Sarah Braasch, bless her cotton socks, is the self-styled social justice warrior who recently got herself driven out of a doctoral program at Yale by her pitchfork-wielding fellow students, and brutally pummeled in social media, for having called the cops on a black student for being where she had every right to be.
The world is not always kind to those who can’t quite live up to their own ideals.
But that’s an old saw, and I turned in my own pitchfork years ago.
Instead what I want to blog about here are two opinion pieces that Braasch contributed some time earlier, one to the Humanist and another to Daylight Atheism, on the Patheos site, in which she advocated a worldwide ban on the burqa. The Humanist has recently deleted her post for its racist content – of which there was none, but that hardly matters once the mob is intent on a lynching – whereas Patheos, to its credit, stuck to its mandate to post arguable arguments. Here, at the risk of incurring a charge equivalent to distributing child pornography, are the URLs for both:
Braasch’s case for the burqa ban was not the first time she revealed herself as perhaps not the sharpest pencil in the box. But though the argument is flawed, it’s by no means stupid. Nor is it in any way racist. The pitchforkers who think it is just don’t know how to parse an argument.
Which, to be fair, requires training they simply don’t have. This is why only at one’s peril does a philosopher – in her case an aspiring one – advance an argument in the public forum. For the hoi polloi the unit of meaning is the sound-bite, not the sentence, so a ‘not’ can go entirely unnoticed. One dare not use irony, or speak in voce. So in failing to anticipate the literacy level of her readership, Braasch has no one to blame but herself.
That was irony, by the way. There is no way to outsmart the stupidity of stupid people.
Fortunately, unlike Braasch, I can get away with in voce, irony, and embedded negations. This is because I’m tenured, and I’m in the autumn of my career. I figure if you’re too stupid to follow any of the arguments I’ve made on these blog entries, well, in the words of Rhett Butler, “Quite frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!”
This is not to say tenured professors can’t get into trouble. A certain Tony Hall was recently railroaded out of the University of Lethbridge for suggesting that the job of the historian is to revisit what happened, which, at the urging of a certain Goldie Morgentaler in the English Department, and B’nai Brith Canada, was interpreted – go figure! – as Holocaust denial.
So how does an historian or philosopher go about doing his job? I guess by speaking only to other historians or philosophers. But that leaves the widow to wonder why she’s paying the mite she can ill-afford to this navel-gazing echo-chamber. So we really are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Braasch did and got damned for it. If she’d kept her pen in its quiver she’d have been fine. So note to all would-be bloggers. Be careful what you write because somebody might actually read it!
Okay, enough throat clearing. Let’s look at her argument.
To her credit Braasch does not hang her case on the burqa being a symbol of Islamic misogyny, though she clearly thinks it is. She may think she’s qualified to pronounce on what’s being symbolized by the practices of others, but she knows perfectly well that for the law to so presume, well, this way there be dragons!
Nor does she argue that the wearing of the burqa is intended to thwart the capacity of the rest of us to know who we’re interacting with. After all, such asymmetry of knowledge would empower women, not disempower them, and Braasch is all for the empowerment of women.
Rather what she argues is that, even if only as an autonomous effect, the burqa does thwart the capacity of the rest of us to know who we’re interacting with. And, she seems to think, the rest of us have a right to know who we’re interacting with.
We wouldn’t have the right to ban the burqa if doing so would violate a competing right that would trump our right to know who we’re interacting with. Suppose, for example, that the very sight of a woman’s face would drive any and every man to rape. Then a woman’s right not to be raped would clearly trump our right to know who we’re interacting with. But, she argues – quite rightly, I think – not that there couldn’t be such a trump card, but that as a matter of fact there isn’t. For example, the right to practice one’s religion does not entitle one to deprive her child of a life-saving blood transfusion, nor to mutilate the genitalia of one’s pre-pubescent daughters. So, to paraphrase Braasch, Jehovah Witnesses and Somali Moslems, if they want to live in anything even marginally resembling a civil society, are just going to have to suck it up!
So given that she’s premising her argument on “the public’s right to know”, so to speak, Braasch acknowledges that the ban would have to apply to face covering in general, rather than the burqa in particular. Fair enough, say I. But do we always have a right to know who we’re interacting with? In some contexts, like making an over-the-counter withdrawal from a bank, certainly. But when blind-refereeing a paper for publication in a journal? Just as certainly not.
On the one hand, I like this end-run around the First Amendment. Instead of banning the KKK for their views we ban them for their hoods. Smooth! But hold on. In the final scene of the film V for Vendetta, thousands upon thousands of people march on the Houses of Parliament wearing Guy Fawkes masks. Why? Because under the regime being demonstrated against, being identified invites arrest, followed no doubt by something worse. Braasch seems to be insisting that oppressed people either suffer the courage of their convictions or continue to cower in their hovels. So what could she be hoping? That the very government that imposed the ban in the first place would lift it for, but only for, the purposes of its own overthrow? Defenders of the Second Amendment argue that the first thing a would-be tyrant will go after is our guns. They’re wrong. It’ll be our anonymity. And as Thomas Hobbes observed, surveillance is invariably the very first act of war.
So much for the premise that we have a right to know who we’re interacting with. But suppose, however reluctantly, that premise is granted. Now let’s consider the exceptions Braasch would have to countenance, and see what if anything would be left.
Start off with people who need to cover their faces not to hide their identity but to protect themselves or others. Me when it’s minus forty with a wind chill of minus sixty. Sunglasses. Pollution masks. Welders. Health care workers. Swat teams. All exempt.
People who can invoke the artistic defense, however widely construed. Actors in Greek tragedies. Clowns. Mascots. Santa. Mardi Gras. Kids out trick-or-treating on Halloween. All exempt.
Now let’s move on to costume parties and sex clubs. And what about people with severe facial disfigurements? And I’m pretty sure there’s a thousand more I haven’t thought of.
So who’s left? Moslem women who elect to wear the burqa, and Haerdi women who elect to wear the frumka. Well now, fancy that!
But it gets worse. Covering the face is not the only way one can disguise it. And disguising the face is not the only way one can thwart identification. Cognitive psychologists who work on understanding our facial recognition protocols – protocols naturally selected for given the centrality to our survival of being able to distinguish friend from foe at a distance – have told us that hairline is one of the first things we look at. So no covering the hair. Face painting. Highly questionable. Makeup, but not too much. Body shape. So the muumuu is out. Apparently even your gait can either give you away or disguise you. So, at the risk of flogging a dead horse, if the justification for the ban is the facilitation of identification, the argument proves too much.
Braasch makes the standard undergraduate mistake of hand-waving about how these exceptions are to be accommodated. How exactly would the law be written so I could wear a balaclava when it’s minus forty with a wind chill of minus sixty? Or is her claim that there’s no need to be identified when it’s that cold because no one thinks of misbehaving?
No, Sarah, hand-waving won’t do. If prosecution were left to the discretion of the police and conviction to that of the courts, we’d be back to banning the burqa qua burqa, which is precisely what she claims she doesn’t want to do.
In The Concept of Law H.L.A. Hart argues that hard cases make for bad law. He was wrong. It’s bad law if it can’t handle the hard cases. So if a law can’t be written to do what we want it to do – in this case facilitate identification – without doing what we don’t want it to do – namely fill our emergency rooms every February with victims of frostbite – then we’re simply going to have to live with what I’m sure will be a spate of bank robbers making it from the getaway van to the front door by masquerading as Somali immigrants.
But look. I am not among those accusing Braasch of being a racist or an Islamophobe. Neither then, would I expect her to accuse me, in offering the following counterproposal, of being a sexist pig. Instead of banning the burqa tout court, I propose the compulsory wearing of the burqa for, but only for, women who are, let’s face it, just butt ugly. That way if she’s wearing a burqa I won’t waste my time hitting on her. But when, and only when, it comes to women I would hit on, then I’m with Braasch. Thus understood, and only thus understood, her argument is a good one. It just needs to be, as just noted, a tad more fine-tuned.