Public Space and Personal Prerogative

by A. Jay Adler on April 19, 2010
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One of my pleasures in reading Norm Geras, over at Normblog across the pond, is that I very close to always agree with him, a pleasure in self-confirmation I do not pursue with excessive regularity. However, I stumbled upon a point of disagreement, and Norm has responded to my partial dissent from his views on the wearing of the niqab. Norm considers any public bar to the wearing of the niqab, whatever his own opinion on the garment may be, to constitute an illiberal act. I qualifiedly agree, while allowing that the French approach, applied to all conspicuous religious displays in school, is a reasonable alternative. Norm’s point of disagreement with me, now, is something a bit different, though. I stated at one point,

Whatever religious, philosophical, or psychic justification the wearer of the niqab may offer for the dress, another individual, even a teacher, is within her own human integrity to find the obscured human face, the withholding of what others openly present – an affront. Legal restriction, it may be, should not be founded on an affront, but neither should an individual be compelled to accept it.

Norm responds

The apparent symmetry of the ‘not… neither’ statement here might suggest that a reasonable balance is being struck: on the one hand, no legal compulsion merely to protect people from affront; on the other hand, no compulsion to accept the affront either. In a liberal society, however, there is nothing at all reasonable about this balance. If individuals have extensive rights and freedoms … then, in one critical sense, all of us are indeed obliged to accept things which affront us, provided these do not also harm anyone, violate their rights or liberties. Of course, we don’t have to like what affronts us, and if we dislike something enough we don’t have to tolerate it in spaces over which we have exclusive rights. You don’t want someone wearing the niqab in your house or your car? You don’t want a crucifix or a yarmulke or a shirt bearing the logo of French Connection UK worn there? Then you aren’t obliged to accept any of them. But in spaces over which you don’t have rights of control you can’t forbid them. And there’s a second sense in which you needn’t accept what affronts you. You don’t have to pretend to be happy about it. You’re free to tell the bearer of the affront what you think of it, and of her for putting the affront your way. But, once again, you do have to accept that she may go on putting it your way in shared spaces, and in that sense you are compelled to accept it – or should be in a liberal society.

The context of Jay’s argument concerns what teachers accept from their students. Naturally, teachers are free, even in a liberal society, to restrict usages and behaviours that obstruct or disrupt the educational process. But a teacher’s being merely affronted, if he can show no more legitimate complaint than this, is not to the point.

First, in the nature of “public space,” I think we need to make some distinctions. What Norm seems mostly to have in mind is the notion of the public commons – the streets and parks and public buildings, even the public avenues of communication, to which we all have unqualified access, and I agree that there we must all accept whatever might affront us, in regard to each of our individual rights of being and expression. Even in this context, though, I would note an exception. Within that public space, while we have entered it, we each of us have a temporary and shifting perimeter of personal space. The extent of this space, we know, varies among cultures, but we all know when it has been violated by an unwelcome someone who has come too close. In the U.S., one current, popular advisory in response to this breach of the perimeter is “Get out of my face.” If we imagine that an individual, again unwelcome, stood too close, and that I turned in order to rid myself of the violation, and that whenever I turned, the offending party turned to be in my face yet again – well, in that case I would have cause to be aggrieved. Someone is pressing on me a contact – if speaking to me, a communication – that I do not wish to accept. I would have cause, I think, to call on the local constabulary to bring an end to what amounted to harassment. Even in the public commons, there is space that temporarily is each of ours individually, within which we have the prerogative to reject unwelcome forms of communication and contact.

Norm writes, “You don’t want someone wearing the niqab in your house or your car? You don’t want a crucifix or a yarmulke or a shirt bearing the logo of French Connection UK worn there? Then you aren’t obliged to accept any of them. But in spaces over which you don’t have rights of control you can’t forbid them.” But I did not speak of forbidding anything. I wrote of a personal prerogative to reject a particular form of unwelcome communication, in a particular kind of public space, and I spoke of not merely the presence of some unwelcome, typical religious or other symbol, but of a form of direct contact that violates, I think, what is for most people the first principle of trustful and welcome communication: the handshake, the hand held open and up, the ability to look into each other’s face and read as best we can the nature of the person before us. You show me yours; I’ll show you mine. The niqab is a violation of this first principle.

I included in my post a comical photo of a cat claiming to hide while its entire body is obscured, but its face revealed. The comedy, of course, is that if the face is visible, one is not hidden. If it is not visible, one is profoundly hidden, even if located in space.

In reaching my conclusion that the wearing of the niqab should not be banned in general, I purposely removed the religious component from my consideration, and considered only the matter of a person’s right, indeed, to hide, to cover oneself and be obscured from the full view of others. But now let’s consider that right within the confines of that very particular kind of public space I spoke of in my post – a school classroom.

I wrote of various kinds of behavior that teachers are empowered to prohibit in the classroom. Some of these – telephone or music headsets, for instance – are barred not because they interfere with any other student and disrupt the classroom (they don’t, and this is the argument the student always makes in defense), but because they remove the student from the communication of the teacher, and to accept such barriers is to acknowledge the acceptability, however much students may remove themselves mentally, of students carving out a space in the classroom where they may be removed physically from communication with the teacher. Should we imagine, then, that it is acceptable for students to attend class wearing paper bags over their heads, or  masks, or huge blankets or sheets that cover their heads and bodies? What instructor would accept this? What institution?

Why would institutions and teachers not accept this attire? Not because of disruption to the class, which, if there were any to begin, could be overcome. It would not be accepted because of the withdrawal and secrecy involved, the hiding from view of the activity and even of the identity beneath, all of which is an affront to that fundamental venture toward trust in human communication. To whom is the teacher even speaking? Who is attending the class beneath the cover each day? What is going on under cover that might permit the student to absent herself even as there is a pretense of presence?

In a classroom, every student is sitting, in whatever configuration, in a direct relation to the instructor, and is in direct communication with the instructor, just as is that person standing directly before one in the public commons. The affront of masking oneself is not any affront, like the expression of a disfavored idea, of which we must all be tolerant as a support for our own freedom of expression. (And even so, there are classroom limits: if I am teaching Flannery O’Connor, there may be discussion of notions of the grotesque and of Catholic theology, but I will not be accepting commentary on healthcare reform or sanctions against Iran.) The affront of masking is one of offense against openness in communication itself. A classroom should require minimum, mutual conditions for communication, and any individual should have the right to reject communication that is not offered in that spirit of mutuality.

Finally, then, if all this is true of masking in general, independent of the claims of religious practice, why then should any religious claim be granted the right of imposition on existing cultural norms – when without the religious claim no such right would be acknowledged – and on the integral right of any individual to assent to the nature of the communication in which he or she engages? If the state is secular and not theocratic, it should not bow to such impositions, and to define the liberal state as one that must bow to the impositions of all religions would direly weaken secular liberalism. An argument can be made from all of this that any form of masking be prohibited in the classroom. Certainly, each person has the right to reject it for him or herself.

AJA


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