidemic. Moving from leaving people to lie in the beds they made, so to speak, to research for ways to live with HIV/AIDS and eventually to cure the disease, is something which we have accomplished. Drug addiction is, perhaps, a similar task.
In my small suburban city of less than 100,000, there are two groups of residents: the weekday daytime residents (the minority), and all the others. On our main streets, and particularly in the largest indoor mall, daytime residents are conspicuous with mobility difficulties, requiring some sort of cart or walker, or wheelchair, and often accompanied by a personal assistant. It is wonderful that they can get out and about, but this has been made possible primarily by government attention to their needs and providing solutions for them. It is the majority, through the province and the municipality, serving the minority. A better way to think about it: the community serving the citizens and residents.
They cross streets with the help of curbs which have been slanted to accommodate wheeled vehicles, or simply for any people for whom stepping down is difficult. Traffic lights include timers so pedestrians can know whether there will be time to make it across. Some traffic lights include special sounds to signal the blind (and warn nearby cars and cyclists). Some street sections are marked to warn cars of children, handicapped, blind, and autistic. There are seats on boulevard dividers, so they can take a half-intersection (crossing three or more lanes) in the first effort, and finish crossing in the second. Buses kneel for some, and arrange seating to accommodate wheelchairs. Streetcars and commuter trains have designated cars for the handicapped, where washrooms are also designed appropriately. Washrooms at transportation hubs, public and business buildings, and retail stores and restaurants, include stalls for the handicapped, and are located on main floor levels. Emergency signals are in washrooms built exclusively for the handicapped. A grocery store chain has designated specific hours on a regular day each week to reduce noises and other distractions for highly sensitive people (autism spectrum disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and others) to shop. A major live theatre gives guided tours to the blind to help them feel the fabrics and props in an upcoming play. Some churches and church schools provide signage to show people what is coming up next to assist those for whom change or surprises are difficult. Of course there are hearing devices, and some elevators in some buildings have brail on the elevator controls. We are getting ever better at this. Better transit speaker systems for the blind, and washrooms at every subway station for those with Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome, should be coming.
Stores are required by law to make special efforts to accommodate people, so common are the signs in front assuring people that they can ask for help in shopping – reaching for products, selecting foods, and so forth. Some shelves in my local pharmacy have magnifying glasses attached so people can read the small print on pill bottles. Yellow stripes demark the edges of steps. Ramps between levels of museums and of transit stations are common; elevators and/or escalators proliferate in transit stations and public buildings and many stores.
Signage for emergency escape are more likely to be universally symbolized, not requiring an ability to read words.
Schools and universities provide accommodation for different learning, reading, speaking, hearing, and remembering difficulties, along with help in limiting levels of anxiety during exams.
Special efforts such as rainbow-coloured pedestrian crossings, and special parades and flags, emphasize the right to dignity and pride for LGBTQ+ people, as has been done for Blacks.
We are much more aware of the rights and dignities to be afforded to individuals, than we used to be. We must pay attention to all the exceptional people in our society. Simple awareness is key.
Due consideration of women seems to have been, or continues to be a long time coming. Just to cite the more recent situations (in addition to the MeToo movement, and inadequate political representation), such as the interregnum between Carol Tavris’ 1993 The Mismeasure of Woman: Why Women Are Not the Better Sex, the Inferior Sex, or the Opposite Sex, to Dr. Jen Gunter’s The Vagina Bible: the Vulva and the Vagina: Separating the Myth from the Medicine, during which change has been lacking, we are, or should be, keenly aware of how so much of the world is designed by men without understanding the different issues for women: everything from medicine and psychology to the cost of clothes, the tyranny of fashion, the stories seen on film and TV, the expectations held about actresses, and the entertainment directors’ points of view differing between men and women. I have become convinced that it is utterly indefensible that so many stories for entertainment include graphic scenes about women being tortured, sexually abused, psychologically abused, and murdered. By contrast I celebrate such stories as the British production “Home Fires,” telling the story of WWII in England as experienced by the women who kept the country running; and “Indian Summers” in which the women affect and sometimes control the political actions as well as the romances, although not without portrayal of rape and assault, and their extraordinary acts of self-sacrifice (being kept in a loveless marriage, being imprisoned for someone else’s sake). To say “it’s about time” is petty.
Today there is news of efforts in my nearby city Toronto to ensure that women’s and children’s safety issues are given due regard in city planning.
Much is there to which to give informed consent; indeed just becoming educated about the exceptions requires much time and effort, particularly if in our own city there are not so many people of particular exceptions.
Does this offer a particular philosophy of life or of community or society? It would be easy to say that we should all come to know each other as respectable individuals, and abandon the idea that the majority’s values and preferences should rule. But let’s examine the situation with the car, as an example. Should our streets be designed with fast and easy transport by individual car the primary value? Or should there be equal regard for pedestrians, cycles, assistive devices, and so forth? That’s a different matter from treating each other as respectable individuals, for there are group processes at work: large numbers of individual drivers are affected by the needs of others. The Swedish philosophy is that the system needs to be changed to fit the needs of people, not people to fit the system https://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/14/nyregion/a-safety-plan-with-swedish-logic-and-city-smarts.html. The very idea that systems should be adapted to people rather than people to systems, is very un-North American. We are talking about a very different system of values encompassing large numbers of people, not so much individuals. In this conceptual framework, fast, efficient automobile passage is not the primary goal, but it is one among many considerations. Here, I think, is the outstanding ethos: to be concerned for others as much as for oneself (a profound religious principle), neither more nor less. Here there is no room for priority among competing interests, rather a guiding principle expected to benefit the whole society. In this concept the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is very different from the American premium on individuals. In Canada, particularly in Québec, there is somewhat more acceptance of this value of the whole.
It’s not simply a matter of respecting all individuals so that the majority values don’t rule quite so much; it is also a matter of having a philosophy of the whole which is not a mere sum of the individuals whether part of the majority or not. This may be likened to choosing whether to drive on a bridge over the river, or finding another route for oneself: there can be much discussion about where the bridge is located, how wide it is, whether it carries pedestrians, cycles, autos, trucks, and so forth, whether one must be sighted to use it, whether there are guides (human or electronic), and whether there can or should be more bridges to connect different destinations. Everyone is free to find or develop alternatives: fly across, walk on the water, take a boat, or drive around to another land connection. Of course, if those alternatives are chosen more than the bridge, everything must be reconsidered – perhaps the bridge is a poor choice to begin with and should not be maintained. Any philosophy of the whole must continuously be subject to discussion and evaluation. And informed consent must be developed yet again. It’s better than being stuck on the bridge.