Although I oppose cancelling the current sex education curriculum, I was not surprised to see a recent poll confirming that over 40 per cent of Ontarians support the decision. I actually believe that the move might be more popular than many think. I also believe that many of the arguments being put forward by supporters of the recently discarded curriculum are not particularly effective.
This is particularly true if you share the opinion of the American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of the 2012 New York Times bestseller The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. In the book, Haidt argues that human beings often act more out of a “moral intuition” than deep reflection. He believes that we often come to quick conclusions about the morality of a situation by measuring it against a series of innate “moral foundations” — concepts like caring, fairness, loyalty, respect for authority, and liberty from oppression.
Haidt argues that conservative politicians tend to appeal to a much wider number of these “foundation” categories than progressives. He believes, for example, that conservatives have a better understanding of the natural inclination of many to view some things as “sacred” and react to others with “disgust” — sometimes for religious reasons, but not always. Think of the way our society views veterans, first responders, totem poles or crucifixes. Not only do most speak of them with reverence, but they would be disgusted by any attempt to denigrate them. Propose building a five star resort on Vimy Ridge and you would quickly understand the concept.
Many believe that sexual expression is “sacred.” They are “disgusted” by our society’s “anything goes” attitude toward sex characterized by the explosion of internet porn, a hook up culture and movies and TV shows where casual sex is the norm. They also believe that there is something “sacred” about the concept of male and female. Although they may accept members of the LGBTQ community, they see them as representing a deviation from “normal” and are uncomfortable when the celebration of sexual diversity appears to undermine sex’s “sacredness.” They agreed with Doug Ford when he criticized the pride parade for including “men running down the middle of Yonge St. buck naked.”
Although some may find this perspective offensive, as an MPP I found it represented the views of many mainstream Ontarians — not simply the followers of Charles McVety and Tanya Granic Allen.
Opponents of the new curriculum have learned to appeal to this “sacred/disgust” foundation. With few Ontarians having read the curriculum, they can easily portray it as reflecting the belief that casual sex is the new norm. Critics point out that there is no mention of love or marriage in the document and claim it focuses on things like anal sex, masturbation and gender identity.
Much of this characterization is false, but in countering these arguments, the “sacredness” concern is rarely addressed.
Supporters accuse opponents of misrepresenting the curriculum and often label them as intolerant religious extremists and even homophobic. They then accuse them of not understanding that we live in a society where sex is not only rampant, but aided by technology: Kids are being exposed to it at an earlier and earlier age. Students need to be prepared, proponents argue, to participate safely in this sexually liberated world, which is why consent is a cornerstone of the new curriculum. Society also has a responsibility, the argument continues, not only to welcome and protect LGBTQ students but to rethink its traditional views of gender identity and sexual preference.
If you buy Haidt’s theories that people often act more from moral intuition than deep reflection, it is clear why these arguments would make little headway with those “disgusted” by the new curriculum. Instead of addressing concerns about our brave new sexual world, proponents appear to be celebrating it and presenting the curriculum as a tool to help students navigate it.
What if the new curriculum was presented differently?
By all means correct misinformation. But instead of name calling, what if supporters acknowledged that our society has yet to get it right when it comes to sex? What if they agreed that the most fulfilling sexual relationships happen within committed relationships and that love and marriage (of all types) should be mentioned? What if concepts like consent were presented as tools to allow students to maintain the sacredness of sexual expression and avoid its current commodification? What if LGBTQ issues were offered in the context of acceptance, compassion and caring for those who are often the target of abuse?
Would this resolve all differences – of course not. But it might provide a better context for discussion. Jonathan Haidt may not represent the final word on morality but his approach provides a better understanding of the current sex-ed debate and a framework for more civil and meaningful dialogue.
John Milloy is a former MPP and Ontario Liberal cabinet minister currently serving as the Director of the Centre for Public Ethics and assistant professor of public ethics at Martin Luther University College, and the inaugural practitioner in residence in Wilfrid Laurier University’s Political Science department. He is also a lecturer in the University of Waterloo’s Master of Public Service Program. John can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @John_Milloy. A version of this column was originally published in the online publication QP Briefing.