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Jackie Henderson addresses a crowd of 500 at a Women’s Liberation rally at Nathan Phillips Square in August 1970.

Book Review: The Rights Revolution


By Feb 16, 2017

Image credits: Toronto Public Library

Filled with contradictions of hope and frustration, self-congratulation and critique, Michael Ignatieff’s four lectures on the post-World War II rights revolution in Canada provide a summary and assessment of the rights culture in Canada. The anthology of his lectures, The Rights Revolution, is a particularly timely work given the current global and national discourses surrounding the rights of minority groups. From Donald Trump’s travel ban to the Conservative caucus’ refusal to show support for Motion M-103, it is clear that if a rights revolution did indeed occur, it is surely far from over. Ignatieff defines this revolution in several different ways, first depicting it as a story of the fight for the inclusion of minority groups and their protection from the effects of democracy, then as a movement to safeguard individuals’ right to be equal as well as different. This paper will focus primarily on his conception of the rights revolution as being about minority groups gaining recognition, as this is a crucial aspect of his definition of the rights revolution. It will subsequently argue that Ignatieff’s methodology is weak, as he fails to demonstrate the existence of the rights revolution through any empirical evidence and his examples are muddled in contradictions. Finally, I will conclude that the arguments contained in Ignatieff’s lectures are highly inconsistent and leave readers unclear on what he truly thinks of Canada’s rights culture, though he is successful in inspiring hope for the future.

Ignatieff begins by praising Canada for having “one of the most distinctive rights cultures in the world”, writing that many Canadians take their rights for granted, such as the right to free health care, and that the country is similar to Europe on “moral questions”, such as abortion, capital punishment, and gay rights, distancing the country from the US because he believes Canada to be more “liberal, secular, and pro-choice”. His tone is prideful as he notes Canadians’ ability to forge “a single political community of equal citizens” out of such a diverse population, that they could create a political system that accommodates people from such varied backgrounds, languages, and cultures while remaining distinct and independent from the country’s southern neighbor. Though he concedes that all modern democracies protect some rights, he claims that “our system is special” in its ability to reconcile individual and group rights. At the first taste of Ignatieff, it seems readers are in for a boastful, self-congratulatory read on Canada’s rights revolution.

His definition of the rights revolution is dispersed throughout his lectures and contains a myriad of perspectives on this period. An important component of it is the notion that the rights revolution has been an attempt to gain recognition of equality of differences. This concept is crucial and worthy of significant consideration; recognition entails a rights culture that pervades deep into the ethos of a country’s people, one that goes beyond the walls of the legislature and becomes embedded in societal values. For much of Canadian history, the conversation on rights has existed nearly exclusively in the confines of the government, rooted in the British notion of parliamentary supremacy. But what Ignatieff is describing is the recognition of rights between neighbors, coworkers, and fellow citizens. He writes that groups want the majority to recognize their existence, to remove their anonymity and call them out of from the margins of society; they want to be seen as equal to the majority not only in legal terms, but in “moral consideration”. He believes that the rights revolution has empowered groups to seek acknowledgement of the equality of their differences. This elucidates an important feature of the rights revolution.

Ignatieff seems to believe that the proof that the rights revolution has occurred is found in nearly every aspect of life; he feels it has made its way into the most intimate aspects of our lives. Much of Lecture Four is on the family, and the ways in which the rights revolution has become intertwined with the sexual revolution, tearing at family life and affecting the way in which children are raised. Ignatieff writes that a “converging set of moral, technological, demographic, and legal changes” have led to “the great disruption”, as characterized by Francis Fukayama. He believes there to be a new social emphasis on individual autonomy and expresses concern that family life might not survive this new emphasis on freedom, bemoaning the rising divorce rate as a product of the rights revolution. His descriptions of the changes in family life are thus used to demonstrate the rights revolution is taking place in the most intimate areas of our lives.

Ignatieff’s methodology throughout this example is not convincing. His analysis of family life is meant to demonstrate two sides to the rights revolution: that on the one hand, we have achieved more freedom and more recognition for our differences, but that we are simultaneously challenging pre-existing norms. In using this sort of example, he is merely perpetuating a restrictive and normative view of the family. He does not provide a substantive argument that shifting family norms pose any danger to society, but rather dispenses normative assessments implicit in the one-sided facts he provides. Ignatieff writes that divorce rates demonstrate the impact of the rights revolution on intimate life, yet after sharing an abundance of information related to divorce in Canada, fails to include any specific evidence that this is a negative phenomenon, or that this is a worse outcome than that which would exist without his proclaimed rights revolution. Nowhere in his lectures is there an empirical evaluation of his claims, it is therefore difficult to be convinced.

Ignatieff’s lectures are riddled with contradictions; the overarching and recurring contradiction is that he both praises and admonishes the rights revolution. For example, after lamenting the rising divorce rate he proclaims “so-called family values” to be a “downright tyranny” in their ability to make people feel “inadequate, ashamed, or guilty about their inability to conform” to societal standards. This type of inconsistency makes it incredibly unclear to what extent he supports the rights revolution. The lectures are bookended with what would seem to be praise of Canada’s rights culture; he congratulates the Canadians for their central role in the global rights revolution in the first lecture  and concludes his final lecture by professing that Canada will be united once we all recognize each other’s differences with “empathy, and if possible, reconciliation.” Yet the lectures in between cast doubt over whether this is his true stance. For example, he frequently laments that the majority is being excluded from rights revolution. He concludes Lecture Three by writing that just as the majority must recognize the minorities, the minorities must recognize the majority. He discourages “guilt-mongering” and a culture in which the majority feels pressured into acknowledging other’s rights. In Lecture Four, he writes of the “moral tyranny” of political correctness and that the minority currently holds a tyranny over the majority; he seems to perceive a silencing effect of the rights revolution, as if free speech is being repressed. In reviewing the entirety of these four lectures, it is difficult to discern how he feels about the rights revolution.

Aside from the confusion his critiques create, they also contain flawed reasoning. Asking the minority to recognize the rights of the majority is nearly redundant and highly insensitive; members of the majority are automatically, necessarily, and by default recognized in a modern capitalist society, whereas minorities are ignored, marginalized, and precluded from the upper echelons of the social hierarchy. The majority does not need to be publicly acknowledged in law, in government, in institutions, or elsewhere in order for them to have equal access to all levels of society. Minorities do, because when a group is fighting against a history of oppression, it takes a revolution to bring that group to equal standing with its fellow citizens. Additionally, Ignatieff’s complaints about political correctness reveal him to be misguided in his understanding of the rights revolution. He expresses exasperation that one cannot talk about sexual promiscuity with gay people, “lest you appear to be demeaning gays in general”. However, this is not a limit on the freedom of speech, it is a limit on harmful speech, and this is not a new concept; harmful speech has long since been limited by law. For example, this was the basis for the limitation on pornography rights in the 1992 R v. Butler case in Winnipeg, in which it was deemed that because pornography constituted harmful speech, its censorship was both legal and warranted. Ignatieff writes about the rights revolution as a fight for recognition, yet neglects to recognize that certain types of speech hurt particular groups. He thus does not explore the full scope of the rights revolution as he is simultaneously creating confusion over whether or not he finds the rights revolution to be a positive force in Canadian society.

Although entangled in confusion over his stance on the rights revolution, his lectures are evocative in compelling readers to play a more active role in garnering and expanding minority rights. He repeatedly calls for dialogue and conversation, encouraging conservatives and liberals, those in the majority as well as minorities, to learn from and share with each other in order to construct an ever-inclusive society. His rhetoric is inspiring and uplifting as he writes that Canadians must “envisage new possibilities of living together”, that we can generate a “world in common.” Though mired in contradictions, his language is powerful and hopeful, galvanizing readers to work toward a better Canada. I do believe that this is an important message, and that it is crucial that Canadians feel hopeful for their future; otherwise, movements for social justice would seem futile. While I do not agree with his self-congratulatory message, nor do I condone his misguided critiques, I believe it to be necessary and worthwhile to inspire people to work toward a better future.

Ignatieff’s four lectures are filled with contradictions and confusion. His definition of the rights revolution is provided piecemeal throughout the lecture, but an important component is the notion of the rights revolution as a story of the fight for the recognition of equality of differences. His methodology is incomplete and unconvincing, as he lacks empirical evidence and simply makes normative statements about the impacts of the rights revolution. In critiquing the rights revolution, he confuses readers as we are left wondering if he feels the rights revolution is a positive or negative force in Canadian society and provides weak reasons for criticizing the rights revolution. Despite these shortcomings, his lectures are profound in their ability to stir emotion and inspire hope that we can achieve a better Canada. These lectures provide an interesting, though confusing, understanding of the rights culture in Canada.

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