Saturday, June 19, 2010

Tolerance and the public space

With Spain following Belgium and France by considering a ban on the burqa, one is reminded again of the truism that there is no need for tolerance for things that you approve of. I don't intend to rehearse the arguments against this. A secular constitution must by definition set limits to religion and religious institutions - but this isn't the way to do it.

Instead I was thinking about this as part of a wider concern, which is only part-formed in my mind but I'll attempt to explain anyway.

I went to Texas once. One of the things that struck me was how religious people were there. I can't think of anywhere else in the world where an evangelical Christian would enjoy more social freedom. You could hear people in restaurants thanking and praising the Lord for dealing with their hemorrhoids or some other mundane irritation of existence - clearly unconcerned that anyone within earshot might think they were a bit mental. Yet the social freedom was accompanied by what seemed to this observer a completely incongruous and unjustified persecution complex. This had to do with issues pertaining to the strict separation between religion and the state and how it has been interpreted - with prayer or any form of religious education being banned in American public schools and such-like.

Now, there's two possible conclusions one could draw from this. One is that religious people of this kind of fundamentalist disposition have demands on the public space that are absolutely insatiable. For those who demand liberty in their own case are often in the vanguard of those who want to limit the liberties of hedonists who want to drink, or smoke, or consume pornography, or indulge in homosexual sex. It really should be better understood that those who demand for sacred reasons that everyone become replicas of themselves usually wear the cloak of liberty.

But there is another one, which doesn't exclude the insights of the previous position, which is that when people see little in the public space they recognise, they retreat evermore into the private realm where their behaviour becomes more extreme. I was thinking of various examples of religious conduct here. One RE teacher made the point to me that not having the subject on the curriculum means that religious fanatics are for some pupils the only source from which they are taught anything about it. This leaves them with no alternative interpretations by which they might defend themselves. In American schools one does not get religious education because it has been confused with religious instruction.

I was wondering if the burqa thing might be seen in this sort of context. How much female empowerment does anyone seriously think would emerge from such a move? When you have men saying the only option would be for them to keep their women at home, as some interviewees did in the paper copy of the Times today, it isn't difficult to make the point that such a ban, as well as being illiberal, would be counter-productive as it clearly doesn't address the heart of the problem.

But it applies to those of us that prefer the pursuit of the profane rather than the sacred. Arguably the restrictions on smoking indoors and drinking outdoors has led many to pursue both in private - and to do so more excessively. This has certainly been my own experience. There's some disagreement about this but most historians seem to agree that one of the original functions of pubs was to moderate drinking excess, to offer beer and public sociability to the private consumption of cheap gin. And then there's what we can say in public, what we can joke about or sing about.

It hardly needs pointing out that these ideas haven't exactly crystalised for me yet - I'm just concerned that the moderating effect that public tolerance seems to have on human behaviour is completely overlooked by banning enthusiasts. In the case of the burqa ban, to evoke memories of Nazi Germany or Lenin's Russia is completely over the top but perhaps comparisons with Bismarck and his Kulturkampf are not. Maybe not even that - Kulturkampf-lite more like it. My point, or one of them, is that it had exactly the opposite effect from the one Bismarck intended. I'll stop here before I come out with any cliches about history...

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