I've been thinking a little more about the burkini (or 'burqini' as I prefer) debate. It isn't going away anytime soon and neither are the opinion pieces condemning the French authorities for deserting their own liberal principles.
Previously I wrote about the burqini ban in relation to freedom. The burqini is to some a provider of freedom, allowing Muslim women the opportunity to play sport and swim alongside other women. To others it is the swimwear equivalent of an oppressive control on the liberties of women. I've lost count of the number of incensed articles I have read, from Muslims and non-Muslims alike, expressing outrage at the French. But reading an article on the Guardian website yesterday I realised that there is clear motivation for some French people to take a particular dislike to the burqini.
So far there have been several flimsy reasons given for why the burqini has been banned in France, some of which I documented in an article for The Yorker. Thus far the French authorities have described the burqini as an affront to good morals and secular values as well as an unhygienic mode of dress on the beach. The latter description seems rather pathetic and certainly no good reason for French police to ask a Muslim woman to remove her chosen dress on a beach in front of everyone else. The former description seems a little more reasonable, but enough people have pointed out that there is something strange going on when a staunchly secular and egalitarian country makes such overt restrictions on the religious expression and dress of women in a religious minority.
There is obviously something deeper at the heart of why the French have a problem with the burqini, as well as the burqa, the hijab and other forms of Muslim dress. The answer, at least in my opinion, lies in how both sides see the debate.
Those who defend Muslim women's ability to wear the burqini are sticking up for their ability to express their faith unimpeded. Allusions have been drawn towards nuns and other non-Muslim religious figures, to whom the French authorities have had no negative reaction. Of all the opinion pieces I have read, no one who has argued in favour of Muslim women being able to wear the burqini has simultaneously been critical of religion and the ability to practise it in public.
On the Guardian's website I read the accounts of five Muslim women on why they choose to wear the burqini. Several of the women discuss their wish to dress modestly. (Modesty in dress, along with how it describes and treats women, their appearance and how they should act, is something I would like to discuss in a future article.)
The fifth account is the most overt adherence to religious practice. Jess, a fourty-four-year-old Muslim woman from Bedford, writes that she covers herself because the Qu'ran tells her to distinguish herself from non-Muslims and to dress modestly. "Anyone who tells you otherwise," she writes, "is either putting their love of the dunya or their culture first."
I can see why this is worrying to many French citizens. Jess is following the instructions of a prophet to cover up her body in order to visibly demonstrate her adherence to Islam. Anyone who "tells you otherwise", who does not follow the instructions of the Prophet, cares more about either their own culture or "the dunya." The dunya means the world in which we live; Jess adds that Muslims (like the other followers of the Abrahamic religions) believe that this life is a prelude to an afterlife. As a "pleasure trap" it will "seduce you" from what awaits you in the next life. Good Muslims, one infers, do not give any thought to worldly pleasures.
All in all, Jess confirms that there are some strict instructions on how women should behave in Islam. The adherence to the commands of Islam over others, the need to follow the Prophet's instructions, the reprehensible nature of following
The strict instructions of Islamic teaching is in my opinion the reason why so many French men and women are in opposition to the burqini. They believe that Islam imposes rules on how women are permitted and not permitted to dress, instructing women to hide themselves to ensure they do not tempt men and do not stray from their own faith. Pierre Bergé, a French fashion designer, linked Islamic attire to the "enslavement of women" earlier this year, well before the burqini debate hit the headlines.
Those who believe that the ban on the burqini is wrong support Muslim women's ability to follow their own faith - there is no wish to scrutinise the faith itself. But scrutinising the Islamic faith is what motivates the burqini's opponents to call for it to be banned. The opponents believe that the theological instructions for women to cover themselves, to ensure they do not tempt men, embarrass their families or show too much of their beauty to strangers, are all antique restrictions on the rights and welfare of Muslim women.
"An effectual barrier against the innovations of the vulgar...": Victorian etiquette as a weapon of class
As part of my degree I am writing a dissertation on a topic of my choice. After a lot of deliberation following a mild 'academic crisis' (more on that another time), I elected to research British gentlemen's etiquette manuals in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. Over the summer I tracked a handful of manuals down from a variety of sources. Many came from the websites of American universities and online, downloadable Victorian literature anthologies.
Yesterday I took a look at Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen; or the Principles of True Politeness to which is added the Ball-Room Manual, one of many etiquette guides published anonymously in England in the 1800s.
Much of the manual makes an interesting read for the modern reader. We are presented with the various acceptable and unacceptable ways of behaving in introductions, conversations in the street and at dinner, discussing religion and other social situations. As one would expect, many of the practices seem highly austere in comparison with our own today. But the opening pages of the manual are arguably the most interesting, at least to my own research, for it is in the first two pages that the anonymous author defines and describes etiquette and the existence of 'good society'. Not only does the author describe etiquette as the fashion of the upper class, but he also indicates the use of etiquette as a tool of both encouraging social mobility and preserving the status quo.
the name given to the code of laws established by the highest class of society for regulating the conduct, words and actions of those admitted within its sphere...
I can't imagine a clearer indication that etiquette is a social construction of the upper class. Nineteenth century etiquette manuals were not fashionable phenomena of the period. Etiquette manuals were the last of a series of manuals written mainly for an upper-class audience. These manuals began as guides for the young sons of the aristocracy who required tutelage in taking their places at the top spots of English society. Over the course of several decades these guides took a much stronger tone, addressing good moral behaviour with a religious streak. By the 1830s, however, the didactic nature of these books waned and were replaced by guides on how gentlemen should behave if they intended to fit in with high society.
Within the first paragraph, the author of this etiquette manual states that etiquette is a construction of the social elite. Adherence to fine moral practice or following the instruction of the divine are absent; this is a blunt admission of the not-so-sophisticated origins of good manners. But the author writes further that etiquette is a way of "regulating the conduct [...] of those admitted within its sphere." Etiquette forms the rules and regulations of a small, exclusive group that polices itself.
Despite the decline of moralism in these manuals, the author nonetheless claims that social disorder will prevail should etiquette be abolished:
[Etiquette is] the keystone in the arch of refinement; and it would be both impolite and a danger to remove it, it is an effective barrier against the innovations of the vulgar...
Etiquette serves a second function besides regulating the affairs of the governing class: it also keeps the unwanted wretches out of the elite's affairs. Removing etiquette would be a "danger" - it would jeopardise social peace, or, as I would imagine, the existing social order. Etiquette ensures that the "innovations of the vulgar" do not endanger the welfare of the elite.
Early into my research I realised that I had failed to ask myself an important question - why, at all, were etiquette manuals being written in the mid-nineteenth century? Something must have prompted their publication. An online article by Professor Kathryn Hughes for the British Library gave me the answer that perhaps I should have already anticipated. The late eighteenth to late nineteenth century was a time of major industrial and commercial expansion, both in the domestic and international sphere. "Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, it was now possible to make a fortune from manufacturing and trading goods." The effects of industrialisation and the decline of land-based wealth meant that a new class of men was emerging: men who had acquired vast sums of wealth by participating in capitalism. The power of the traditional aristocracy was on the wane as this new, bourgeois class matched the former's wealth; but the aristocracy and landed elite preserved its superior social status, keeping them apart from the rich but socially-inept new class.
Etiquette manuals were produced, both in Great Britain but also in the United States, largely to assist this new bourgeois class with making the transition into upper-class society. These new businessmen and industrialists might have had the cash to demonstrate their clout, but their low rank would be revealed by a slip-up in a social encounter with a member of the upper class.
That said, the author of Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen describes etiquette as both an enabler of social mobility, something that no man can ever ignore should he wish to be accepted by 'good society', and a metaphorical wall around the social elite. Etiquette, he argues in his finishing lines, has been deliberately constructed to keep the ruffians out:
For protection against the intrusion of those whose abrupt manners and vulgar habits would render them disagreeable and obnoxious, society has established the laws of Etiquette; and all who would be acknowledged as its members, must submit to its demands.
But what is good society?
...it is the assemblage of persons of education, rank, fashion, and respectablity; and whatever is deemed honourable, polite, and worthy of imitation amongst mankind, will unquestionably be found within this circle.
As I understand it, good society, according to this definition, is composed of the the highest-ranking people, both in knowledge, social position and nobility, whose collective interests dictate what is good protocol and what is not. Etiquette was both the expression of good society's rules and regulations - which are themselves not intrinsic rights and wrongs, as earlier guides would have argued, but expressions of the social elite's opinion - and a guardian against the intrusion of the "vulgar", the infiltration of the undeserving. Etiquette was therefore a weapon to keep the existing elite safe from undesirable persons, maintaining the socioeconomic divisions that permeated Victorian society.
If my understanding is correct, what is the point of selling guides on how to behave according to etiquette? If etiquette exists to keep the undesirables away from the elite, how can it hope to achieve social mobility? Could the "vulgar" not learn their way into 'good society' by reading books like Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen?
All in all, etiquette delivers a sense of paradox within the Victorian concept of 'good society'. It exists both to regulate the affairs of the social elite and as a purchasable guide for a newly-emergent middle class on how to mix with the elite, but also to keep the elite secluded from everyone else, especially the commoners.
In her compelling book Manners, Morals and Class in England, 1774 - 1858, Marjorie Morgan (1994) puts it much better than I have done thus far (p.94):
Etiquette thus functioned paradoxically both to facilitate and to limit social advancement, always taking such mobility as for granted as did the people embracing its behavioural rules.
Ah, Victorian society.
Geologists declared recently that the Earth has entered a new era: the Anthropocene, the era of mankind. The world exists now in a state hugely influenced by the activities of its most intelligent inhabitants, for better and for worse.
We have also entered, it seems, the post-truth era; a time when facts, logic and reason are old news. Emotion, ferocity and, dare I say, prejudice are the fresh dishes on the menu.
Earlier I wrote an article for the Huffington Post contending that we should be afraid of life in a post-truth world. People are not only allowing their prejudices and prevailing social injustices to inform the way they live their lives and vote for their children's future, but are enthusiastically rejecting the studies that suggest alternatives, the experts who advise doing something different or the journalists who expose the truth. Many believe that 'the mainstream media' is on the side of the establishment, both of which continue to treat the ordinary public like children.
Anger in response to our world's injustices and inconsistencies is released on the very people that do not deserve it. When religious terrorists breach the peace in France, ordinary Muslim women suffer the penalty. The vote for Britain to leave the European Union seemed to be a grant for an extraordinary outbreak of racism towards average Britons of foreign descent. Similarly, many those who voted for 'Brexit' were called traitors and selfish for supposedly ruining the lives of the country's youth. Donald Trump continues to court the favour of the disenfranchised working class, who demand the imprisonment of his political rival and the destruction of the 'mainstream media'.
It is no longer the style to be measured and reasonable in how you put your points across. No one seems to care about being respectful to another person's dignity. Instead it is much more trendy to take to the online rooftops, bellowing your opinions in the form of Facebook or Twitter posts or short YouTube videos. Factual analyses and reasoned deconstructions of arguments no longer win debates; rather, debates are somehow won by sending abusive messages, delivering personal abuse or simply dismissing someone without any good reason.
Misinformation abounds. Conspiracy theory websites such as Infowars.com grow in popularity. Donald Trump and his colleagues have no concern about evidence when they can make bizarre musings, from suggesting that Second Amendment enthusiasts could forcibly resist the changes of a potential Democrat president (i.e. shoot her) to implying that the father of a dead Muslim soldier would not let his wife speak at the Democrat convention.
I don't think I need to spend a lot of time and words explaining why these things are bad. Misinformation and blind emotion colour our judgment in heavily damaging ways. Laws fall apart when people prefer to act on their feelings rather than acting on what is correct or what is moral. Our systems of knowledge and their divisions are endangered when leading figures dismiss sophisticated lines of inquiry in favour of ignorance and fury.
Nonetheless, the post-truth world lives on, and I realise that blogging again and again about why I think the post-truth world sucks will not do much to help anyone. The best thing would be to propose a solution. Unfortunately no solution is comfortable, and, worse still, I think that the greater the response to the post-truth world, the greater the restrictions are on freedom and thought.
To counter the negative effects of misinformation, we could take an active, censorial approach. We could shut down the Reddit feeds that are a hotbed of the bigoted and illiterate; we could remove the conspiracy theory websites that discuss the Bilderberg Group, the Freemasons, the Illuminati, the 9/11 'truths', the citizenship of Barack Obama and the secret lizard people; we could ban journalists who specialise in sensationalism, provocation and lying for popularity. We could ban people like Ben Carson, Alex Jones and Webster Tarpley from participating in public debates or writing for newspapers.
But taking such extraordinary measures would be some of the most clear authoritarianism in the modern day. We would be actively removing the freedom of expression of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of individuals. Secondly, who is to say that our point of view is always correct? We could silence Alex Jones and stop him from speaking, but what would happen if one of his innumerable claims were true? Creating a huge censorial body to stamp out bad arguments creates a huge opportunity for an unscrupulous power to create a monopoly on information. Such a power could regulate what the public could and could not read, controlling our information to the point that we could be denied access to any opposing view. Thus, just as an unregulated system permits misinformation to spread like wildfire, a regulated system permits a regulator to seriously constrain the public's access to information, something that hampers our democracy.
It seems that there is no way to reduce the spread of misinformation without reducing freedom of expression. In a democracy, the best way for a bad idea to be defeated is exposure to reason and argument, not censorship. As much as it pains me to hear Ben Carson argue that the Pyramids were grain silos built in Biblical times, he is free to believe it and we must hear him say it in order to dismiss it.
So - the post-truth world continues?
As I discovered at university, men's rights activism is a genuine thing. Some men (and women) boldly make the case that it is men who are routinely the victims of gender discrimination in the workplace, in the courts and in society.
The most prominent organisation in my country is probably 'Justice for Men & Boys' or 'J4MB'. I heard about J4MB once or twice and saw a few videos in which its figurehead, Mike Buchanan, explained how many aspects of social interaction are now biased in favour of women. Before I lost my respect for him after, in one video, he rudely told a woman to be quiet, Buchanan made some interesting points about the gender pay gap, something that he and many other people believe is either much smaller than people think or non-existent.
At face value, Buchanan's points seemed to be very articulate. Men and women tend to choose different lines of work and every individual of both sexes has their own idea of progress. Some people prefer to work as hard as they can whereas other are looking for a job that gives them enough freedom to engage in other pursuits and hobbies. Therefore, if it is true that men prefer to be doctors and therapists, earning them a higher wage, and women prefer to work on hospital wards and behind desks, it seems unfair to make comparisons about wages. Putting it another way, if men prefer to work in big jobs that earn big money and women prefer to work in small jobs that earn less, there is something unnecessary about complaining that men are earning more than women.
Note that I write 'prefer' in italics. I am hesitant about making these generalisations. People like Buchanan, Milo Yiannopoulos and co. would treat these kinds of generalisations as truisms. Isn't it just a fact of life that most secretaries are women? Isn't it just true that women don't want to join the military? I find these generalisations dangerous; they skirt over research and evidence that should inform how we approach things. Secondly, even if it is true that most secretaries are women, it does not mean that this is inherently the correct way of going about things.
J4MB came back into the news a few weeks ago when the Conservative Philip Davies MP was filmed speaking about feminism at a men's rights conference. Nonetheless, I strive to give everything a fair hearing. Buchanan and J4MB have something interesting to say about men's rights, feminism and other things.
So, I went to the J4MB website and took a look at the J4MB 2015 election manifesto. I did find some interesting things. Female genital mutilation has been in the news quite a bit, but I first heard about male genital mutilation in the manifesto (though J4MB's manifesto did not actually explain what MGM entails; for FGM I know about various societies in Africa that remove parts of a woman's genitals, either to symbolise her journey into adult life or to deliberately prevent her from feeling pleasure in sex, but for MGM I have only my imagination to understand it. Does J4MB mean circumcision as often practiced in Jewish communities?).
A lot of the arguments can be boiled down to a simple theme: men do more work / make up a bigger proportion in X field / are better at Y / prefer Z so women should not be given special assistance for doing less / not being as good. Men pay more taxes, men work in tougher jobs, men work longer hours, men do more this and that... And you can keep on boiling it down. Men do most of the work around here - so why do women get all the attention?!
You could read through the first seventy pages of the manifesto and hold the opinion that J4MB are in favour of gender equality and want an equal society. They are highlighting numerous examples of inequality in British society that have been overlooked or underaddressed by mainstream politics for the last few decades; they are shining a light on some of the difficulties that men face but tend to be brushed under the carpet. I can say from my own discoveries at university that there are a lot of social expectations that men are expected to meet - to be tough, commanding figureheads, impervious to emotional frailty and undefeated by any difficult situation, be it the end of a relationship or the passing of a family member.
But then you get to the seventy-first page. "THE MEN’S HUMAN RIGHTS MOVEMENT, A VOICE FOR MEN, FEMINISM, GYNOCENTRISM, MISANDRY, MORAL AGENCY, SEXISM, THE RED PILL…" it is titled. J4MB traces an important text that is critical of feminism, published in... 1913. 1913! A lot of things have changed in society since 1913. Homosexuality is no longer seen as a mental illness; black people in America have the same civil rights as white people; we've even had a female Prime Minister and we might just have a female President of the USA; and Great Britain doesn't maintain control of a number of colonies across most of the globe. But then, many American conservatives still look favourably upon the values of the men who signed their constitution - maybe a text from 1913 can pass on some wisdom that maintains truth and usefulness today.
Actually, maybe not. J4MB has quite an opinion of feminism:
Feminism is built upon baseless conspiracy theories – such as patriarchy theory, the idea that men (as a class) oppress women (as a class) – as well as fantasies, lies, delusions and myths. For over 40 years feminists have lied relentlessly about issues such as rape and domestic violence, making women excessively fearful of men, and in consequence hateful towards men as a class. Radical feminists never retract their lies, even when challenged with evidence proving them to be liars, which illustrates the propaganda nature of what they say. This is reflected in the mainstream media which very rarely expose the lies of feminists, however outrageous the lies might be.
The party states firmly that it is the only organisation in the country to concentrate seriously on the welfare, socially, personally and legally, of men; but J4MB shouldn't be taken seriously at all. I refuse to take seriously a political party that describes feminism and feminists in such a hand-waving and pathetic way. I refuse to take seriously a political party that makes lists of the most "toxic," "lying," "gormless" and "whiny" feminists on its website.
J4MB takes the easy approach to a debate - if the audience hasn't been swung by your rhetoric and good argument, you can just describe the other side as dishonest fruitcakes and incompetent liars. Feminists lying "relentlessly" for forty years? Radical feminists "never retract their lies"? What sweeping nonsense.
As J4MB put it in the manifesto: "It should be obvious to the reader that the flipside of 'advancing the careers of women' must be 'holding back the careers of men.'" But it seems as though J4MB believes that doing anything to advance the lives of women will directly hold back the welfare of anything else. J4MB isn't a serious party and I won't be taking its members seriously until they behave like adults.