“Conservative” and “progressive” can be broadly defined as those who identify with, feel a sense of responsibility for, and have a stake in the existing social order on one hand, and those who feel excluded from, have a grievance against, and stand to benefit from its rearrangement on the other. Thus, the right has usually been relatively homogeneous, while the left has been comprised of various groups entered into occasionally logic-bending alliance against the mainstream. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, we’ve seen the beginnings of an internecine split in the coalition of the cultural left. Enough ink has been spilled on the increasingly bitter civil war between frequently-atheist secular humanists and tolerance-obsessed multiculturalists, but I thought I’d use one little battle of that war to mention a great little book I recently found.
It is notable that it wasn’t the shootings that sent the secular humanists on the warpath against their own teammates. Sam Harris and Bill Maher didn’t take up their weapons to attack Muslims so much as to attack self-professed liberals who found reasons to qualify their outrage over the murder of 12 innocent people. At the peak of the poo flinging, I heard several reasonable people do exactly that, including a brilliant and eminently rational Arab woman who condemned the killings, then said, “…but I would never go to France, never even to visit.” This seemed a bit an overreaction, so I asked her reason, and she told me that France oppresses its Muslim population, citing what she believed was a ban against Muslim women wearing the hijab.
Against my better judgment, and to my regret, I wandered into that minefield and tried to broaden the discussion by explaining that the French law was not specific to Muslims, but included all religious garb and paraphernalia, but within a few minutes I was retreating at full speed with my jacket held over my head and explosions all around me. Cultural questions have more to do with identity than reason, and our answers to them serve mostly as secret handshakes to help us identify ourselves to fellow members of our in-groups. Try telling Americans outraged at France’s ‘anti-Muslim’ law against religious garb about the place of secularism in the history of the French Republic, and, very often, the confused look you’ll get is not due to ignorance of the subject as much as it is an indication that they are surprised you would think they gave a shit about the history of France.
Let me say at this point that I don’t think banning a practice is usually the best way to control or discourage it. But while I wouldn’t do it, that doesn’t mean there aren’t reasons to do it that have little to do with hostility to one or more religions. Duke University Professor Timur Kuran, wrote in his book Private Truths, Public Lies that such seemingly-draconian policies arise because the political leadership recognizes the insidious power of what he calls “preference falsification”.
“Preference falsification” is easy enough to understand; it is just what it sounds like, occurring when someone misrepresents their preferences or alters their behavior because of real or perceived social pressure. A simple example would be when a person claims to appreciate a piece of trashy contemporary art because they imagine that their peers appreciate it and, more importantly, that they will be judged negatively for their dissent. Interesting and often unpredictable social phenomena arise as the gap between “public opinion” and private preferences becomes significant. (I have to imagine that the entire world of contemporary art is based on this phenomenon.)
Laws suppressing religion in the public sphere, especially behaviors which are frequently informally enforced through honor and shame, confuse typical political alliances. As when Turkey banned the hijab in the 1920s, the move is often pushed and defended by civil libertarians. Meanwhile, the freedom to veil was defended primarily by Islamic fundamentalists, who generally considered Turkish society too permissive, and would have taken a hatchet to many other rights enjoyed by Turkish women. As Kuran wrote, “When everyone is acting out of character, it behooves one to look for complicating factors.” Laws against conservative religious clothing are not designed to target conservative women as much as they are to protect progressive women. Kuran continues:
It’s no use questioning whether or not it “ought to be this way” or not. It is simply a fact that, in Europe and the United States, as in Turkey and the Middle East, inward-looking communities of religious conservatives use honor and shame to compel behavior not codified by law. There are undoubtedly Muslim women in France who publicly protest the ban, while privately being thankful for it. Imagine being the only girl in a small town or cloistered neighborhood who doesn’t wish to veil. Imagine facing the whispered rumors, imagine the shame of conservative parents, imagine being called a whore even by girls who themselves dislike the veil, but play along anyway to avoid your fate. It’s not a simple thing for a protected American girl; it can be downright dangerous for a Muslim girl whose family’s “honor” is being called into question. There is no doubt that the rights of many legitimately conservative women are infringed upon by the ban, but law is negotiating the conflicts between exclusive claims to right.
When I brought this up in my debate with my Arab friend, she softened a bit. Even in the relatively affluent and educated Muslim community in the United States, she has seen, experienced, and suffered from honor/shame social compulsion enough to know the truth of it. (Episode #3 of Fear & Loathing in the New Jerusalem touches on many aspects and effects of honor culture in Arab countries.) It’s a poorly-kept secret that even in the United States Muslim women continue to face rates of domestic violence that would have outraged the Mad Men generation. Some studies and polls estimate that nearly half of Muslim women in some communities are physically or emotionally abused, but my own anecdotal experience indicates that it may be even higher than that astronomical rate. I’m reminded of another conversation I had with the same Muslim friend. She pointed out a very conservative Yemeni couple, the wife of which wore a full burqa, and said that although they were very traditional, the husband was nevertheless very kind and never abusive. I asked her what would happen to the wife if she put on a miniskirt and told her husband she had decided to go out and have a drink with her girlfriends from work. My friend looked at me like I’d asked what would happen if she grew a tail, and replied that the woman would never consider doing such a thing. “Humor me,” I asked. “What would happen if she did consider it?” “I couldn’t even imagine,” my friend said. “It wouldn’t be good.” We can’t reasonably classify that as abuse under any enforceable law, but nor should we be satisfied with non-violence dependent on total obedience. (It must be said that many Muslims in all countries recognize the problem of rampant domestic violence and have been trying to address and bring attention to it.)
The point, if you’re a French lawmaker, is that there is no way to know whether that man’s hidden wife desired her state or not. Her answer would be no more reliable than that of a closeted young homosexual with a violent conservative father. Still, my friend maintained her opposition to the ban, and I agree with her: Suppression of communities who already feel isolated usually only deepens their sense of separation, and results in the suppressed behaviors becoming an even more important component of their self-understanding.