The introduction of bans on the burqini, a form of swim- and sportswear intended for Muslim women, in some French cities and resorts has got me thinking. There are strong opinions on both sides as to whether the ban is justified and I can't make up my mind as to which is correct.
The burqini is a piece of clothing designed by Aheda Zanetti to enable Muslim women to participate in sports while maintaining a veil. She hoped that Muslim women would be encouraged to engage in activities that they would usually consider inappropriate for them due to their wish to cover most of their bodies.
Zanetti reasons that the burqini acts as an enabler; it gives Muslim women the freedom to join in with activities while keeping themselves covered. Zanetti recalls seeing her daughter struggle to play in a team sport due to her wish to wear a hijab, prompting her to look for a way in which Muslim women could overcome this limitation. In an opinion article for the Guardian Zanetti describes how joyful it felt to be able to swim in a public pool for the first time. Many Muslim women in France must feel the same way when they can take their children to the beach without needed to remain on the shore, watching from a distance.
Consequently it seems a reasonable argument that the French authorities' wish to ban the burqini is an illiberal thing to do. The French, who cherish their long-standing national values of liberty - including specifically the freedom of expression - are hypocritical in their insistence that the burqini is an inappropriate form of dress that is not welcome on beaches and in pools. What is pro-liberty about removing something that gives Muslim women the freedom to do something?
Many Muslim women argue that they freely choose to wear the veil; state interference is therefore an example of the government telling its women how they are permitted to dress. Therefore, not only is a ban on the burqini a clamp on Muslim women's freedom to enjoy the things that other people enjoy but also a clamp on what they are free to choose to wear.
French authorities justify their ban with reference to France's other long-standing national value of secularism. As I explain in an article for The Yorker, several high-ranking French figures (including their prime minister) believe that the burqini is another example of a backward attitude, influenced by religion and strict social conservatism, towards how women are permitted to dress in an Islamic society. It offends French secularism and common decency. Therefore, banning the burqini is a positive move to suppress a symbol of Islamic sexual oppression.
The debate around the burqini provides an easy backdoor through which the arguments against the veil can step in. These arguments have been made time and again in France, resulting in the ban of the veil in most public places, including state schools. The French argue that girls should not feel the need to wear the veil while at school. The French value freedom of conscience and to make a child feel that they should be wearing the veil is an obstruction to their capacity to think for themselves. When they become adults, they are able to wear the veil - hence why veils are common at French universities.
I can't decide what to make of the ban on the burqini. To one side it is a provider of freedom but to the other it is a constrictor.
Why do Muslim women feel unable to participate without wearing a burqini? I would think something was amiss if a friend said to me, "I can't join you at the beach, I cannot swim without my veil." People often want to dress modestly, but is there something beside a person's own desire for modesty of dress that compels Muslim women to cover themselves and prevents them from doing the things that other women can do? Is it an indication of oppression that they are not permitted, either by their own feelings or what someone else has told them, to take part in sport without covering their bodies? If that's the case, somehow a ban on the burqini looks liberating! A ban on something that women are expected to wear looks in fact to be the liberal case.
The longer you consider the debate, the deeper it becomes. Dependent on what you value more, your perspective easily changes. A ban on something that enables someone to join in an activity seems illiberal; a ban on something that constricts what a person can wear, or on something that a person is expected to wear to ensure they are not seen as immoral or uncouth, seems liberal.
From my gut I feel that the French are wrong to ban clothing that lets Muslim women play team sports and swim, especially with the French fondness for freedom of expression. Secular values do not mean stamping out religious belief. Furthermore, I sincerely doubt that Muslim women who want to wear a burqini on the beach are doing it because they want to play volleyball, snorkel or paddle with their children rather than show their allegiance to the Islamic State. I wouldn't be incensed if I were to see someone in a hijab on the beach. But then, I don't currently have strong opinions about the 'oppressiveness' of the veil. If I were to know more about how cruel or restrictive the veil supposedly, maybe I would think differently.
Predicting doom is a habit I don't want to develop. It happens too much already and often the predicted consequences are out of kilter with reality. We've seen the decline and disgrace of polling in the space of a few years, when the Conservatives won a surprise majority victory in 2015 or when the British public chose to leave the European Union this year. No one thought that Donald Trump would survive a few weeks of the Republican presidential nomination contest, but he's the current nominee. I thought that Bernie Sanders would be the Democrat nominee, but my prediction, arguably influenced by my own hopes, did not come true.
Consequently I am uncomfortable with the thought that the Labour Party could be on its last legs. There's certainly a vast number of people who want that thought to be true. I see no end of negative reporting from the Daily Telegraph. Other conservative outlets cross their fingers that Jeremy Corbyn will inadvertently drive the Labour Party off a cliff.
The majority of Corbyn's MPs aren't looking to destroy their own party, but they seem to want their leader ousted at any opportunity and perhaps at any cost. Internal criticism wouldn't do it; timed Shadow Cabinet resignations wouldn't do it; emotional and insulting tirades in person, one after the other, wouldn't do it. Now I read in the Telegraph that Labour MPs are asking for a message to be passed to the Prime Minister. They want an election called as soon as possible. It seems as though they would rather lose painfully and show, by way of national favour, that Jeremy Corbyn must be thrown out of his top position, than win it. The Telegraph has good reason to publish anything that indicates internal unrest within Labour, but the extent of Labour's division makes me wonder whether it really is true.
Corbyn and his allies, John McDonnell, Dianne Abbott etc. would say that the situation is quite different. Labour's membership has surged since Corbyn's nomination and subsequent election to the leadership of his party. Another boon came in response to the 'Brexit' vote, quite a surprise considering that Labour's campaign for Britain to remain in the European Union was widely seen as limp, not helped by Corbyn's half-hearted involvement. Labour has at least quadruple the number of members that the Conservatives have: a Parliament briefing paper indicates that as of July 2016, Labour has approximately 515,000 members versus the Conservatives' approximate 150,000, as of 2013. Many of the people who have joined Labour were previous members who left due to the ideological change implemented by Tony Blair, or in response to Blair's foreign policy.
The continuing popularity of alternative political parties, namely UKIP and the Scottish National Party, shows that Labour (and the Conservative Party) reaches out to some voters but not as many as it could. A chief concern, for many the motivation behind voting for 'Brexit', is immigration. Away from the debate over control of British borders, there is a general clamour for a limit to the number of immigrants Britain receives annually. Multiculturalism is sinking under its problems - difficulties in integration, the mutual intolerance of some cultures, a lack of understanding of other people's religion, culture and customs - and social cohesion is jeopardised. The working class feels alienated, ignored by the government and left to suffer under an unjust economic vision but ignored by the Labour Party in its quest to water down capitalism and appeal to the middle class.
Labour is the strongest party in the United Kingdom in terms of membership, yet is riddled with internal strife and in-fighting. Corbyn possesses the support of the membership but not those of his MPs. What next for Labour?
As I wrote at the start, I don't want to predict doom. I don't want to write that I can only see the destruction of Labour forthcoming. Media sensationalism, a hostile press, Conservative spin and general ignorance can obscure anyone's perspective. The temptation to lay down my interpretation of Labour's crisis and point the finger of blame at somebody is hindered by the fact that nobody knows the full story and that anything we do know could well be exaggerated or mistaken as a result of the level of hostility aimed at Labour, both within and without.
To make a nod to the last philosopher I studied, Labour is wrestling with a huge negation that must be succeeded by a sublation. The party is being pulled from all sides: as a good friend recalled from a Reddit conversation, the members are looking for Che Guevara, the MPs are looking for Tony Blair and the general public are looking for Enoch Powell. The (impossible) challenge for Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party is to somehow appeal to all three.
I don't know what is going to become of Labour. Corbyn's fate still hangs in the balance, and even if he is re-elected leader of the party, there are rumours - widely reported by the same press that is out to get him, admittedly - that the disgruntled Labour MPs will split away and form a new SDP-like party. Labour would be divided and diminished more than ever and it would take a catastrophic event, a scandal like no other or a war to remove the Conservative Party from office.
I don't know what will happen to the Labour Party and I don't want to make any predictions, but I do live in hope that a powerful, credible alternative to the political and economic status quo emerges and is able to take office. If it wears the Labour uniform then I vote for Labour.
Since June 2015 the BBC has been interviewing supporters of the Republican presidential-elect Donald Trump as the apolitical businessman with a loose commitment to Republican values became the potential next President of the United States of America. Many Republican voters told BBC interviewers that Donald Trump appealed to them for 'saying it how it is'. Trump appeals because he does not abide by political correctness; he says what is on his mind without fear of reprisal. Related to this, other supporters value Trump's background in business, not in politics. They believe that this gives him independence and the freedom from keeping closely to the party rhetoric. Trump is not a member of the political elite, nor is he involved in 'the establishment', making his appeals to 'make America great again' refreshing and genuine to voters.
The factors for the popularity of Donald Trump suggest something worrying about the status and importance of truth in more fields than just politics. The voters the BBC mentions value Trump for 'saying it how it is'. They believe that the official statistics, the establishment views and so on do not match reality. When Trump talks about Mexican criminals, rapists and drug dealers crossing the border into the South, Islamic extremism that is rampant across the states, or the machinations of the Chinese state and economic actors, it all chimes true for his voters.
Public perception is an important indicator for many people and institutions. Politicians use the public's opinion to judge what they can and cannot say in public; think tanks monitor clamour for various potential policies; opinion pollsters use public opinion to make reports. Public mood has impressive and long-lasting effects on the popularity of things from products on the market to government policies.
But public perceptions can also be extraordinarily unreliable. Many elderly Britons worry that their country is being, to paraphrase language we've all seen and heard before, 'taken over by immigrants'. They feel uncomfortable at the sight of a black face in the street and believe that their communities are being overwhelmed by foreigners. Granted, there are a handful of communities that have been greatly affected by high levels of immigration, but the reality is very different from the paranoid fears of pensioners. People who 'tell it how it is' may be telling the truth to some people, but under examination the things they tell 'like it is' aren't often true.
Several surveys and investigations have proved that many Britons' beliefs about political and social aspects of life are wildly off the mark. A 2013 phone survey suggested that Britons greatly overestimate the number of immigrants and welfare claimants in the country. A particularly interesting overestimation concerned the number of teenage pregnancies, thought to be twenty-five times' the correct number. A 2014 survey suggested that citizens from an array of countries, including Great Britain, France, the United States, Australia and Italy, greatly overestimate the number of Muslims living in their countries - in Great Britain alone, the polled Britons believed that 20% of the country's population are followers of Islam, four times the correct figure.
Many Americans put a lot of weight behind conspiracy theories, many of which have been widely dismissed by experts. A 2013 poll suggested that 28% of those polled believed in the secretive existence of a elite organisation bent on world domination. The allegation that Barack Obama is not an American citizen and is in possession of a bogus birth certificate has taken many forms, all of which have been debunked repeatedly, yet many voters, including the Republican front-runner, continue to believe that their current leader is a Kenyan and a man who illegally resides in the White House.
I don't think the importance of truth, facts, logic and evidence can ever be exaggerated in relation to debate, arguments, politics and the like. It would therefore be easy of me to wrap things up now by making a case for more fact-checking and better education in order to promote better discourses and conversations to help us progress. However, the situation is far more complex. I have read more than once that we are living in a post-truth world; a world where misinformation can distort our understanding of important events in seconds; a world where, to adapt the observation mistakenly attributed to Mark Twain, a lie can get halfway round the world before truth has finished tying its shoelaces.
Michael Gove is remembered for a lot of things, few of them popular; his insistence that the British people are bored of expert opinions is the moment for which I'll remember him. The majority of professional economists supported continued British membership of the European Union; only eight major economists called for 'Brexit'. When asked about this, Gove argued that the British people are sick and tired of being lectured by experts and academics. Sure, experts disagree. Experts come to different conclusions about the same events, sometimes with very similar methods or shared evidence. It is reasonable, to a degree, to say that the lack of consensus makes it hard to put your faith in experts and their opinions. But experts don't make arguments on a whim. Research and evidence inform the cases they put forward.
Facts are boring today. People don't want to spend their time in libraries and archives gathering evidence to construct answers or suggestions for the future; people want to read exciting things, hear outrageous things and know that their leaders are going to do something about them. Many journalistic sites exist to report things that people will find interesting and amusing, or things that will help bring in revenue, than actually report the news. Some stories on different websites look identical.
Over his presidential campaign Donald Trump has reiterated the birth certificate theory and manufactured one of his own, suggesting that the father of a rival Republican candidate was involved in the Kennedy assassination (no wonder Ted Cruz didn't want to endorse Trump at the recent convention). His style of politics isn't based in facts at all; instead it is all about making people suspicious. Forget the vanity, misogyny and political incompetence for a moment (something rather hard to do, I admit) and look at the kinds of things he has babbled. His points rely on 'maybes', playing on the fact that "we don't know that it's not wrong". We don't know that Barack Obama isn't a Muslim or that global warming isn't a Chinese hoax. With the attitude of a rambling drunk late one night in the pub, he encourages his voters to suspect 'the establishment' and the hostile forces outside America. His encouraging vision of America is as vague as it can be. He promises to be "the greatest jobs president God ever created."
Only days ago Trump wondered aloud, without any proof, that the Muslim mother of a fallen American soldier had not been permitted to speak at the 2016 Democrat convention by her husband. When the soldier's parents condemned his ignorance, he told Fox News that the Clinton campaign had paid for the couple to criticise him on stage. He has suggested that the forthcoming election will be rigged. It seems likely that if he loses in the end, there will be no end of intimations - all of them with no evidence at all - that foul play was afoot.
Many people such as myself are concerned not just by the dearth of facts in Trump's rhetoric, but by the wilful desire not to bother doing any work. Facts are unimportant now. If people cared about the absence of evidence and reasoning in the kinds of things that Trump has proposed over the past few months, he would never have become the nominee. But Trump is now in a position to be voted into the White House.
If this is the post-truth era, we should be scared of it. If the post-truth era is upon us, we are living in a world where paranoia is the new rationality and where ignorance brings fame and attention. It is a world where intellectuals and research are cast aside and the capacity to talk on the cheapest level is praised as courageous and honourable; a world where rational thinking and adherence to evidence is unfashionable. The Guardian's Katherine Viner has excellently articulated how the ability for misinformation in a post-truth era to spread with such speed will threaten genuine journalism, but the decline of rationality and intelligent debate threatens our progress in science, philosophy and many more aspects of our lives.
It is no longer the case that truth's importance has been neglected; it now seems as though truth is an irrelevance. We should all be afraid of life in a post-truth era.