Saturday, May 03, 2008

Style and Symbol

Recent developments in Denmark suggest another thesis of kulchural studies. The Social Democrats now propose to outlaw "religious dress" in the public sector. Their argument is that a clear indication of one's religious beliefs will undermine the public's faith in the "professional" commitment of the civil servant.

In an interview in the major left-leaning daily, a midwife (who would be affected by the proposed law ... not yet even a bill, it should be noted) asks, "What's next? We'll have to go topless at the pool?" Perhaps she reads the Pangrammaticon? While the interviewer refuses to grant that it's a similar situation, she really hits the nail on the head here.

Here's the promised thesis of kulchural studies:

The fall of Western Civilization is the history of style supplanted by symbolism or (for those who think that is too stylish a way of putting it and need a symbol to hold on to) the subjugation of practice to theory.

Those who would outlaw the hijab insist that it is a mere symbol. This is probably because, raised as a faithful Lutherans, they understand God merely as a metaphysical assertion (a "faith alone"), not a set of practical constraints, i.e., a guide to living. A religious artifact, to them, is always, and only, a symbol. They simply cannot get their mind around a religiously motivated practice. They have no sense of the problem of winning and losing one's soul.

They have, in short, no sense of style. They are not interested in how an experience feels; instead, they immediately reduce it to the simpler question of what it might mean.

In this case, the relevant practice and feeling, most notably the wearing of a headscarf, can be translated by the simple English word "modesty". My wife and I have been struggling to find a good Danish equivalent. It's actually not easy; to avoid a directly moral notion like "decency" (anstændighed) one reaches for the somewhat old-fashioned "seemly" (sømmelig). The language may already be incapable of expressing the terms of this problem.

Hijab, as I understand it, can refer both to the headscarf itself and the modesty it achieves. I intentionally say "achieves", not "implies", because there is no doubt that, while they can certainly be beautiful, women who wear this garment are less likely to be directly attractive. Maybe it's different for you, but I generally feel less ashamed of my own impulses in their company than in the company of typical "Western" woman.

("American woman ... get away from meee heee ..." etc.)

Critics of hijab focus on what they think is the purely symbolic effect of the scarf. But the scarf actually covers something. In so doing it also emphasizes (or demands) a particular sincerity of facial expression. It is a fashion statement: a style. And it has obvious moral effects. What should the State's position be on the strength of a woman's desire to exhibit her hair in public? Kulchural studies of course articulates that question as a straightforward absurdity.


Kirby Olson said...

Well, Lutheranism is certainly a guide to practical living if nothing else, so I didn't understand that assertion.

This is the reason that Lutherans essentially behave alike.

I do think the French precedent is what you have to deal with here: they outlawed the burkha in high school classrooms, I think, years ago.

This Danish step appears to based on that precedent.

Moreover, it seems to rely on the notion of a separation of church and state, which is something that Lutheranism implies, but that Islam denies.

Lutheranism is still the state church of Finland, but it has been deemphasized in Denmark and Sweden. It remains a funded church I think in Norway, but they have been thinking they should also give proportional sums to other churches.

The tax in Finland when I was there was 3% of earnings went directly to the Lutheran church. However, you could decide that this 3% was to go to some other area of government, and proceed in that manner. No one did, as it was regarded as an uncouth notion.

Thomas said...

I think there are practical reasons not to wear a burkha in many contexts. But this law is not about practicalities. It's about symbolism and that's what gets me.

You can't be a B-movie actress and maintain your modesty, I'd think. The differences notwithstanding, something similar may be said of being a public school teacher in France. (There are systems of schooling ... one's that organized on gender lines, for example ... that would allow teaching and modesty to co-exist.)

Give me an example of an ordinary civil activity that Lutheranism warns against engaging in for fear of losing your soul.

The Finnish model looks a lot like the Danish one.