Nicely brought-up people prefer not to discuss certain subjects. Such is British etiquette. Compared to our European friends, we recoil from any conversation that admits distasteful realities of religion, politics, or - God forbid! - political religion. Add to that the anxious goodwill of the liberal classes, and you have a society that’s almost pathologically incapable of having an interesting conversation.
People can't open their mouths in such times unless they stay strictly on-message. It gets very bizarre. Take for example this week's claim, by a government minister, that full face veils are "empowering". How pleasant a statement that is, compared to an awkward conversation about it all. How very British! Indeed, another minister reminds us that to ban the burka would be "a rather un-British thing to do." In other words: he'd prefer not to discuss it.
Perhaps they’re both right. But - sorry to be distasteful - I can't resist the feeling that terms like "empowering" and "un-British" need further explanation. Of the former, I’d be the first to concede the burka is empowering. It aligns the wearer with one of the world’s most powerful movements; she obtains more power from that than an individual could ever muster alone. What I don’t get is: why is this good? I thought that progressive Foucault-reading folk believed power to be a Bad Thing. Aside from that, to corrupt the law, own a gun, or break the social contract are all "empowering" to those who do them. The type of empowerment the minister is evoking is presumably something that she considers positive; but it’s not at all clear what, nor why advancing a sectarian group identity and marker of racial endogamy is a virtuous thing in a secular, democratic, and egalitarian society.
As for "un-British": it may very well be true that a ban would be so. But the implied Britishness surely cuts both ways; it's also "un-British" to take advantage of a proffered tolerance. If there’s a British characteristic worth holding on to - be it mythical or real - it is moderation in all things. Not only in proscribing behaviour, but in behaviour itself. Perhaps the genuinely British version of the burka question would be both to refrain from banning it, and refrain from wearing it.
I exaggerate, of course. Not everyone is afraid of a reasonable debate about the burka. But there are many strategies deployed to avoid it. We are told by the Guardian for example, with regards to the the French ban, that the burka debate is merely "a convenient way to distract the public from unwelcome economic cuts." (The reporter fails to notice that the ban was tabled by a Communist member of the French lower house and voted for overwhelmingly by all parties - including the opposition Socialists who would claim zero responsibility for government cuts nor have any cause to distract us from them.) Or the common fallback argument, deployed in the same article: the oddly unprincipled claim that the ban is "legally unfounded". (As if the law should determine ethics - rather than the reverse. No: you can't just forget your rationale for civil disobedience, when it suits you.)
At the same time as these pronouncements in the UK, we hear that Syria joins Turkey as another Islamic-majority state to partially ban full-face veils in order to protect their secular constitution. These countries understand - as we seem to have forgotten - that individual freedoms are a fragile privilege, the prize of other and greater struggles. No culture survives a free-for-all. Britain - far from legislating like a growing number of its European neighbours - will end up the only country where a conversation on the subject cannot be entertained in polite company, let alone in parliament.
One cannot object to history; all cultures - ours included - have held equivalent ideas about a woman’s place in the social or divine order. What does bemuse me is the insistence of the burka's apologists. What an odd and misguided cause for a liberal to defend.
(The picture - I admit - is of balaclavas. The difference with the burka is that the latter also covers the mouth. And eyes.)
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