The Latest (Un-?)Reasonable Accommodation

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It seems like a headline from The Onion, the American satirical website that daily tests our credulity, but it’s real: “U.K. student union bans applause in favour of ‘jazz hands’ because clapping could ‘trigger anxiety.’”

Surely, one thinks, we have gone ‘way too far by now in accommodating every possible snowflake on our university campuses. Surely, one harrumphs, if someone can’t attend a public event at which applause will occur, one should stay home and let one’s neighbours enjoy themselves in the time-honoured way.

Surely, one is tempted to seethe, we’ve bent over backwards for all those complainers, and it’s time to get things back to normal.

It’s not just supporters of the likes of Donald Trump who feel this way. Sensible people and properly run organizations must guard against the “victim’s veto,” the dissenting voice that, if fully indulged, will keep grinding everything to a halt as every possible criticism is considered and every conceivable grievance is acknowledged.

Churches and governments, universities and businesses, each have to find an appropriate balance between heeding dissident voices and proceeding with action, between honouring minorities and getting things done in a reasonable time and in a reasonable way.

Often, of course, we’ll do things better, for everyone concerned, if we will listen to those voices and honour those minorities. Creative alternatives often arise on the margins, and the common good can be advanced by welcoming marginal perspectives.

Often, furthermore, it’s a matter of simple justice, let alone proper compassion, for the majority to give a little on behalf of a minority. As one friend writes in response to this “jazz hands” ruling, “If it helps even one student, autistic or otherwise, be able to participate in events with their student body because they are no longer excluded due to their sensory issues, I think it’s a great idea. We wouldn’t have a whole university event inaccessible to someone in a wheelchair.”

To be sure, minorities can be expected to flex as well. Perhaps someone with auditory sensitivities can attend events at which applause is expected (speeches, concerts, graduation ceremonies, etc.) equipped with appropriate noise-dampening aids. And sporting events may simply be something some people will have to enjoy via television and the Internet.

The great phrase from the Bouchard-Taylor Commission in Quebec, “reasonable accommodation,” thus can work both ways: majorities sometimes reasonably accommodating minorities, but also vice versa—as, of course, minorities have a long history of doing, like it or not, fair or not.

As our society continues to evolve, we must keep working to maintain our commitment to the fairest and kindest society we can manage to maintain. Along the way, yes, some extreme policies will need to be acknowledged and modified or abandoned. Some new suggestions can be well-meant but remain impractical or even just kooky. But surely we have also learned by now that the traditional way of doing something isn’t necessarily the right way of doing it.

The key attitude is to take each instance as it comes, rather than lapse into lazy “all-or-nothing” thinking—”accommodate any complaint no matter what,” on the one hand, or “enough is enough and we in the majority want things our way, period,” on the other.

Canada in many respects is a much better place for non-white, non-male, non-rich, non-disabled, non-straight, non-adult persons nowadays than it was a hundred years ago. Christians of all people can be glad for that, since the basic idea that each person has value and is owed human rights comes from somewhere—it is hardly a global cultural norm—and anyone who knows Canadian history knows where it comes from.

So Christians in particular, who have been in the vanguard of the abolition of slavery, the voting rights of women, the education (rather than workplace exploitation) of children, and many other good causes, must keep open to the remaining struggles for fair dealing in our society today. However tiring it can be, we need to give each suggestion respectful consideration—such as giving up applause for the sake of our troubled neighbour.

To that proposal, I suppose, I can offer up jazz hands. Can you?

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).