About Me

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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); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Oh no! "Licentiousness breeds extremism"

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has a worrying column in The Independent. It is not worrying because of the concerns she raises about "licentiousness", "social nihilism", "debauchery", etc., but because it is another example of blaming the victims. Somehow the blame for Islamist terrorism is to be sheeted home to the relative sexual permissiveness of Western (in this case, British) society. It is also worrying because Alibhai-Brown is supposed to be an example of a moderate Muslim, but when you see someone writing so emotively about the evils of sexual freedom you have to ask the usual question where "moderate religion" is concerned, "Moderate about what?"

Her supposed moderation does not extend to acceptance that teenagers and young adults are (quite rationally) largely focused on sexual pleasures, and will inevitably engage in various forms of sexual display - such as wearing revealing clothing - if they are allowed to. Moderate she may be about some things, but she still writes in the way you'd expect of someone who has been socialised into a prudish kind of moral vision that irrationally condemns sexual expression and understands the naked human body as shameful.

Let's be clear about this. Alibhai-Brown does not merely offer the descriptive sociological conjecture that there's a causal nexus between the relative sexual permissiveness of Western societies and some Islamist extremism. She could have said something like the following: "In contemporary Western societies, many young women engage in a great deal of sexual display, in particular by wearing clothing that reveals much of their bodies. Some young men from Muslim backgrounds find this frustrating because it arouses them sexually, yet they are taught not to engage in sex outside of marriage. Some of these young men may react by becoming religious extremists."

If she'd just said that, we could guess that at least some young men, such as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, really do match this description. We could then consider whether the alleged causal connnection applies to more than a small number of isolated cases. Is that claim supported by any sociological data, and if so what policy response, if any, is required?

However, that is not how Alibhai-Brown presents her thesis. Instead, she uses highly emotive language to condemn the degree of sexual permissiveness that she finds in the UK. She obviously considers it repugnant and morally outrageous.

Early in the article, she writes sympathetically of how Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab "tried to hold on to Islamic Puritanism in a country of no shame, no restraint." She then adds: "Millions of Britons of all backgrounds are alarmed by the dissipation and debauchery that now defines Britain." It might be thought that when she writes of "no shame, no restraint", she is merely representing how Abdulmutallab perceived things, but not so. The following sentence is clearly in her own voice: she actually does see Britain as now defined by what she calls "dissipation and debauchery". This kind of language continues throughout the article. She speaks of "social nihilism", of a nation that "has gone from Fifties uprightness to public striptease", of "libertine excess" and "a state of perpetual abandon". Make no mistake, Alibhai-Brown is not merely describing a clash between Muslim ideas of sexual modesty and the relative sexual permissiveness of Western societies. She is condemning the latter in strong and angry terms.

Some of her examples are silly. She writes:

A list was sent home to the parents of girls at a middle-class school in London last week sternly reminding non-uniformed sixth-formers that there were still rules of decorum to follow. A list followed of garments henceforth disallowed: no tops that show the midriff or cleavage, no tight mini-skirts, no underwear showing, no clothes with holes in them, etc, etc.

Now, there might be something to the idea that high school is a place to wear fairly modest clothing, to help everyone in concentrating on studies - though, frankly, I rather doubt this. First-year university students wore "immodest" clothing in the 1970s, when I was an undergraduate, and they still do, though the fashions have somewhat changed (the thin see-through tops, with no bra underneath, that were commonplace among young women in Australia in the 1970s are not so socially accepted now). Undergraduates are not very much older than high school students (especially those in sixth form, i.e. Year 12), yet their attire doesn't seem to have any adverse effects from a purely pedagogical viewpoint. At least I see no evidence of this. Alibhai-Brown is probably barking up the wrong tree here, as elsewhere.

But even if we grant for the sake of argument that high school is different, that tight mini-skirts, etc., are not a good idea within school grounds, this doesn't justify the emotive description of "tops that show the midriff or cleavage ...tight mini-skirts ... underwear showing ... clothes with holes" as "wanton wear" or "public striptease". I can think of many outfits that have holes or show midriffs, or whatever, but are smart and edgy rather than blatantly sexy. But even if young women do choose to show their bodies to the world in unequivocal sexual display ... so what? It obviously upsets Alibhai-Brown, but she gives absolutely no reason why anyone else should find it upsetting or oppose it on moral grounds. Generally, when young women dress this way they are strutting their stuff, showing off in a fairly harmless way, and getting enjoyment from it. It's not because they're coerced. The resulting display is also enjoyable for many of the people who see it. It's enjoyable all round, except for the minority of prudes and puritans - but the latter don't get to dictate what everyone else does.

Of course, it's ridiculous to assert that the UK is a society that knows no shame or restraint. I'm sure that many people in the UK show restraint all the time, e.g. they probably restrain themselves from acts of violence or dishonesty that they might be tempted to in a vast range of everyday situations.

And they almost certainly feel shame in a similarly vast range of situations, perhaps when they fall short of their own moral standards (in honesty, for example) or in standards of skill and competence that they try to adhere to. It is nonsense to say that the UK is a society with no shame or restraint. No such society could survive for long.

What Alibhai-Brown means, of course, is that many people in the UK society do not show as much shame specifically about the body and sexuality as she'd like, or as much restraint specifically in sexual conduct and display as she approves of.

The truth of the situation is that Alibhai-Brown considers a certain high propensity for sexual shame and restraint to be a virtue, while many other people consider it to be a vice. Many people may think that a certain pride about the body and a certain degree of willingness to flaunt sexuality are actually the genuine virtues in this domain. If so, they are working with a more pagan set of virtues, perhaps, but they still have standards of virtue ... just different ones from Alibhai-Brown. That position may be growing more common, and those of us who share it are obviously pleased if our values are starting to seem normal. What Alibhai-Brown should not say, unless she is dishonest or ignorant, is that this amounts to "social nihilism". No, it is not a loss of values, or an absence of values, in the society, but the emergence of values that are different from hers. They are the values of people who do not use such words of condemnation as "debauchery", "licentiousness", and "dissipation".

It's true, of course, that life may be uncomfortable for people who don't share the dominant values in their societies. If sexual display, sexual permissiveness, sexual willingness or openness, and so on do become the dominant values in British society, then people with the opposite values may be psychologically uncomfortable - but no one has a right to control which values are prevalent in her society in order to ensure her own psychological comfort. The most she can ask is that she be legally permitted to live by her own (minority) values. I.e., she can ask that the state not coerce her to wear, say, a short, tight miniskirt and to expose her midriff. However, she cannot ask that other people be forbidden from doing so, or even that they be forbidden from making adverse judgments about her values if she chooses not to conform to theirs.

Alibhai-Brown either doesn't understand this or doesn't want to, because she indulges in the common statement of moral equivalence between (1) peer group, or other informal, pressure to wear revealing clothes and (2) the use of coercive political power to enforce wearing of the burka or other "modest" clothing. But peer groups inevitably establish norms of approved behaviour; no one can stop that happening. Nor is it surprising that many teenage peer groups develop a norm of approving a certain degree of sexual display in clothing, wherever this is legal (hint: teenagers of both sexes are typically as randy as stoats and want to be sexually attractive to other teenagers). Nor is it particularly surprising if an entire society moves towards values in which expressions of sexuality and displays of the body are valued (hint: sex is intensely enjoyable, and many human bodies are beautiful and sexually provocative ... so of course these things are likely to be widely valued).

Still, however much values may be shifting, Western society as a whole tolerates a very wide range of clothing. Alibhai-Brown can dress as modestly as she wishes without attracting much in the way of disapproval, let alone the punishment and stigma that goes with being a law breaker. Let her by all means wander the street in her veil, long dress, and sensible shoes - or whatever it is she wants to wear (I actually have no idea how she dresses). She probably won't suffer for it at all.

Sure, some younger people may find it psychologically difficult to go against the values of a peer group, but that is inevitable no matter what values their peer groups have. Alibhai-Brown's real beef is that she doesn't like the particular values that she sees. Fortunately, it is also inevitable that some people do manage not to conform to their peer groups, or to find alternative peer groups. This can't be guaranteed in each instance, of course, but even if going against the values of your peer group (or the wider society) is psychologically uncomfortable it is very different in kind from being locked up in a prison cell or being whipped or executed if you don't abide by the local code of sexual modesty.

Alabhi-Brown ends with this flourish:

With things falling apart and ethical compasses broken, you can see why so many are turning to self-discipline and certainties in an age of chaos. Islamic Stalinism is set to grow stronger. A society in a state of perpetual abandon cannot survive that onslaught. We need to sober up and see what we have become. The future is grim; it needs us to be serious.

Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! First, there is no evidence at all that "things" are "falling apart" or that ethical compasses are broken. At most, certain traditional anti-sex values are being replaced by certain (in my view, more rational) pro-sex values that Alibhai-Brown dislikes. That may cause confusion if some families and cultures are still preaching the anti-sex values while much of the advertising and entertainment industries preaches the pro-sex ones, but that does not make the former values correct. Nor does it mean that the transition in values is to "things falling apart" - that is nonsense.

Nor is the society of Britain or any other Western country in a state of "perpetual abandon". Can't Alibhai-Brown understand that a commitment to pro-sex values, and an unashamed enjoyment of sex and sexual display, is perfectly compatible with many other values, such as the value of fighting any onslaught from "Islamic Stalinism"? Indeed, people with the relevant pro-sex values are likely to be strongly motivated to resist "Islamic Stalinism", with its extreme anti-sex values.

As for the need to "sober up", how is this to be achieved? If it involves abandoning the new pro-sex values, what public policy is Alibhai-Brown proposing to achieve this? Of course, we could all change our values individually (though she has provided absolutely no good reason to do so in her article), but is she hinting here at some kind of collective response? I hope not, because that way lies the very totalitarianism that we want to resist.

In all, this is a very bad article, one that goes too close to blaming people who have values different from the writer's (but not obviously false or irrational ones) for the evil of Islamist terrorism. We should push back against articles like this and assert our own pro-sex values even more strongly. Indeed, it's clear enough to me that, despite Alibhai-Brown's lamentations, the mass media are still permeated by suspicion of pro-sex values. Popular entertainment is still monogamist, pro-natalist, and somewhat puritanical about the body. There is a long way to go yet before we have a genuinely sexually permissive society.

Alibhai-Brown won't like it when we get there, but no one promised her a society that values just what she does.


Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

I agree completely. This is the same old hideous repressive dreck that has always prevailed among people who mechanically believe that the morality imposed on them as children should be imposed on everyone else. She starts the article by explaining how modern she is, but fails utterly to substantiate this. What a horrible, dangerous, self-absorbed and self-deluded moral scold.

Anonymous said...

As clear an exposition as it gets, Mr. Blackford. Well said.

BT Murtagh said...
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BT Murtagh said...

The 'Islamic Stalinists' are incensed by our freedoms, so to be safe we must abandon those freedoms. No, sorry, no sale.

mark said...

well said, in japan they have society that does not have the sexual taboos that we in cultures tainted by the abrahamic religions. While they have their own problems they are not morally falling apart. If cultures that cant handle liberal attitudes cant stand the heat, get out of the liberal kitchen and move to a more conservative place. Blaming free thought and expression for creating extremists is contemptuous at best. I think she forgets how much these liberal cultures contribute to art, science, economic development and thought and how their noble conservative cultures dont.

Unknown said...

OR what she is saying is "stop having so much fun and free thought, we cant handle it so we must punish you for it"

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ColinGavaghan said...

This sort of despair over the putatively disintegrating morals of contemporary youth, is as old as time. Her evidence is, what? A letter home from school about immodest attire? Geez, that anecdote could have come from any time in the past half century (at least).

Methinks Yasmin is auditioning to jump ship to the Daily Mail if the infamous Rod Liddle takes over at the Indie.

SaintStephen said...

Another superb essay by Dr. Blackford.

Nelnik said...

That's well written a very persuasive.

I suspect that most religious purists wouldn't call themselves "anti-sex", but rather that they are anti pre marital sex though I'm not sure if there is any other kind.

Toby said...

As Alibhai-Brown represents a religion (albeit moderately - whatever that means) that is known for honour killings of daughters by their family and the stoning of young women to death for adultery by the authorities, you would think she'd spend her time condemning these rather than the clothes that young women in the UK wear.

Ed Bradburn said...

The opinions of Ms. Alibhai-Brown illustrate perfectly the fact that the chance of finding a religious "moderate" (esp. one self-confessedly so) is about as likely as finding someone who is half-pregnant.

Paolo Scimone said...

How does it go again, "When Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge, only then did they realise they were naked."

So I believe that this implies that to get back to God, we have to go back to our origins. From this point of view, I can't see what their problem is.

revjimbob said...

I read this article yesterday and was appalled. The Independent has great writers like Johann Hari - I don't know why they give this biddy a mouthpiece - she has a history of this kind of drivel.

Emily said...

I agree Russell, well said. I've never understood why sex and the human (female) body has generated such moral hysteria for so many for so long. What is so immoral about sex? Why the repulsion and subsequent condemnation? It is one thing for women to be perpetually cast in the roles of mere sex objects or housewives, but it is quite another thing for people to revel in their sexuality while still achieving other goals.

steve said...

People in western, secular (and apparently licentious and debauched) societies show restraint all the time by not flying planes into buildings, not throwing acid into the faces of school aged girls, not stoning alleged adulterers to death etc.

I'm waiting in breathless anticipation for Yasmin's article on that topic.

Piero said...

What an excellent piece, Russell! Thank you.

babrock said...

Another well stated piece Mr. Blackford. Thank you again.

What is w all these posts that state "removed by author", and then followed by what looks to be that very post?

MC said...

Methinks the lady doth protest too much (ie. I bet she's a jackhammer in the sack).

Eamon Knight said...

Sentiments like that cause me guilty anti-immigrant moments. As in: if you can't stand seeing a bit of skin, then go back to wherever you (or your parents, if you were born here) came from. If you stay here, then by all means dress however you want -- but don't expect the rest of us to conform to your code of coverage. Ditto w.r.t. displaying proper reverence for your cultural heroes (in case you hadn't noticed: we diss ours plenty).

BG said...

This interview with the author of 'Islam Needs a Sexual Revolution' might be of interest to you. The author, Seyran Atas, had to go into hiding after receiving death threats.

Richard said...

Very well said.

It seems like the author is making a bunch of implicit assumptions, and assumes that her audience can understand them as well. And, I feel like there are some fundamental ones that I'm not seeing.

How do you think people like the author would perceive the connection between modesty and morality?

Is their belief that, immodesty leads to harmful situations? Is pleasure seen as being inherently wrong? Or is there something else going on?

Blake Stacey said...

"Dissipation and debauchery" now define Britain?

\me checks prices for plane tickets to London

Eamon Knight said...

I suppose that one logical inference from "They hate us for our freedoms" would be "...so let's restrict ourselves so they won't hate us". (I'm thinking of Dinesh DeSouza, who has pretty much said that).

Any chance of hanging the "Appeaser" label around these folks' necks?

MouthAlmighty said...

Russell: "In all, this is a very bad article, one that goes too close to blaming people who have values different from the writer's (but not obviously false or irrational ones) for the evil of Islamist terrorism."

'too close'? - Too kind Russell. Way too kind.

Dick Alstein said...

"... blaming people who have values different from the writer's (but not obviously false or irrational ones) for the evil of Islamist terrorism".

Indeed. Alibhai-Brown strongly reminds me of the nutcases who blame natural disasters like hurricanes or forest fires to the moral downfall (in their eyes) of society. Here, the causal link is with a non-natural evil, but the argument is still very very weak.

To put it differently: she is misusing the attention and uproar from the incident to push her own agenda.

Greywizard said...

I agree wholeheartedly with what you say. Alibhai-Brown is simply wrong about a lot of things. But what she is not wrong about is her own fear. I assume that she has some insider sense of what is happening in 'the Muslim community' in Britain, and that her fear is based on that. This is some cause for concern.

My brother taught at the University of Regina for many years. He mentioned the many occasions when he saw interaction between male Muslim students and female students. Some young Muslim men were afraid to shake hands with a woman, believing that to do so would arouse uncontrollable desire. In a recent article on the web the argument is made that the hijab is a relatively recent innovation in Islam, and is based on the 'scientific' finding that the rays emitted by a woman's hair are sexually irresistible to men.

Of course, this is all quite silly, but Islam is, indeed, highly sexualised, and woman plays a very central role in the (male) Muslim unconscious (which, of course, cannot fail to have an effect on the way Muslim women will perceive their own sexuality). Alibhai-Brown, I suspect, is responding not only with her natural conservatism regarding sexual display, but, as I said at the outset, with real fear about what is happening amongst British Muslims. It is not only Alibhai-Brown's prudishness that should worry us, but the fear that is expressed in the first paragraph of her article, which is indeed very chilling. Perhaps Muslims need to be told quite bluntly that if they do not cherish the freedom of the country in which they have sought refuge, they really should seek out places to live that would be more congenial to them.

If Alibhai-Brown does not want to end up in a burkha, perhaps she should learn something about the natural sexuality of the human animal, and learn to celebrate, too, the freedom that allows some young people to express that sexuality freely, instead of implicitly justifying the fact that the sexual frustration caused by the conflict between religious prescription and sexual openness prompts some young Muslims to channel their libido into acts of terrorism and repression. This is what Alibhai-Brown is afraid of. Can she not see that the suppression of sexuality that she is demanding is precisely what the burkha that she says she will condemn to her dying breath is all about? The column, as you say, is worrying; it is also deeply revealing of a disturbing facet of Muslim life in free societies.

Nick said...

Great piece; I agree completely.

I can't wait for those "thin see-through tops, with no bra underneath" to come back into fashion! ;)

James Sweet said...

"It is also worrying because Alibhai-Brown is supposed to be an example of a moderate Muslim, but when you see someone writing so emotively about the evils of sexual freedom you have to ask the usual question where "moderate religion" is concerned, "Moderate about what?""

Well, this is simple: The difference between a moderate theist and an extremist theist is that the latter says, "You deserve to die for your sins!", while the former says,"Your sins are awful and it is no surprise people think you deserve to die! But I guess maybe you don't totally deserve it."

I was highly disturbed in the wake of the Danish cartoon violence that, after perusing hundreds of comments in BBC News' Have Your Say section, the most moderate comment I could find from a self-identified Muslim always started by condemning the cartoons, only later getting around to condemning the violence. Shameful.

bad Jim said...

Perhaps the reason why so many males find various forms of female attire atrocious is that their own response is largely involuntary, so they blame the women for giving them an erection.

Most of us find the response at least mildly pleasurable, but it might be intolerably irresistible to those who resolutely and virtuously deny themselves the pleasure of the flesh.

John R. Vokey said...

Brilliant. Here I am struggling to write something in response to this nonsense, and then your article appears. I, truly, could not have written anything as pointed, considerate, and truly heart-felt as you did. It is a good thing I write so slowly: the best then supersedes the (my) mediocre. Thank you.

John R. Vokey said...

But, can you do something about this?

Pat Robertson says Haiti paying for 'pact to the devil'

(CNN) -- Pat Robertson, the evangelical Christian who once suggested God was punishing Americans with Hurricane Katrina, says a "pact to the devil" brought on the devastating earthquake in Haiti.
Officials fear more than 100,000 people have died as a result of Tuesday's 7.0-magnitude earthquake in Haiti.
Robertson, the host of the "700 Club," blamed the tragedy on something that "happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it."
The Haitians "were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever," Robertson said on his broadcast Wednesday. "And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, 'We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.' True story. And so, the devil said, 'OK, it's a deal.' "
Native Haitians defeated French colonists in 1804 and declared independence.
"You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other." Robertson has previously linked natural disasters and terrorist attacks to legalized abortion in the United States. Soon after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, killing more than 1,800 and wreaking unprecedented devastation on New Orleans, Louisiana, Robertson weighed in with his own theory.

sailor1031 said...

"Fifties uprightness"? As one who was there let me tell ya honey - it wasn't so upright. Plenty of sex, lewdness etc. but all just out of sight - but if you knew where to go anything was available. Probably more exciting then than now in fact. As for street prostitution it was so rampant they eventually had to pass the notorious Street Offences Act.....

Perhaps Alibhai-brown should emigrate to Saudi Arabia; I'm sure she would feel more comfortable there....

BTW James Sweet: the extreme theist says, rather, "I will kill you for your sins"