Saturday, March 27, 2004

Update (More on Headscarves)

Discussion of the ban on wearing the hajib in French schools continues in the blogosphere. Peter Northrup has a nice summary and consideration of the arguments which Patrick Weil, a member of the commission which suggested the policy, makes in defense of criticisms of the ban. Weil's basically argues that the ban on headscarves and other "ostentatious" religious symbols was a result of the desire to protect female Muslim school students who preferred to go without headscarves from harassment and bullying by those (mostly male) students who believed they should wear them; Peter asks the obvious question: why not punish the bullies, then, as opposed to those Muslim girls who did choose to where the hajib? Jacob T. Levy is even less sympathetic to Weil than Peter. As I've written before, I'm in complete agreement with Peter and Jacob (and Scott Martens too) regarding this ban: it stinks. However, I think I have to side with Mark Kleiman when he criticizes the analogy which Jacob makes use of. Jacob writes:

"The following case seems straightforwardly analogous to me. The governor of a southern state circa 1960 has accepted the integration of the public schools, but refers to interracial dating by students as an assault against the state's values. A commission is convened, and finds that students involved in interracial dating are routinely threatened or beaten by other students. In sadness more than in anger, and in order to protect the victims, it recommends a ban on interracial dating--or at least on ostentatious displays of same, like holding hands in hallways--along with a number of other reforms to promote improved race relations. The governor does the obviously-expected thing, adopts the recommendation for the ban and ignores the rest."

Mark writes that he fails "to see the analogy between banning a behavior that is being repressed by violence [like interracial dating] and banning a behavior that is being enforced by violence [like wearing a headscarf]." For Jacob, the analogy holds because "in both cases, the wrong students [headscarf wearers and interracial daters] are getting coerced, and they're getting coerced under cover of their own protection by a government that openly wanted rid of the targeted behavior for reasons unrelated to the violence."

Generally speaking, I think Mark is correct in thinking that there is a not insignificant difference between banning an activity that is currently being subject to unjust repression and banning an activity which indirectly gives rise to opportunities for repression. The former would be directly giving into violence (you can't walk down that alleyway anymore; muggers lay in wait there); the latter is acknowledging and attempting to pre-emptively redress the conditions of violence (we're no longer allowing cities to build unlighted alleyways, because they become hide-outs for muggers; our apologies to those of you who really valued the thrill of walking down dark alleyways). Obviously, the best of all possible worlds is the world where there are no muggers in any alleyways, and where French schools lack any Muslim students willing to harass those who don't conform. Lacking that world, one can still make a distinction, I think, between decisions that are craven responses to violence and those that are concerned about the environment conducive to such.

Jacob wouldn't care for that answer, I suspect, because he probably would be made uncomfortable by all this "condition" talk. The fundamental matter in his view, very likely, is the simple fact of individual coercion in the name of some authoritatively determined standard. In his hypothetical, couldn't interracial dating fall afoul to "positive" concerns about the "environment" of the school just as easily as to simple complicity with bullying and blackmail? Indeed it could. But that's why I think, analogy or no analogy, it is insufficient to assess proposals like these simply in terms of the rights or choices or freedoms directly or "pre-emptively" lost; you also have to qualitatively assess the "authoritatively determined standard" which lurks behind the proposal. I oppose the headscarf ban not simply because it is a poorly conceived assault on the liberty of many French students, but because the laicized end-state which the French government clearly prefers is a crummy one. That is, not even the reasons "unrelated to the violence," as Jacob put it, stand up to good scrutiny here. So I agree with Jacob, though only partly because of the coercion of liberty involved; I am bothered at least as much, if not more, by the state's failure to conceive a proper fraternity as well.