We will force them to be free

In comments on the post below, Baybers links to this article in Britain’s Telegraph written by a Janet Daley. Using the recent niqab debate as a launching pad, Daley moves into a discussion about whether the state has the right to force people to be free and whether constituents have an obligation to accept all of the freedoms that are provided to them.

Does a woman have a “right” to repudiate the freedom to be treated as an equal by society? No, she does not. If mandated democratic governments have passed laws that say that women should be educated, enfranchised and treated the same as men by the law, then that is the judgment of the nation as a whole and should be accepted by all those who reside here.

Being “free” does not mean that you can pick and choose among the freedoms that are on offer, as if the political culture were a supermarket. It is as much an undertaking on your part to uphold the responsibility of freedom as it is the undertaking of the government to safeguard it. Under this formulation, freedom does not mean what you choose it to mean: it means what the nation as a whole has decided is in the best interests of all the people.

In other words, Daley is advocating the tyranny of the majority: the demand that all citizens of the state must comply with what the state decides is ‘freedom’. If the judgment of the nation as a whole”, as embodied by the laws of the state, is that women should be free to uncover their hair or their faces, as it is in the United Kingdom and Australia, then those women that still decide to cover should be opposed.

This idea of the “judgement of the nation” to which all must submit seems awfully similar to the idea of the “General Will” advanced by the father of fascism, Rousseau. Rousseau argued that the state should force men to be free; an idea that formed part of the ideological pedigree for Robespierre and the Reign of Terror that followed. Indeed, these same arguments about the state’s ability to discern this General Will and the necessity of enforcing it on all people forms the basis for much of the killing of the 20th century. It is a recipe for totalitarianism and yet that seems to be exactly what Ms Daley is advocating in her piece.

A more sensible alternative to the broader challenge of building ‘cohesiveness’ out of people of different faiths and cultures can be found in this piece by Peter Saunders. Referring to the work of Emile Durkheim, Saunders argues that, in a pluralistic and diverse society such as Australia or the United Kingdom, “it is a mistake to try to create a cohesive society by getting everyone to subscribe to the same values and march to the same tune.”

He concludes:

What is necessary, though, is that everyone respects the right of others to be different. Durkheim called this the core value of individualism – the distinctively modern idea that individuals have a right to their own beliefs, that they should be allowed to pursue their own version of the good life, and that they should allow their neighbours to do likewise.

This seems an infinitely more sensible approach to the issue. If a Muslim woman’s version of the “good life” is to live her life in accordance with the teachings of Islam then that should be tolerated, as should the right of one’s non-Muslim neighbours to live their lives with similar freedom.