I am intrigued by the current debate occurring amongst residents of the City of Burnaby. The debate was evoked by the unanimous decision of Burnaby's School Trustees to enact policy 5.45, a policy designed to protect staff and students from homophobic bullying and harassment.
A parent's group formed under the title, 'Parent's Voice' is opposed to the new policy on the grounds the policy infringes on their right to educate their children according to their moral beliefs. Their position is the anti-bullying and anti-harassment curriculum proposed under this policy "may undermine a parent's moral convictions regarding non-heterosexual inclinations and/or behaviours".
These parents do not want the teaching of any curriculum that acknowledges or accepts homosexual, lesbian or transgendered lifestyles. The policy, and the response of Parent's Voice, have ignited a firestorm of debate about morality, tolerance, rights and what should or should not be acceptable to society.
My interest is not so much the debate itself. Rather, I'm intrigued with the question - How do we respond to individuals or a group of individuals who hold ideas, positions and attitudes that are significantly different than our own? This question is relevant, not only to the citizens of Burnaby, but to all of us.
A sampling of online responses to a recent Vancouver Province article on this issue reveals an exchange of perspectives that is akin to a verbal war. Many comments are intense in their level of anger, judgment and intolerance for the opposing point of view. Comments include statements as - "If you want to be an intolerant jerk, then go back home" and "Identify the parents for the small minded bigots they are. These parents should not be allowed to raise children."
While I admit to being sympathetic to those who express frustration with the parents who are unwilling to acknowledge, much less accept the gay and lesbian community, I also recognize the irony of being intolerant of another's intolerance.
What this debate does is challenge me to consider the question - how do I respond to others in my community who hold positions divergent from my own? On one hand it is unacceptable to me to allow such positions of intolerance to go unchallenged. On the other hand I do not want my actions to further erode my community or cause these individuals to entrench themselves by defending their position even more fervently.
This debate reminds me of a couple I worked with a few years ago. They were similarly polarized by deeply held convictions. The degree of polarization threatened the ability of this couple to continue both their marriage and family. Their struggle was focused on the impending decision of where to enroll their child who was now of school age.
The father was adamant that his children attend a school of a particular religious denomination. The mother was equality adamant that no child of hers would be educated by a religious organization of any persuasion. The debate was so fierce the only solution this couple could foresee was to legally separate and then allow a judge to decide which parent should be the custodial parent with decision-making authority.
I entered the debate by inviting each of them to describe the qualities of the children they hoped to raise. Much to their surprise each parent described essentially the same qualities - loving, respectful, tolerant, free thinking, independent, and strong willed. I then invited each of them to explain how their particular choice of school would facilitate developing the kind of children they aspired for.
The father, who held the position his children attend a particular religious school, explained he had attended this school and these qualities were encouraged by the kind of instruction given. "They were?" asked the mother. She assumed a religious school would demand an adherence to a particular doctrine or dogma, and as a consequence prevent a student from being tolerant, respectful and free thinking.
"Do you think I'm tolerant, respectful and free thinking?" the husband asked. "Yes" answered his wife. "That is why I was attracted to you." The husband replied, "Where do you think I learned those qualities? I learned them by attending this particular school."
What I summarized for this couple is they both wanted the same goals. They simply had different ideas on how best to arrive there. I invited them to choose one of the options before them, then carefully monitor the development of their children and determine whether the selected option enabled them to achieve the desired results. If not, choose again.
I don't know if this strategy would work with the parents in Burnaby. What I do know is that both groups of parents want what they think is best for their children and the community. The challenge is they have different ideas how to get there. Rather than make one group right and another wrong, our efforts might be better served by asking each of them to describe the kind of community they would like to create and explain how their particular strategy will get us there.