The Ethics of Human Rights (85): What is Tolerance?

Tolerance is another word for respect for human rights. You are tolerant when you’re confronted with people who exercise their rights in a way you don’t like and when you nevertheless allow or permit them to exercise their rights. The word “permit” implies that you could intervene with people exercising their rights if you wanted to – that, in other words, intervention is an option that is relatively costless to yourself and that is likely to succeed – but you refrain from intervention anyway. You are tolerant when you let people exercise their rights, not because you fear that intervention is costly or futile, but because you choose to let them exercise their rights.

That is also why tolerance of human rights violations is impossible and why tolerance is limited. We should tolerate people who exercise their rights but not those who violate the rights of others, and neither should we tolerate those who violate the rights of others while exercising their own rights. If tolerance is respect for human rights then tolerance of rights violations is by definition impossible. Hence, it’s more correct to say that tolerance is respect for human rights as long as those rights do not lead to violations of the rights of others.

People often view tolerance as no more than a convenient way to keep the peace, to co-exist with others and to avoid the possibly very high costs of trying to change the behavior or the beliefs of others. Making other people more like us would perhaps be better but it’s dangerous, especially if it requires the use of force. And when it does, it’s not just dangerous but also futile: forcing people to believe the right thing is impossible (correct beliefs come voluntarily from the inside). Hence the common view that tolerance is a fallback option when better things are impossible or too dangerous. When you can’t force people to change or when it’s too dangerous to try to change them, you have no choice but to tolerate them. Tolerance becomes a necessary evil.

However we could also view tolerance as an active and positive disposition rather than a passive declaration of defeat when faced with danger or an impossible goal. It can be seen as an active kind of respect for the rights of others. We are not really tolerant when we passively respect the rights of others simply because we have to, because violating those rights would be dangerous or because we can’t bring about the desired result anyway. We are tolerant when we actively choose to respect the rights of others even if we could easily and costlessly violate them. When you’re forced to be tolerant, when you have no better option and when you haven’t chosen to be tolerant you can hardly be called tolerant. In other words, tolerant people are those who believe they have a good reason to violate the rights of others (for example because they view other people’s exercise of their rights as immoral) but who decide not to violate them anyway for the simple reason that they don’t want to violate them. People who don’t violate the rights of the intolerable because they have no choice, because the risks are too great or because they can’t achieve what they want are not really tolerant.

Gender Discrimination (33): Reversing the Veil

Here’s an interesting story about the rule, common in many religions, against the exposure of the female body. Many Muslims and ultra-orthodox Jews argue that women should cover their hair with either a veil or a wig and should dress in such a way that their legs, arms, necks etc. are fully covered. Some go even further than this and claim that clothing prescriptions for women are insufficient: women should be segregated on busses, in public spaces, in schools etc. in order to minimize contact between the sexes. It’s assumed that men can only be protected against temptation and that society can only rid itself of the evil of illicit sexual relationships when contact with and exposure of women’s bodies are kept to a minimum.

Apparently, some ultra-orthodox Jews have understood that solving the problem of male temptation by restricting women’s freedoms is unfair. Hence, they are promoting special glasses that blur ultra-orthodox men’s vision, so they don’t have to see immodestly dressed women (source). The glasses are sold for $6. Obviously, they don’t only blur women but everything else as well. Everything up to a few meters is clear so as not to impede movement, but anything beyond that gets blurry — including women. Hoods and shields that block peripheral vision are also being offered.

Other orthodox Jews laugh at this and warn their fellow Jews to buy a crash helmet as well.

More on the veil here. More posts in this series are here.

Human Rights Promotion (3): When Human Rights Leave a Bad Taste in Your Mouth

Take for instance capital punishment. Human rights defenders normally reject it. And indeed, if you use your head and look at the data, and if you refine your moral compass, you can’t possibly reach any other conclusion. And yet, most of us, even the most ardent rights defenders, know cases in which they would like to see people die – perhaps even administer the lethal drug themselves. Emotions are hard to reason with. We swallow the logic of human rights, the data and the moral precepts, and yet in doing so they leave a bad taste in our mouths.

There are other cases. Take child labor. We know that it’s detrimental to a child’s education and hence her future prosperity, intellectual development and flourishing. It’s probably also harmful to her health. And yet, we accept it in certain cases because the alternative is even worse. In some place, there may be no education provision worthy of the name, and forcing a child away from work may aggravate the poverty of her family without doing much for the child’s education. Acquiescing in a child’s rights violations is better for her rights than doing nothing.

The same is true with sweatshop labor or the exploitation of poor migrants:

In Lant Pritchett’s view, countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait – which employ armies of guest workers, house them in labour camps, forbid them from organising unions, often deny them equal protection under the law and pay them the wages of an underclass – are actually doing more to redress the inequities of the world than western nations that maintain high labour standards but keep migrants out. (source)

In all these cases we’re faced with awful situations, but the alternatives are even worse; or, better, the realistic alternatives. If we could eliminate poverty overnight, open our borders, provide decent education and labor standards to all, and inject a conscience in all employers, we wouldn’t need to swallow dirt and leave a bad taste. But we can’t, not now at least.

Another example is the veil. We should allow Muslim women to dress modestly because we want to respect freedom of religion and because we don’t want to treat those women as lesser human beings who don’t have the agency to stand up against patriarchy and who need to be liberated by us enlightened folk. And yet, at the same time we know that we may be endorsing and promoting a symbol of oppression and thereby oppression itself. We also know that there are women who are forced to hide themselves, but we don’t know which. And finally, we know that dressing modestly renders some activities difficult, and that women as a result may not be able to fully develop themselves. And yet we swallow, because the alternative – forcing all veiled women to uncover – would be worse.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics (32): The Questioner Matters

I’ve discussed the role of framing before: the way in which you ask questions in surveys influences the answers you get and therefore modifies the survey results. (See here and here for instance). It happens quite often that polling organizations or media inadvertently or even deliberately frame questions in a way that will seduce people to answer the question in a particular fashion. In fact you can almost frame questions in such a way that you get any answer you want.

However, the questioner may matter just as much as the question.

Consider this fascinating new study, based on surveys in Morocco, which found that the gender of the interviewer and how that interviewer was dressed had a big impact on how respondents answered questions about their views on social policy. …

[T]his paper asks whether and how two observable interviewer characteristics, gender and gendered religious dress (hijab), affect survey responses to gender and non-gender-related questions. [T]he study finds strong evidence of interviewer response effects for both gender-related items, as well as those related to support for democracy and personal religiosity … Interviewer gender and dress affected responses to survey questions pertaining to gender, including support for women in politics and the role of Shari’a in family law, and the effects sometimes depended on the gender of the respondent. For support for gender equality in the public sphere, both male and female respondents reported less progressive attitudes to female interviewers wearing hijab than to other interviewer groups. For support for international standards of gender equality in family law, male respondents reported more liberal views to female interviewers who do not wear hijab, while female respondents reported more liberal views to female respondents, irrespective of dress. (source, source)

Other data indicate that the effect occurs in the U.S. as well. This is potentially a bigger problem than the framing effect since questions are usually public and can be verified by users of the survey results, whereas the nature of the questioner is not known to the users.

There’s an overview of some other effects here. More on the headscarf is here. More posts in this series are here.

Religion and Human Rights (27): Muslim Headscarves – Between Religious Liberty and Gender Discrimination, Ctd.

Once more on the issue of Muslim headscarves, because the controversy doesn’t seem to be going away. Belgium, my home country, has the dubious honor of being the first western country outlawing the burqa. Other countries like France seem set to follow, or have already interpreted existing laws on masks or police checks creatively in order to impose fines on women wearing a veil. Forcing Muslim women to show their faces is no longer a fringe xenophobic fantasy.

First of all, and before you get upset that a human rights activist such as me doesn’t take a more outspoken position against the veil, let me stress that I do worry a lot about gender discrimination (as regular readers can attest). I do believe that the veil – especially the complete face and body veil such as the burqa or the niqab – is an expression of a culture in which equal rights for women are – to put it mildly – not a priority. That doesn’t mean that every woman who wears a veil does so because of coercion or discrimination, or because she doesn’t have a right not to. Some do, but others wear it voluntarily, although the degree of “voluntariness” is something that’s always difficult to establish given the subtle effects of social pressure, tradition and education that are often difficult to notice – even for the self. However, it can be argued that also those women who wear the veil in a truly voluntary way – if truly voluntary can be something real, which I hope – contribute to an ideology of female inferiority and make it harder for other women who would like to remove the veil to do so.

Moreover, there can be different motives for wearing the veil voluntarily. Women can believe that this is a requirement of their religion (the Quran only seems to require “modest dress”), and that disregard of such requirements amounts to sin. Or women can decide to wear the veil for strategic reasons. They may believe – correctly I think – that wearing the veil enhances their freedom, for example their freedom of movement. One can argue that this strategic use of the veil isn’t truly voluntary, but that doesn’t make it wrong. I’m personally open to the argument that a prohibition of the veil can result in de facto house arrest for some women: their husbands may decide to force them to stay at home if they aren’t allowed to wear the veil in public. Now you might say that one evil doesn’t excuse another, but there is something called a lesser evil (I’ve made a similar point about sweatshops not so long ago). If wearing the veil allows women to venture outside of the home that is undoubtedly a positive side effect of something that in general may be a moral negative.

What about the arguments in favor of prohibition? Some of them are very weak indeed. It’s not because the veil makes some people uncomfortable that it should be prohibited. It’s not difficult to imagine the horror of the place where everything that makes someone uncomfortable is outlawed. Security risks also aren’t a very strong reason for a general ban, since women can be required to lift their veil in specific circumstances. The argument that modern democracies should be “secular” and that this requires the banning of religious symbols in public is indefensible in view of the human right to freedom of religion.

Some claim that the ban on the burqa is just one of many existing and undisputed restrictions on how people can dress in public: people can’t walk naked in the streets; or wear stockings on their heads inside bank buildings etc. But this confuses types of dress that are not religiously inspired with types that are. Religion does receive special protection in the system of human rights, and this special protection should be recognized if human rights are to be respected. Conflating religious dress with dress in general does not allow you to fully respect human rights. That doesn’t mean that the burqa can’t be banned in specific circumstances where there’s a good reason to do so – in Court rooms, in schools etc. But these exceptions don’t justify banning it altogether. (The justification for a ban in Court rooms is obvious and doesn’t need spelling out. A ban in schools – for both teachers and pupils – is justified on the grounds of the need for adequate education. In addition, there’s a phenomenon of peer pressure in some schools, where girls who wear the veil force others to comply).

How about the argument based on gender equality? That seems a lot stronger at first sight. But isn’t it true that gender equality wouldn’t be advanced a whole lot by a burqa ban? (Maybe a ban would even be bad for gender equality, if it forces women to stay home). And isn’t it also true that other measures in favor of gender equality, such as better education, stricter laws and better enforcement on domestic violence etc., would prove much more effective?

There’s another argument in favor of a ban, and it’s a pretty strong one, although you hardly ever hear it. A democratic community requires a common citizenship and a public space in which people can deliberate freely on their preferred policies. If democracy was just an exercise in voting, it would be compatible with the veil. It would even be compatible with complete solipsism and individuals never meeting each other. But it’s more than that. The burqa and niqab are – to some extent – incompatible with deliberation. One could argue that this only justifies a partial ban, namely a ban in places where deliberation occurs, and when it occurs. Just like the partial ban in Court rooms is justified. The question is of course whether proponents of the veil can accommodate a partial ban. Perhaps their religious belief requires the veil in all circumstances. However, we are allowed to require some level of flexibility of them. Rights often come into conflict with one another (take for example the right to free speech of the journalist wishing to expose the private life of a politician). And that’s the case here: the right to democratic government and the right to religious liberty should be balanced against each other, and maybe the former should take precedence. After all, not everything is justified on the grounds of religious liberty: for example, no one in the West argues that mutilation as a punishment for crime is justified, not even when it is prescribed by a religion.

Religion and Human Rights (23): Muslim Headscarves – Between Religious Liberty and Gender Discrimination

The Muslim headscarf is back in the news. First some schools in Belgium decided to ban the headscarves, and then the French government started a discussion about the Burqa. (We should be careful when discussing the “Muslim headscarf” because the concept covers a wide variety of garments, going from the simple veil covering only the hair, over the Niqab leaving only the eyes uncovered, to the Burqa covering the whole body and providing only a grid to see through).

I already expressed my doubts about such bans, and particularly about singling out Muslim women. Why not also Hasidic women wearing wigs, Christians wearing crosses, Sikhs wearing Turbans etc.? It just reeks of islamophobia. It’s true that the Muslim veil, compared to dress codes of other religions or cultures, and especially the less revealing types of veil, can be interpreted as signs of gender discrimination, and even causes of gender discrimination (because wearing a full-body veil inhibits the agency of women and makes them more vulnerable to patriarchal power). However, I fail to see how a simple ban of the veil will result in less discrimination. That would be just “kurieren am Symptomen”. Other, more effective measures are required against gender discrimination, and not only in Muslim society.

On the other hand, the Belgian schools justified their decision by pointing to the fact that many Muslim girls who don’t cover their heads are threatened and pressured by their more pious fellow girl students, as well as by their male Muslim fellow students. So there is a clear dilemma here: banning the scarf means restricting the free choice and the religious liberty of those girls who voluntarily choose to wear it; allowing the scarf means restricting the free choice of those girls not wanting to wear it and allowing the existence of signs and means of gender discrimination. The headscarf ban can be interpreted as either a violation of rights (religious liberty, freedom of choice) or a protection of rights (gender equality, freedom of choice).

There are also those who claim, perhaps not without reason, that young Muslim girls are really not ready to make an informed choice since they may have been indoctrinated from early childhood on. Creating an environment where they can meet girls who don’t cover their head will allow them to make an informed choice. And if such an environment means banning the veil in schools because peer pressure would result in the generalization of the veil, then so be it. The girls who want to wear the veil can still do it outside of school. (More on informed consent here).

The problem here is that it is assumed that girls can’t make an informed choice, and that those who wear the veil are ignorant and indoctrinated and need to be saved and re-educated. Such a view of girls as passive victims of their oppressive religion can itself be an expression of gender discrimination. And even if it’s not, it signals that women are inferior and hence helps to solidify what it intends to destroy.