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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Monday, October 09, 2006

Jack Straw got it right

More food for thought about the subject of affective communication among human beings is provided by the recent controversy aroused by Jack Straw, former UK Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary, and current Leader of the British House of Commons.

Straw, who is the parliamentary member for an electoral seat with a high Muslim population, created controversy - but received overwhelming public support - for his comments about some Muslim women in the UK wearing a full veil, or niqāb, over their faces. He suggested that this practice can harm inter-community relations. According to reports, Straw stated that he would like the practice to be abandoned, and he has asked women visiting his office to consider uncovering their noses and mouths to improve communication.

It is noteworthy that Straw has at no point suggested that Muslim women are not entitled to wear the niqāb if they so wish. Nor has he proposed that any law be passed prohibiting or restricting wearing of the niqāb. However forthright he has been about the issue, he has not advocated that it be dealt with by the coercive power of the state; he has done no more than make requests.

Straw is totally correct about this issue, though perhaps not for exactly the reasons he seems to have given. The issue is not so much that the niqāb symbolises a cultural difference and so may be divisive - many practices could fall into that category. Nor should the main issue be another important one that he has not raised as far as I've seen: what the custom of requiring women to wear such a garment says about women's sexuality.

The truly dehumanising aspect of a full-face veil is that it prevents a great deal of the most basic communication between human beings that helps to binds us together into communities. It stops one side of the universal communication of emotion through facial expression. Women wearing the niqāb or similar garments are largely cut off from one of the most important ways that people relate to each other in a myriad of informal situations.

Straw is correct not to seek to prohibit the niqāb or to challenge anyone's right to wear it. We know enough from history to realise that this is not an area where the state should use its power of "fire and the sword" in an attempt to control people's actions and beliefs. Except in the most extreme circumstances, the coercive power of the state should not be used to prohibit conduct associated with sincere religious belief. Indeed, it is almost always a mistake to criminalise behaviour that is based on people's deep beliefs and feelings, religious or otherwise. Such beliefs and feelings may be stronger for those concerned than their loyalty to the apparatus of state or to the society that it administers. When the state forgets this and passes coercive laws, it causes great harm in interfering with things that are so important to individuals. Besides, the ramifications of such action are endless and unpredictable. Once you go down the path of making people martyrs for their deep beliefs and feelings, there is no telling where you well end up, or what atrocities will line the path that takes you there. For those reasons, freedom of religious practice is a very strong ethico-legal principle that should only ever be set aside with enormous reluctance.

This does not mean that the state should never interfere with religious practices, under any circumstances at all. A revival of the Aztec religion, complete with attempts at "flowery wars" - capturing enemies for the purpose of human sacrifice - would clearly merit attempts by the state to control it by all possible means, despite the ramifications. Less extreme, but still extreme enough for the state's interference in my view, is the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation.

In the case of the niqāb, the garment is often worn voluntarily, however difficult that may be for many of us to understand. The process of indoctrinating young girls to believe that such extreme "modesty" is a requirement of morality may well be a form of child abuse, but it is one that modern liberal states simply have to put up with; otherwise, where does it end? We could go down the path of banning all forms of religious indoctrination of young children. As Richard Dawkins has argued, such indoctrination may be inherently abusive, but banning it is clearly out of the question. Of course, we don't have to like such forms of indoctrination, especially when they involve the inculcation of deplorable attitudes to sexuality and the social role of women, but that is a different point.

Overall, Jack Straw got it right in criticising the niqāb without initiating any attempts to ban it.

Western societies can and must tolerate many things that we do not have to like, and which we may even object to on strong moral grounds. The niqāb is a paradigm example.

Toleration, let us remind ourselves, does not entail agreement, admiration, or approval. We have many reasons to give consideration to people's feelings, and to respect whatever choices they make about how they will live their lives, but we don't have to agree with them. If some people freely choose to wear the niqāb, we must respect that that is their choice, not ours, even if the choice can ultimately be traced back to indoctrination that they received as children. At the same time, respecting that something is another person's choice to make, and one with which the state should not interfere by criminalisation, does not entail that the choice itself is one that we must agree with, or that the practice someone adopts by choice should itself be held in any high esteem. The requirement for the state to tolerate religious practices, even practices that are themselves intolerant or dehumanising, must not be confused with the false belief that the practices deserve our respect. Often, they simply do not. We can consistently maintain that the state should not attempt to suppress certain practices, while also maintaining that the world would be better without them.

Finally, this episode confirms the robustness of liberal toleration in modern democratic societies. The UK and other modern societies will doubtless survive, despite the need to tolerate such unfortunate components of the modern cultural mix as the niqāb.

This observation sheds light on other issues where it is claimed that tolerating some practice will undermine social solidarity - the sort of argument that communitarians sometimes make about enhancement technologies. Compared to this current, real-world example of women wearing full-face veils, any damage to social solidarity from enhancement technologies is likely to be relatively trivial, and the arguments that it will happen at all are rather speculative. By contrast, the benefits may be great if people can live longer and healthier lives.

When we are confronted by practices that we have little choice but to tolerate, because of their long, thoroughly embedded cultural history and the support given to them by well-established religions, we can learn an important lesson: modern liberal societies can allow a great deal that has some tendency to cause internal division and difficulty. Rather than suppressing anything with those tendencies, whenever we think we can get away with it, we should understand the point that it is best not to treat our societies as if they were frail people with egg-shell skulls. We should be confident about the robustness of modern, liberal societies, of their ability to prosper, even when confronted by problems and challenges. That should be at the front of our minds whenever we are considering the criminal law as a possible tool of public policy.

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