Monday, February 12, 2007

Give me liberty or give me politeness

Anyone who's lived in a foreign country knows about cultural differences. In most western countries, when you pass a stranger (of either gender) on a staircase or meet them in an elevator, they greet you; in India they shrink from you. One of the oldest rules we are taught is "when you're a guest, do as your hosts do". (Or, "when in Rome, do as the Romans do.") Thus, I offer my hand in greeting women in the west, but not in India, unless they offer it first. On the other hand, when eating out with friends in India, I often pick up the whole tab (or someone else does); in the west, it's almost always carefully calculated and divided up, even if it was your host who suggested the idea. What's normal in one country can be rude in another.

But a comment I made on another blog, practically in passing,

"I'm totally of the opinion that if you want to live in France (or any foreign country) you should do as the locals do. The French are just as justified in finding burqas offensive, as the Saudis are in finding bikinis offensive."

drew an unexpectedly (to me) hostile response from one commenter, who calls such an attitude "coercive" and "oppressive" (and says much else). But what struck me as curious was this statement:

"A society can contract on any set of rules but a society which doesn't value or protect individual liberty will necessarily be an oppressive and coercive one."

The easy answer to that is, yes, French society is free to choose its rules, and if I find those rules oppressive, I'm free not to live in France.

But there's more to it than that. I have some sympathy for libertarian views, as frequently expressed on Lew Rockwell and other sites, without entirely subscribing to them myself.

Now, the above commenter says:

"Shouldn't a woman living in Saudi Arabia have the right to drive a car is she so pleases or wear a bikini?"

One question is, wear a bikini where? On most Indian beaches, it would be frowned upon. On most western beaches it's normal and expected, but in most western city centres, it would not be much appreciated either, if not actually illegal. On the other hand, complete nudity would be illegal in most places (including most beaches) -- but is not illegal in Barcelona (though not uncontroversial there either). There are smaller resorts where nudity is perfectly acceptable.

Does that mean that these should be the standards all over the world? A consistent libertarian would (or should) say yes. But most of us would not be so sure (even if we are not personally offended by nudity). Every society in the world has conventions that have taken root over hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Before uprooting them, we would want to balance the benefit against the cost of upsetting a large fraction of society. If it's child marriage, or dowry, clearly society benefits from getting rid of such traditions. (Yes, these examples involve imposing bans, but I hope most libertarians will support the bans.) If it's smoking in public places, I'm of the opinion that society benefits from banning it; others disagree. If it is a particular dress code, the benefit of suddenly uprooting it is less clear to me. If we were to allow bikinis, much less nudity, on beaches in Saudi Arabia (or Chennai's Marina!) we will, in the short term, need police protection for the wearers of those bikinis. But libertarians loathe the police. So we will want to allow bikini-wearers to carry weapons for defence. So we will need to relax our gun laws. You see the slippery slope. (I'm not entirely joking. These are often actual libertarian arguments.)

Coming back to the burqa question: if revealing clothing is impolite in many countries, hiding one's face is regarded as impolite in Western societies. I said above, somewhat flippantly, that those who disagree are free not to live in France. But for second-generation immigrants it's not so easy to leave. Isn't there an argument for saying that a community of citizens, however small, has the right to practise its religious customs?

Well, suppose there were a religious community in India that believed in not wearing clothes: would we allow them in our cities? In fact there is precisely such a community, the Jains, a very old community that originally did not wear clothes. Over time they split into two sects, the Digambar (naked) and Swetambar (white-clothed). Today practising Digambars have practically vanished, and most Jains I know don't even object to coloured clothes. Would we tolerate a large community of Digambar monks moving around freely without clothing in our cities, even though their heritage is at least as old as anyone else's in India? If the answer is no, why should we expect other cultures to be accepting of burqas, which are not part of their heritage at all?

Politeness isn't the most serious issue with hiding your face or wearing loose swaddling clothing: there's also the question of security, as jewellers in Pune recently discovered. A consistent libertarian should argue that a jeweller is free to debar burqas from his private shop; but the commenter above called such a ban "bigoted" and "petty" (probably because he misread me as saying the French had done it). And indeed, the jewellers backed down, I believe. In contrast, I don't know of any crimes attributable to nudists: the Digambars are the most non-violent people in the world.

And after all, the burqa ban in France is only in public schools. Women are free to wear burqas elsewhere, and are free to choose a private school.

Perhaps in an ideal world, the French would be happy with burqas and we would be happy with bikinis on public beaches. Neither of us are there yet. But the western world is unquestionably further along the road of religious freedom and individual liberty. Let us catch up before berating them on burqas.


Anonymous said...

Hey Rahul,

You wrote:

"Perhaps in an ideal world, the French would be happy with burqas and we would be happy with bikinis on public beaches. Neither of us are there yet. "

Well, we're on the same page then. Almost. I would not use the word perhaps, nor the word happy.

"Jiyo aur jeena do" will be quite enough.

Also, I don't have a problem with nudity and I don't have a problem with burqas. If most Indians do have a problem with nudity then should the accident of my birth preclude me from criticizing the French or the Indians?

I think not.


Rahul Siddharthan said...

Anshuman -- as long as you're consistent in your libertarianism, no criticisms. I happen to think it's an unworkable philosophy in practice (and the US, whose founding fathers were basically libertarian, has drifted pretty far from those ideas). But trying it on an experimental basis in a small closed society would be a nice idea.

Beyond that, I was specifically trying to point out that there are libertarian arguments to (a) allowing a free society to make its own laws about clothing and (b) allowing jewellers the right to restrict people wearing certain kinds of attire from entering their own shops.

Anonymous said...


I have never referred to myself as a libertarian, nor do I think I would pass the duck test, simply based on my comments on bandafbab's blog( I would imagine that my belief in self-ownership and individual liberty should be insufficient).

You wrote :
"there are libertarian arguments to (a) allowing a free society to make its own laws about clothing and (b) allowing jewellers the right to restrict people wearing certain kinds of attire from entering their own shops."

I fail to see why you think I would disagree with you and what I wrote in my first post that would make you think so.

For example:


I think a person should be free to not let burqa clad women enter their shops. But if that person does so then I am free to not have anything to do with that person and free to call her a bigot. I don't recall saying that the french should 'not be allowed' to be bigots.


I think a group of people should be free to believe that their hearts and minds and dreams and aspirations and talents and property are all ultimately owned by their community/country/society/party and if they want to sacrifice themselves at the alter of their favorite -ism then its their business. I just reserve the right to not want to have anything to do with such schemes, I reserve the right to crap my pants at the idea of my life being owned by some institution and I reserve the right to bitch about it.


Anonymous said...

typo: altar


Rahul Siddharthan said...

Clearly you're a libertarian whether you call yourself one or not. But I don't see why you bitch about a country where you don't live and (I imagine) haven't experienced life.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I agree with are messed up dude..It is only 'cos of people like you coming up with the whole realism versus idealism argument that the world is messed up. Just 'cos the saudis ban bikinis doesnt lead to the French banning burqas...if you take that argument to its logical is unimaginable what the results can be..Lets see what happens if the tamil government bans sambhar and dosa and then you are left craving dosas..

Anonymous said...

assuming anshuman and the other 'anonymous' are not female.. I want to give a woman's perspective on this issue. I think it all comes down to self regulation & survival. I used to wear shorts quite a lot in US, but since i moved back to India, I would not do that. Not because I don't like wearing them anymore, but it would 'cost' me more to do so, in a society which is to a some extent a repressed one when it comes to skin show. So here I do have the 'liberty' to do as I want, but I choose not to do so on a survival basis and I will self regulate it.

If I didn't want to stop doing it and if wearing shorts was my number one priority ( over being close to parents etc.,), AND that I wished to be not gawked at, I should not come back to this country!! it is as simple as that..of course one has the right to 'bitch' about it.. but others are also free to find such fruitless arguments quite odious after a while.

all 'ultra libertarianism' goes out of window or any other orifice, when lechers are hovering around to attack you based on an "assumption" that you must be a 'loose' person (??) to be dressed that way!

I think this is what Rahul is referring to about 'freedom' with respect to ideal world & real world!


Rahul Siddharthan said...

Vani - yes, also that's what I was referring to when I mentioned police protection or weapons for self-defence. If you could carry around a taser to take care of molesters, and if other women did the same, the problem would quickly sort itself out. But other problems would arise. Libertarians are very pro-gun in the US, and defend the second amendment (right to bear arms) stoutly, but the US is one of the most violent societies in the world.

Tabula Rasa said...

i think the second anonymous post was just hilarious. rahul, if you're willing to tolerate the flame, i'd invite him to keep going :-D

Rahul Siddharthan said...

tr - let's see if he'll be a regular reader... he (I presume it's he and it's a he) has also left a comment on an older post of mine

Tabula Rasa said...

hmmm, based on these two data points his standards seem to be slipping. sad.