Sunday, November 17, 2013

Headcovering Philosophy and Fear

"The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself." 

Click to read: "A Point of View: Behind the Veil", by Will Self, at BBC News online. 

An excerpt:

You've heard the quote. You've seen the fear of women with their heads covered, the fear of seeing a man in a turban, or the fear of seeing a young man wearing a hoodie and not knowing what he's up to. But have you seriously contemplated the philosophy of fear of cultural differences leading to cultural changes? As the author of this article points out in his point of view, culture is going to change in some way, whether we would prefer it or not. But how are we going to react? With ignorance and fear? Or with a knowledge shared?

. . . The only thing we have to fear is fear itself - and specifically our fear of cultural influence.

This is a fear that is seldom openly admitted to - or, rather, no sooner is it acknowledged than it is countered by an appeal to some incontrovertibly estimable aspect of what we take to be our own cultural heritage. There are manifold examples of this strange and neurotic dialectic, but let me concentrate on just one - the recent furore surrounding the admissibility of Muslim women giving evidence in British courts while veiled. I say furore, rather than controversy, because I don't think that many people - except hard-line adherents of political Islam - actually believe there's anything at issue here at all, and these same people don't believe in the jurisdiction of British courts anyway. For those of us who do accept this the assumption that truth-telling is best expressed by a steady gaze and an open face is so ingrained that it has never needed to be articulated - or, rather, no witness or defendant in a trial who wished to be convincing has heretofore considered it a good idea to stand up in court with their features obscured, whether by wearing the niqab or a joke-shop horror mask.
There may indeed be cases in which the indubitable piety and overweening modesty of some individuals requires a certain bending of convention, but on the whole I think we can afford to keep our nerve and look the truth about our cultural values full in the face. It is not that we need to worry that jurors and judges won't be able to assay the veracity of evidence given from behind the veil - after all, serving police, military personnel and members of the intelligence agencies are often allowed to do just this - it's that they may well be inclined to take it at its literal face value, which is obscured and therefore, ipso facto, dubious.
photo of french protest from Getty Images, attached to the BBC article