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A Question of Identity and Communication

The controversy in Quebec over religious apparel has reminded me of my very first entry on Huffington Post. In This Kippa Doesn't Mean What You Think It Means, I addressed the issue of misperceptions, specifically in regard to the message that is imparted through my wearing of a kippa.

I contended that what one may think they learn about me through my wearing of this religious item may be something I had no intention of conveying through my kippa; this assumption about me could even be untrue. This break in communication, I believe, is also an important factor in regard to this present issue in Quebec.

In following the arguments in favour of the new Quebec proposal, the concern of those who wish to limit religious apparel, as per this charter, is that such dress conveys to the other a religious message that is inappropriate in these defined circumstances. This raises further questions, however, including: Why does it convey such a message? And is it the intention of the one wearing this apparel to convey this message? The problem with non-verbal communication (not to say that this is not also often a problem with verbal communication) is that while a message is conveyed to the receiver, it may not be the one that the originator of the message actually intended. The structure and content of the message thus really emerges from activity on both the sender's and the receiver's end.

This is not to say that the one who originated the message is in no way responsible for how the other may interpret it. It is a person's responsibility to consider how an average other person will interpret one's behaviour even if that message is not the intended one. Yet, it is also a person's responsibility when trying to interpret the actions of others to apply similar types of standards in regard to the one conveying the message: just like one should question how his/her behaviour will be seen by others, one should also ask whether one's interpretation of another's behaviour is actually in line with what is intended. This simple courtesy seems to be lacking in the pronouncements of those favouring this new Quebec charter.

There seems to be an assumption within this Quebec charter that anyone wearing religious apparel is doing so solely in order to make a declaration of his/her religious faith. While one generally has such a right - just as one can wear a Leaf jersey to communicate team allegiance -- the concern expressed within this Quebec charter is allowing such promotion when it is inappropriate or, even, possibly detrimental or akin to religious imposition. What is not recognized is that in regard to much of this religious garb, the reason the person is wearing it is not for such purposes. Rather, the behaviour is adopted because the faith has defined a need, pursuant to its values, for such behaviour albeit that the general world may not recognize such values or this need.

Moslem women who wear specific garb may not even want to announce to the world that they are Moslems but, rather, dress as they do because they accept a certain value in regard to how they should present themselves in mixed-gender company, which is a manner different than the common secular perception on this issue. I, as another example, do not wear a kippa because I wish to announce to the world that I am a believer in Judaism. A head garment is to remind me, personally, even as I wear it alone in my room, to consider God in all my activities. It just so happens that this behaviour also sends a message to others. This personal nature of the behaviours addressed in this Charter should also be recognized and brought into the discussion.

I think that one of the reasons this may not be happening is because this type of religious consideration is very different than the type of religious consideration with which the majority of the Quebec populace is more familiar. The inclusion of the wearing of large crucifixes in the Charter may reflect this. I was wondering if there was any religious obligation -- similar, for example, to the obligation for Sikh men to wear a turban -- for Catholics to wear a crucifix.

On the website Catholic Answers, I found the statement: "From a Catholic perspective there is little theological significance for items of personal jewellery..." The wearing of a crucifix is, it would seem, specifically, an identity statement. The wearing of a turban by a Sikh or my wearing of a kippa -- while still clearly also reflecting identity -- are inherently different for they do have a separate theological significance for the one undertaking this behaviour. I, and the Sikh man who wears a turban, are meeting a religious obligation. In perceiving such behaviour as similar to the wearing of a crucifix, the actual understanding of such behaviour may have been missed.

This, to me, is a major problem with much of the discussion around this Quebec Charter. We are not discussing, simply, behaviour reflecting identity -- and the question of when it is appropriate to advertise your identity and when it is not. We are discussing, in many cases, behaviour which certain individuals have adopted for very personal, value-based reasons which they feel strongly obligated to upkeep regardless of the message it conveys - therefore asking them to discard such behaviour is to request of them to forego these values. It is true that such behaviour does communicate -- even very strongly -- aspects of identity but that is not the primary or only motivation for the behaviour.

A Charter of rights within a free society should equally demand of those receiving a perceived message, as it demands of those emitting a message, to consider how they are imposing on others; in this case, a person must look at oneself and question if his/her interpretation of what is being transmitted is a correct one. I am sorry if my kippa makes you think I am trying to impose my religious perspective on you. Such imposition is not even a consideration of mine when I put my kippa on. Knowing that, is your incorrect perception of my imposition upon you not actually an imposition upon me?

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