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Civil Liberties Need Humanities

From: ESC: English Studies in Canada
Volume 38, Issue 1, March 2012
pp. 9-19 | 10.1353/esc.2012.0001

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

On display at the museum of modern art in New York is a sculpture, a bright red quilted egg-shaped suit, that the South African artist Ralph Borland entitled "Suited for Subversion." The caption indicates that this is a suit to be worn by

street protesters for protection against police batons, [drawing] attention to the risks demonstrators face in order to defend their convictions. A wireless video camera mounted over the head acts as a witness, recording police action. A speaker in the center of the chest amplifies and projects the wearer's heartbeat. In a group action, when many people are wearing these suits, the increasing heartbeats become audible as tension and excitement mount, like a natural soundtrack arousing the crowd. At the same time, the heartbeat exposes the vulnerability of the individual and the fragility of the human body exploited as a shield—almost as a weapon—against police munitions.

I was fascinated by the suit as I was reviewing the events that occurred since my arrival at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA): the mass arrests at the G20 in Toronto, the enactment of Bill 78 in Québec, and the increased surveillance of environmental and Native groups. The imaginary suit seemed to capture dramatically the contradictory emotions around the right to peacefully protest: the fragility of dissent in any society, but its power as a collective action, the ways in which police actions are feared, but defiantly recorded, as protestors seek to gage indicators of society's reaction—approval, disapproval, tolerance, or repression. As I reflected on the piece, I longed for it to be on display in Canada, for a history of resistance art to be popularized, for knowledge about how public protests have mattered for human progress, for discussions about whether or not the lack of protests may be a precursor to decreased democratic engagement. In short, I longed for arts and humanities to support the mandate of CCLA on the issue of the right and value of peaceful protest.

This is the theme of this paper: there are always debates on the role, usefulness, and relevance of humanities, and I want to argue here that humanities are useful to a society based on the rule of law. Indeed, I, like many others, think that democracies, as opposed to theocracies or dictatorships, require a certain kind of scholarship and teaching devoted to critical self-reflection. History, philosophy, language studies, film studies, art studies, and cultural studies contribute to developing the human capacity to challenge, or empower, decision-makers engaged in the pursuit of the common good. I am arguing that humanities are essential to democracy as it is meant to be lived, that is, committed to the rule of law and to civil liberties. Democracies require the full and meaningful exercise of civil liberties, and this paper discusses how such an exercise of civil liberties requires humanities scholarship.

My text is in two parts. First, I argue that civil liberties are an essential element of democracies and require a healthy humanistic culture to survive because law is not enough. Second, I develop the role of humanities in framing interactions with the three audiences that are part of civil liberties discussions—the powerless, the powerful, and the indifferent—and in that context suggest some avenues for research that is sorely needed.

I Civil Liberties Need More than Law

Canada has signed multiple international agreements that impose commitments, from the Convention on the Rights of the Child to the Convention against Torture, yet for over ten years the young Omar Khadr was incarcerated and tortured at Guantanamo, an adult prison, and successive Canadian governments did not do anything about it. We have signed the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and have strong constitutional commitment to equality, yet disabled persons have trouble finding employment, immigrants face precarious treatment, and Aboriginal people continue to be overly incarcerated. Canada has signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) that proclaims the right to be free from arbitrary detention and the right to peaceful protest, yet over eleven hundred people were arrested during the G20 protests in Toronto in 2010 with less than forty...


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