Friday, 29 December 2006

On the Veil

In a footnote to an earlier blog entry, "In Praise of Shoplifting", reference was made to the practice of Muslim women wearing the veil. Since then that footnote has made me somewhat uneasy since the debate around the veil is so politically charged that a throw away remark can easily be misconstrued. So I thought I would clarify my position a little by reflecting on the current debate...

Firstly I want to express my reluctance to engage with this debate at the current time. For the debate itself has been an attack on heterogeneous Britain. The media affects to be carefully and responsibly discussing serious difficulties around the health of Britain as a multicultural society; yet, throughout the debate, all of these difficulties are firmly located in the domain of the "ethnic minorities". Why is veil-wearing more of a threat to multicultural society than binge-drinking? Simply because the latter is never seen as a "cultural issue" because it is a problem (primarily) occurring in the locus of the white majority...

A white majority which is endlessly reassured by a smug and pious newspaper press. The newspapers devote column inches to the subject of the veil, they pontificate and fulminate, but most of all they self-congratulate: "Look at us!" the headlines scream, "We are evidence of a healthy pluralism in action! We are the free press!" And yet the opinion which they promote is frequently in favour of homogeneity and small-minded little Britain. (And all this is not to mention that the originator of the debate was the foreign secretary as this nation bombed Muslims in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. Hardly a voice with a moral authority...(1) )

Nonetheless, and despite this departure point, I have no intention of opposing the reactionary mores of the West to the extent that I am seen to support conservative Islam. Religious and cultural fundamentalism should be opposed wherever they are found. And it is undeniable that some of the voices defending the right of a woman to wear the veil are chauvinists who do not defend the right of a woman to choose either way.

Such voices have been rightly criticised. There have been words of wisdom in amongst the jingoism, the most legitimate criticism generally coming from the corner of Western feminists. (See, for instance, this interesting article by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.)

However some in that Western feminist corner may not have bargained with the assertions of some Muslim women who assert their right to wear the veil as an act of resistance against a culture (the West) which is forever vilifying them as Muslims. They are taking ownership of a symbol which in Western feminist discourse typically characterises as a symbol of patriarchy. Islamic feminist discourse is redefining the symbol as one of resistance: The primary differentiation in the act of wearing the veil is changed and the consequent value of the action is transformed.

The transformation that is claimed is very significant. The process is described in post-structuralism, a system of thought which I don't pretend to understand at all. However a simple point of reference is that of one's primary enemy. In feminism that primary enemy is patriarchy and the battle lines are drawn in such a way that patriarchy is always on the other side; within the feminist discourse actions are interpreted in terms of the relationship with patriarchy. In today's world however many Muslim women define primarily as Muslims and, for them, the first enemy is the Islam-demonising West. Thus in wearing the veil they are defying that enemy and acting assertively. (2)

I'll be honest: I still feel uncomfortable with this; although I can well imagine that this is due to my exposure to a relentless Western media. Still I would much rather Muslim women used some other symbol to oppose the West - it would make me feel much more able to be in solidarity with them (not that this is a good enough reason for them to change their habits).

My primary concern relates to the comment from my earlier blog that stimulated this piece. It is simplistic to argue that if a Muslim woman says she has chosen to wear the veil then she should be allowed to make that choice. As stated in “In Praise of Shoplifting”, people suffering oppression or tyranny often make statements of support for the system which keeps them down. They have “internalised the oppressor” to the extent that they self-oppress; they follow the narrow, oppressive path which has been mapped out for them without any overt whips being cracked to keep them in line.

Thus when I hear Muslim women asserting that they have chosen the veil I do not know whether this is the assertion of an internal patriarch or a remodeled feminist. I won’t presume to draw a conclusion either way – this debate was started by a middle-class white man making pronouncements regarding Muslim women and the last thing we need is more of the same. What is clear is that this is for Muslim women to work out. And more power to them...

(1) I heard a man on the radio describe Jack Straw’s initiation of this debate as “one of the most courageous acts of the year”! Words fail me.
(2) Look what the West has achieved with its War on Terror! We have usurped patriarchy as the primary oppressor in a Muslim woman’s life.

Monday, 18 December 2006

The Uncomfortable Truth

Last Wednesday I participated in a blockade of Faslane nuclear submarine base in Scotland. After 40 minutes on the road chained to hippies, I then spent 24 hours in a police cell. While in the cell I had George Orwell's "The Road to Wigan Pier" and a pencil and paper. This blog entry was written in that 24 hours...

Humanity has, it seems, a biological inclination towards dogma. Adrift in a world of immense complexity our disoriented consciousness seeks anchorage on any doctrine definite enough to give an illusion of explanation.

This inclination makes a strange companion to the more celebrated instinct of curiosity. We have immense powers of inquiry but we are at times too scared to use them. We will settle for the first system of ideas which we encounter and, once settled, will vigorously overlook the contradictions which life will inevitably send our way.

Wisdom, it seems to me, is precisely and entirely the quality which allows us to resist our tendency to dogma. Specifically, wisdom undermines our own inclination towards adopting any particular dogmatic standpoint and it opens our eyes to the dogmatic approach of other people.

Such a definition occured to me while reading George Orwell's "The Road to Wigan Pier". This is the work of a wise (and compassionate) man. What is more it is the work of a man who describes himself as a Socialist, a label which, like any -ist or -ian, would immediately suggest a dogmatic mind at work.

Nonetheless Orwell's powers of criticism are sufficiently developed that he consistently avoids the pitfall of dogma. Take for instance the following short passage which occurs in the context of an expose by Orwell of the appalling housing conditions of workers in the North of England:

"It goes against the grain to say this, but one can see why it should be so. Ideally, the worst type of slum landlord is a fat wicked man, preferably a bishop, who is drawing an immense income from extortionate rents. Actually, it is a poor old woman who has invested her life's savings in three slum houses, inhabits one of them, and tries to live on the rent of the other two - never, in consequence, having any money for repairs." (p50)

Orwell's primary point in this section of the book is that the workers' lives are consistently blighted by the houses in which they live. Clearly the admission given in the quote does not undermine this argument in any way however one can see how he may have been tempted to overlook reality in favour of a stronger (albeit false) footing on the moral high ground! But he resists this temptation.

What is more, it is important to mention that "The Road to Wigan Pier" is a work full of opinions! Orwell rails against the living and working conditions of the industrial poor, the indifference of government and institutions, the cant of the mealy-mouthed middle classes. To convey all of this passionate feeling while maintaining a firm grasp on reality is quite an achievement.

Another example is given by his discussion of the spending habits of the workers. In particular their consistently wasteful and misguided spending habits and the corresponding efforts of some groups to educate workers in this matter:

"I have heard a communist speaker on the platform grow very angry about it. In London, he said parties of Society dames now have the cheek to walk into East End houses and give shopping lessons to the wives of the unemployed... First you condemn a family to live on thirty shillings a week, and then you have the damned impertinence to tell them how they are to spend their money. He was quite right - I agree heartily. Yet all the same it is a pity that, merely for the lack of a proper tradition, people should pour muck like tinned milk down their throats and not even know that it is inferior to the product of the cow."

Observe Orwell's (rare) capacity to hold two opinions in his head at the same time! A primary strength of Orwell's writing in this regard is that he is so clearly motivated by love and compassion. He writes of the working classes with respect and for their own sake. Although he argues in favour of Socialist solutions it is the people who are his primary concern, not Socialism as such. He can accept anomalies in people's behaviour, inconsistencies like those exemplified above, and still hold Socialist convictions.

Too many Socialists however are stuck on the idea that poor people are good, rich people are bad and Socialism is the answer. They do all they can to fit the world into this formula and disregard any inconvenient truth. They are not at all interested in those poor people of whom they talk, their preoccupation is the formula. Orwell, to his immense credit, will have none of it.

The final example of Orwell's willingness to diverge from any kind of dogma is in his attitude to taste, tradition and aesthetics. He unhesitatingly admits to being of a different character, with very different interests, to many of the working class people that he describes. There are good reasons for this, and he deals with them in depth, but nonetheless a significant gulf remains. The honesty of his admission is striking.

In addition Orwell's sensibilities also diverge from those displayed by many of the Socialist orthodox; indeed, he writes, the presentation of Socialism can be such that it "revolts anyone with a feeling for tradition or the rudiments of an aesthetic sense." (p191) His quarrel here is with the style not the substance of Socialist thought, nonetheless his quarrel is a significant one. And it is a quarrel from which, typically, he does not shrink.

The independence of mind and integrity of thought displayed in "The Road to Wigan Pier" strongly prefigure Orwell's later works "1984" and "Animal Farm" in which he critiques the Soviet Socialist systems which have been so thoroughly corrupted by Stalinist totalitarianism. His preparedness to do this contrasts greatly with the (misplaced) loyality of many of his contemporary Socialist comrades.

As a working mathematician one of the most powerful tools at my disposal is Occam's Razor: The simplest explanation is often the best. A powerful tool this but when badly used it can also be greatly misleading. For oftentimes it is in the "exceptions to a rule" that the truly deep mathematics lie. Take for instance the new physics of Einstein - a system whose genesis lies in the slight aberrations observed in the physics of Newton.

It is a typical quality of a good scientist that she will unhesitatingly admit the inadequacies of a current system of thought - for it is only in this admission that the possibility of development, progress and learning exists. This is the wisdom of the scientist, a wisdom made more accessible by the quantitative nature of the work.

This wisdom reaches its limits however at the bounds of logic. A scientist must adopt some formal logical system and this will necessarily constrain what concepts and ideas may be entertained....

Now consider paradox, a statement that is both true and false, a statement that by its very structure lies outside of any logical system. It is true that science occasionally approaches paradox with statements such as "light is both a wave and a particle" however in general paradox has little role to play in the scientific world.

Nor indeed in the world of dogma - for what truth can be more uncomfortable than one which is also false?! And yet in the realm of human experience it seems to me that it is paradox which most readily describes the world around us. Any system of thought, when imposed upon the universe, contains within it the seeds of its opposite. Interesting truth, absolute truth, always comes in pairs: I have free will, I am a product of my character and my surroundings; I am insignificant and powerless, nothing is more important or powerful than me; I am mortal and will one day be altogether forgotten, my actions now are forever, affecting every moment that will ever be...

Some years ago I spent a horrendous night under the effect of magic mushrooms. As dawn approached and the horror subsided I spent a glorious couple of hours lying on my back and smiling ecstatically at my new and total understanding of the universe. I saw truth and truth was paradox. I smiled at the arrival of a new insight, only to smile again when I realised that the next insight was its opposite.... Sadly, as the effects of the mushrooms wore off, so too did my memory. I could not remember the earth-shattering gems that came to me in the night, I knew only that they were paradox. And yet somehow I was comforted by this new understanding; comforted by this uncomfortable truth.