Humanist Perspectives: issue 152: Rhetoric, Relevance and Headscarves

letters from our readers
Rhetoric, Relevance & Headscarves

In the Winter 2004/05 issue of Humanist in Canada, Ernest Poser suggests that articles printed in the magazine should relate clearly to mainstream humanism. He then cites Part 1 of my essay The Tradition & Techniques of Satire: the Case of Michael Moore as an example of a piece that makes no attempt to relate to humanism. Our editor, Gary Bauslaugh, responded with a long and eloquent letter outlining his editorial outlook and policies.

But pity poor Gary, who has been beset with criticisms since day one. Certainly any editor taking over a beloved magazine would face criticisms when redesigning the publication and taking it in a somewhat different direction. I myself have expressed to Gary some of my own misgivings: I’d like to see more freelance articles; I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the idea of regular columnists; I’d like the front cover to indicate more precisely the issue’s contents; and, shucks, I do miss all the religion-bashing that the previous editors seemed to take so much joy in. Oh, how I do miss the religion-bashing!

Still, Gary has always met the criticisms eloquently, reasonably, and good-naturedly. I can’t improve upon or even hope to match his well-written response to Mr Poser, but I shall speak directly to Ernest’s misgivings about my own piece, since Gary wrote in more general terms.

First, in suggesting that the main thrust of the Michael Moore essay was to establish distinctions between Horatian and Juvenalian satire, and between the three classic Aristotelian appeals (ethos, pathos, and logos), Poser’s argument seems both reductive and dismissive. I have on rare occasions met with that kind of response to my work from the referees and editors of scholarly journals and book publishers, and I can’t say I like it any better when it comes from a fellow humanist. Still, Poser at least used the rhetorical device antanagoge — balancing an unfavourable aspect with a favourable one — in conceding that the Moore piece was nevertheless meritorious and enjoyable. But does it belong in Humanist in Canada?

It is, after all, something we might not expect in what would seem to be essentially a philosophical journal; it’s very largely a literary analysis, the sort of thing I do for a living as a professor of English literature. Okay, I thought, if Gary doesn’t want any of my religion-bashing articles, I’ll go along with his new vision for the mag and do something different, in part to show my intellectual versatility. Ego aside, I like the idea of drawing upon all the disciplines for Humanist in Canada: literature, science, social science, political science, philosophy, the fine arts, history, psychology, law. We have, after all, such an amazing pool of talent at our disposal in our readers and contributors. I like to think of the ideal humanist as a kind of Renaissance Man or Renaissance Woman — someone who dives into all the disciplines for a well-rounded view of the universe and humanity’s place in it. Regardless of what discipline it represents, any essay in our magazine, whether it makes an explicit connection to mainstream humanism or not, educates our readers and takes them one step closer to being well-rounded humanists and one step farther from the ignorance and narrow-mindedness of so many of the world’s religionists.

As for my own special studies, in examining Moore’s satirical tactics, I’ve done something to educate readers on rhetorical techniques (for satire is a rhetorical tool in itself). Knowledge of rhetoric is and always has been of vital importance, since we’re all subject to persuasive appeals on a daily basis — from preachers, teachers, advertisers, politicians, peers, colleagues. It’s useful to know rhetoric not only for the sake of our own suasive exercises but also to keep from getting hoodwinked! I want to help humanists sharpen their critical thinking skills, which makes them even better teachers, students, citizens, and consumers.

More specifically, I also wrote the essay to address Gary’s invitation to consider the question about means and ends. Do ends always justify means? Are the sometimes questionable rhetorical tactics of someone like Michael Moore justified by his desired ends — greater social justice? I don’t think I provided an answer that was entirely satisfactory to Gary, but then again, I explored the issue and had a great deal of fun doing it. I shall perhaps supply a better answer once I dip into and review two books on ethics that I own. But what’s important is that the issue of means and ends is one that humanists should be prepared to consider and debate. If we have indeed rejected the moral frameworks of the world’s religions, then where do we stand on the question of proper behaviour towards our fellow human beings? Did Moore, as editor of several polemical books and controversial films, act reasonably or improperly, according to moral or ethical standards? What would the religionists say? What would we humanists say? We should have our own answers. In exploring at length Moore’s techniques as a satirist, rhetorician, and polemicist, I hope I was able to help our humanist readers come up with their own answers.

Furthermore, although he’s a Catholic, I was, at least implicitly, holding up Moore as someone who in certain ways displays a similar world view and ethical standards as I hope secular humanists do: a disgust for sham and hypocrisy; a sense of indignation at America’s unholy trinity (the federal government, the military, and big corporations); and an urge to see a true liberal vision realized so that all people can actualize their potential without being hobbled by poverty, beset by bigotry, hampered by ignorance, trampled by corrupt politicians, and victimized by an insatiably greedy corporate class. I made a similar, though abbreviated point, at the end of Part 2, but an editorial decision was made to cut it.

The Moore article, then, was written for humanists and with humanists in mind. If Mr Poser would prefer that contributors to Humanist in Canada make some kind of explicit declaration clarifying the relation of their articles to mainstream humanism — perhaps in the introductory or concluding paragraphs — then he and I certainly would have no quarrel. I now see that perhaps I should have made the connection more explicitly or forcefully, as I hope I have done in this friendly letter.

Brett Zimmerman,
Toronto, Ontario

On March 15, 2004, France’s Jacques Chirac signed a law banning large symbols of religious affiliation in public schools. The law is based on a report of the French Stasi Commission, set up to reflect on the application of laïcité, or secularism. Officially, the law is on the grounds that ‘ostentatious’ displays of religious affiliation violate the secular nature of the public school system, as France is a secular society. Only large, visible religious symbols such as Muslim head scarves, Sikh turbans and Jewish yarmulkes are banned, while small Christian crosses are deemed acceptable, as are small Stars of David. It is widely acknowledged that the primary focus of the law is the Muslim headscarf called the hijab.

In its Summer 2004 issue, Humanist in Canada published an excerpt from The Ulster Humanist hailing France for this endorsement of secularism. But is it such a good thing? Will it be good for the young women it targets? Will it, in fact, protect secularism in France?

Supporters of the French law hope it will help young Muslim girls and women integrate better into French society and resist pressure to wear the hijab. Since the 1980s, more girls and young women have been wearing head coverings to school. Meanwhile, it’s clear that significant problems with the integration of Islamic communities into French society are at the root of rising fundamentalism, dissatisfaction and alienation. Many French Muslims live in large, suburban, ghetto-like housing projects or apartment towers, often with high unemployment and violent crime.

Most humanists would agree that it would be good to help young women resist pressure from their religious community to do something they don’t wish to do, and to limit religion in schools. However, critics of the law point out that it violates freedom of religious expression, one of the freedoms guaranteed by the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The recent law also bans Sikh and Jewish boys’ attire; for them, there is no argument to be made that the boys are an oppressed group within the religion, or that they need protection from that oppression.

It seems hypocritical to allow small symbols but not large ones, in light of the fact that the most commonly worn Christian symbol is a small cross. Should it matter how physically large a symbol is? Does a large symbol communicate more meaning, more strongly, than a small one? In France, Christmas, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and even Assumption are national holidays. This seems to be a large presence of Christian symbolism, going against secularism. It also seems hypocritical to dictate what these young women should wear, on the grounds that their community is oppressive in dictating what they should wear. Surely there are better tools against patriarchy and oppression.

Of course, the possible effects of the ban are very relevant. On the positive side, young women will, one hopes, be liberated from what is seen (at least by many non-Muslims) as a symbol of oppression, though this should not be confused with their liberation from the oppression itself. They will be free to choose how they dress (though only if what they would choose is not to wear the hijab). The idea is that they will not be forced into a fundamentalist way of life, and therefore will be more able to avoid a fundamentalist way of thinking and believing. They will, it is hoped, integrate better into French society.

But it’s entirely possible that this won’t be the effect. Instead of helping young Muslim women integrate into French society, the law may cause further polarization between the Muslim and mainstream communities. Daughters of fundamentalist families may be prohibited from going to school, and girls who choose to wear the hijab of their own free will will lose that choice.

Islam is often portrayed as violent and anti-Western; many Westerners see the scarf as symbolizing the oppression of women, or even representing a committed anti-Western sentiment. However, many women who wear the hijab say that it is more matter of modesty, cultural identity or Allah, and isn’t about sentiments towards the West. One reason for this difference could be how veils have been used in Christian societies in the past. 1 Corinthians 11 (3–10) offers one example:

For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man.

This difference brings up the question of how symbols are given meaning. Does the group displaying a symbol completely define its meaning? Or is part of the meaning in the eyes of the surrounding group(s)?

Imagine how we would feel if radical feminists were in power and our culture was identified as having sexist and patriarchal roots; if brassieres were seen as an oppressive symbol of sexism, and if suddenly young women, claiming that they felt the brassiere was about modesty and comfort, were forced to remove them to go to school.

I would be hesitant to claim that the ‘average’ interpretation of a symbol constructs its meaning, because this would give a majority group too much power in attributing meaning to symbols used by minority groups. I would propose that the users of a symbol should hold the most authority if there is a debate as to its meaning. Ideally, the surrounding group would be willing to re-evaluate what the symbol means, and the overall meaning would be constructed jointly.

Symbols are not only broadly defined and interpreted, but fluid. One woman who was interviewed in The Globe and Mail suggested that she could wear a permissible coloured bandana, instead of a hijab. If many women chose the same kind of head covering, it could take on a symbolic meaning similar to that of the head scarves. You can’t remove an idea by removing the symbol of that idea; ultimately, would all head coverings be banned? The World Peace Herald quotes Noura Jaballah, a member of the European League for Muslim Women, who claims that some school administrators have banned other head coverings: “Because she’s called Fatma, she’s not allowed to wear a hat. But if she were called Christine, then it would be all right.” Though this policy clearly seems discriminatory and ridiculous, it acknowledges that a physical object can mean different things to different people.

When enforcing secularism has been attempted, it has often failed. For example, in Communist Russia people took great risks to preserve and protect their religious symbols and beliefs. There is no guarantee that banning a symbol will reduce the beliefs underlying it, or lessen their importance to people.

There is also the question of whether it is a good idea to enforce secularism at all. And, while I’m not religious, I don’t think it is. The fact that I happen to hold secular beliefs doesn’t change the fundamental similarity between religious groups determining people’s religious beliefs for them, and secular authorities determining their lack of religious beliefs for them. Isn’t part of our belief in secularism over religion based on our notion that secularism is more rational, more thought-out, more consistent with empirical observation? In short, isn’t our belief in secularism based on an emphasis on critical discussion, rather than authority? A diversity of allowable starting points is necessary for people to have this discussion. This argues for solving ‘problems of integration’ through encouraging diversity rather than legislating homogeneity.

None of this is to say that the problems of young Muslim women in fundamentalist families, and in isolated ghetto-like suburbs, are not severe. But banning headscarves won’t slow fundamentalism, and it might cause more ‘problems of integration’ than it solves. Why not instead set up programs to increase employment in troubled suburbs? Or provide better public transportation so they are not so isolated? What about support for young women who feel they have been, or will be, forced to marry or otherwise mistreated? Why not take down some of the notorious housing projects, and replace them with something better?

As Jane Kramer (writing for New Yorker in November 2004) points out, there were 26 approaches to the “problem of Islamic integration” proposed by the Stasi Commission, many of them addressing serious economic and social inequities. But the ban on religious symbols was the only one implemented.

Caroline Colijn,
Montreal, Quebec