On The Canadian Niqab Ban

A few years ago applicants for Canadian citizenship were banned from wearing face coverings like the niqab, during the oath of citizenship. Recently, Zunera Ishaq, a Pakistani woman sued the government for requiring her to remove her niqab during the citizenship oath. The ultimate decision that was made was that Canada’s own citizenship law required that Ishaq and others like her are free to wear the niqab during the citizenship oath, as the citizenship act states that officials must “administer the oath of citizenship with dignity and solemnity, allowing the greatest possible freedom in the religious solemnization or the solemn affirmation thereof.” When this court decision occurred we saw many people in an uproar over the fact that people would be able to wear the niqab during the oath of citizenship and many arguments have been put forth against the niqab. But, it seems to me that none of arguments that have been put forth in favour of banning women from wearing the niqab during the citizenship oath are successful.

One thing that should be specified at the outset is that the banning of the niqab has nothing to do with ensuring security or safety by forcing people to identify themselves, as Ishaq, like all others who apply for Canadian citizenship, was required to undergo a thorough security check which includes presenting photo identification that disclosed full facial features. Ishaq complied with this security check and only refused to remove the niqab during the citizenship oath itself. I bring up this point as some still seem to think that this issue is one of ensuring that people are who they say they are.

One argument that has been put forth is that in order to properly honour the citizenship ceremony one must uncover one’s face as this shows that one is taking the oath honestly and transparently. According to this argument to take the oath of citizenship in good faith one must make the entirety of one’s face visible. This argument trades on the fact that traditionally in Canadian society not showing one’s face is associated with criminality and a lack of trustworthiness, as the image of the face covered man brings to mind the bank robber and the burglar.

However, this argument seems implausible to me as it relies on stretching the meaning of taking an oath honestly and transparently to mean taking the oath in a way that fits with the norms of Canadian culture. It is true that typically Canadians associate the disclosure of the face with trust and openness, but this fact is a contingent element of Canadian culture, rather than a universal and consequently it seems arbitrary to expect a new Canadian to simply adopt our norms in the citizenship oath. In fact if a person were to remove their niqab while feeling it was inappropriate to do so during the citizenship oath this would be deeply disingenuous and an instance of less openness and freedom as the applicant for citizenship would not be authentically engaging in the oath. So requiring the removal of the niqab for the oath of citizenship is less in the spirit of openness and freedom than allowing it.

One other argument that has been expressed is much more explicit in its demand for homogeneity. According to this argument being a Canadian citizen is a privilege and part of gaining this privilege is adopting Canadian norms such as removing the niqab during the citizenship oath. At its most blunt this argument says if you want to be a Canadian you have to adopt certain customs, and reject others.

There is a sense in which this argument is true in that every society has certain fundamental norms that must be adopted in order to become a citizen of that society. For example, one cannot become a citizen of Canada if one uses violence rather than speech as a way of resolving political conflict. But the norm associated with removing facial coverings seems to be a far more incidental and non-fundamental norm of Canadian culture than the requirement of using speech and persuasion over violence to resolve conflicts. I say this because Canada`s political identity is avowedly liberal and multicultural. Part of Canada`s central identity and norms is the notion that we are allowed to display symbols of our heritage culture in public and that while we all come from diverse backgrounds there are certain fundamental rights that we all agree to and respect including the right to religious expression. This has been enshrined not just in an official policy of multiculturalism, and a charter of rights and freedoms, but also in practises of reasonable accommodation for minorities. For example, allowing Sikh men to be members of the RCMP despite the fact that their turban prevents them from being able to dress exactly as other members of the RCMP do. Thus, it seems that Canada as a nation is far better understood as a nation committed to respecting diverse cultures and the rights of individuals, rather than as a nation that establishes trust through the disclosure of the face. So it seems hardly opposed to Canadian values to wear a niqab during the oath of citizenship. If I wanted to dress up in a spandex unitard during the citizenship oath I would be rejecting the norm of appropriate dress for the citizenship ceremony, but in so doing I would not be rejecting norms that are essential to Canadian citizenship. In this sense there are many kinds of norms and customs within a society, and some of these are more fundamental than others to the society. So, while it is necessary for people to follow those fundamental norms to become a part of the society, it is not necessary to follow more incidental and non-fundamental norms.

Of course someone could make the argument that disclosure of the face during the citizenship oath is such a fundamental norm of Canadian culture, even if it has not been enshrined in law. But, I also find this point unpersuasive as even if there is a sense in which this norm is fundamental it seems to be problematic to enforce this norm through state power as this would be antagonistic to basic freedoms. Requiring a certain form of dress for a citizenship ceremony seems unreasonable as forms of dress have no to little bearing on the conscientiousness with which people take an oath, and thus it seems we are merely requiring conformity and restricting freedom because we are made uncomfortable by the niqab, and this hardly seems like a good reason to restrict freedom.

The last argument that is often put forth notes that the niqab is a symbol of the oppression of women and thus in order to ensure that women are liberated from oppression we must ensure that women do not wear it during the citizenship oath as this would legitimize the oppression of women.

It is certainly arguable whether the niqab is necessarily a symbol of women’s oppression; it seems plausible that for many women who wear it, the niqab is a public marker of their own identity as a Muslim woman, rather than something that they feel they have to wear for fear of punishment from their community. That said, even if the niqab is necessarily a symbol of women’s oppression banning women from wearing this garment during a citizenship oath in Canada seems unreasonable. Firstly, this argument is paternalistic in that it suggests that women, who wear the niqab willingly, do not understand that by wearing this garment they are complicit in their own oppression. While it may be true that these women are under the sway of some kind of “false consciousness” a basic principle of any decent society is that individuals have to be able to decide how they will express themselves through their speech and appearance where this does not violate the rights of others. This is why we do not prevent Cosmopolitan magazine from being published, as while this magazine surely does not contribute to women’s flourishing and probably encourages them to be more complicit in their own oppression we allow people to express themselves freely, even if they do so in a problematic way.

Secondly, from a purely consequentialist perspective we have to ask what good is done by banning women from wearing the niqab during the citizenship oath? On one level it may make some Canadians feel more secure that they are fighting back against the Muslim other that threatens their society. But on the other hand it will probably encourage further alienation of the Muslim community in Canada if their symbols are seen as antagonistic to Canadian values. In addition, if the reason that we are banning the niqab from the citizenship oath is because it represents the oppression of women, how does this directive help to reduce women’s oppression? It seems to do nothing to effectively combat women’s oppression. In fact it seems to merely alienate Muslims and make xenophobes feel a little better about the fact that their civilization is fighting the eastern other. Consequently, due to the ineffectiveness and paternalism of banning the wearing of the niqab during the citizenship oath it seems to me that this last argument is also deeply flawed and unpersuasive. Therefore, it seems that none of the arguments that have been raised in favour of banning women from wearing the niqab during the citizenship oath is successful.




Aristophanes on Reason and Society

Aristophanes was an Athenian comic poet and contemporary of Socrates most famous for lampooning Socrates in his work The Clouds. The representation we see of Socrates in The Clouds is of Socrates as a ridiculous person intent on destroying the traditional customs and way of life of Athens.  This image of Socrates fits quite closely with the charges presented to Socrates for corrupting youth, and not believing in the gods of the city, and in this sense Aristophanes` image of Socrates contrasts quite strongly with the image presented by Plato.  Against the background of The Clouds Aristophanes is often read as a stark traditionalist who opposes the impact of reason and reflection on society. I find this reading plausible in a sense, but if we look at Aristophanes` play The Frogs we are able to develop a clearer understanding of Aristophanes’ understanding and critique of reason.

In The Frogs Dionysus goes to the underworld to bring back the tragedian, Euripides, as the current crop of tragedians is disappointing and fail to meet the quality of tragedy that Dionysus expects.  Once Dionysus reaches the underworld it becomes clear that Aeschylus, an earlier Athenian tragedian, has been deemed to be the best tragedian in the underworld. However, Euripides has challenged Aeschylus for this title. In response to this dilemma Hades asks Dionysus to be the judge in a contest between Euripides and Aeschylus regarding who is the best tragedian.

In this contest Aeschylus represents the traditional martial values, against the more democratic and commercial, and rational impulses of Euripides. For example, in reference to Aeschylus Euripides says “I saw through him years ago, All that rugged grandeur-it`s all so uncultivated and unrestrained. No subtlety whatsoever. Just a torrent of verbiage, stiffened with superlatives and padded out with pretentious polysyllables.”(166, 830) In response to this Aeschylus remarks with regard to Euripides “That`s about the level of criticism one might expect from you, `son of the seed-goddess.` And what are your plays but a concatenation of commonplaces, as threadbare as the ragged beggars who populate them.”(166-167, 840)

From these remarks we can see that  Euripides sees Aeschylus as representing an aristocratic pomposity that fails to say anything subtle or interesting, while Aeschylus sees Euripides as someone who only represents the common sense of rabble and rather than populating his plays with dignified figures, populates them with “cripples and beggars.” (167, 845) To us there may be nothing inherently undignified about being crippled but in the context of Ancient Athens where a man`s ability to fight in battle was a large determinant of his social worth, being crippled reduced one`s status. Consequently, Aeschylus and Euripides are not only in disagreement about the technical skill required to create a good tragedy, but also regarding what kind of characters a tragedy should deal in. Aeschylus focuses on military leaders, gods, and kings, whereas Euripides is more inclusive in the variety of characters he is willing to present as the subject matter of tragedy.

This opposition between the noble, martial Aeschylus and the more democratic, rational Euripides is further reinforced when Euripides says that unlike Aeschylus he “wrote about everyday things, things the audience knew about and could take me up on if necessary.“ (171, 960) As a result of this Euripides notes that he has been able “to teach the audience to use its brains, introduce a bit of logic into the drama. The public have learnt from me how to think, how to run their households, to ask `why is this so? What do we mean by that?“ (171, 970) Thus, Euripides not only is more inclusive in representing a wider variety of characters from different social classes, his art also serves the purpose of encouraging and developing the audience`s capacity for reasoning, cleverness and reflection. While for our culture these are all viewed as necessarily positive things Aeschylus is still critical of Euripides approach as Aeschylus says to Euripides:“And look how you`ve encouraged people to babble. The wresting school are empty. And where have all the young men gone? Off to these notorious establishments where they practise the art of debating – and that`s not all they practise either. These days even the sailors argue with the officers; in my day the only works they knew were `slops` and `heave-ho.` “ (175, 1070) Consequently, we see how Aeschylus defend the martial values associated with physical training through wrestling and respecting the chain of command as being subverted by the Euripidean attempt to teach the audience to think. In contrast to Euripides` standpoint Aeschylus says that poets “have a duty to teach [the audience], what is right and proper,“  and this for Aeschylus seems to mean doing your duty given your station within society, rather than questioning authority through one`s reason. (174, 1050) Therefore, Euripides seems to be on the side of reflection, reason and inclusiveness, whereas Aeschylus is far more hidebound, aristocratic and concerned with defending martial values.

So, in Aristophanes The Frogs we see a battle if you will between reason, cleverness and democratic instincts and martial values, as well as other aristocratic sentiments. But the interesting thing about this is that the battle must take place through a debate between Aeschylus and Euripides. Consequently, there is a degree of irony in the idea of holding a contest between reason and martial values through the medium of reason.

I think what Aristophanes is trying to say by virtue of making use of the debate as the medium of this contest is to draw a distinction between prereflective and reflective cultures. In a prereflective culture people take their position in society and its mores as a given that is unquestioned, whereas in a reflective culture people do reflect and are willing to question their position in society and its mores. What I think Aristophanes is trying to say with the use of rational debate as a way of resolving the question of who is the best tragedian is that since Athens has become a reflective culture as a result of many occurrences including the influence of Socrates, Euripides and the Sophists, questions must be dealt with through the medium of reason.  Once a culture has become reflective the social mores and overall structure of society is no longer a mere given, but must be justified through speech. In this sense as reason comes to influence society and move it in a reflective direction reason must necessarily become the arbiter of conflicts as there is no source of authority that can be taken as an ultimate given or foundation. Now Aristophanes is certainly not celebrating the fact that Athens has become reflective in this way, in fact he seems to decry it some degree but by making use of debate and reason as the medium to determine, he seems to be saying that once a culture is under the influence of reason, reason must be the guide to determining questions; there is no way to simply return to a prereflective culture once a culture has become reflective.

In addition, Aristophanes does not merely point out that once reason has influenced society and pushed it in the reflective direction, reason and talk must become the arbiter of conflict rather than an unquestioned form of social authority, he also questions the ability to take on this task. In order to figure out who is the winner of the contest regarding who is the best tragedian Dionysus does not simply try to judge based on the poets arguments. After he hears their arguments Dionysus is unable to decide which poet to choose. So to try to decide this question an attempt is made to weigh Aeschylus, and Euripides and their poetry on a scale to figure out whose poetry is weightier, and thus better. (185, 1360)  The idea of weighing poetry is very comic, and some might think that Aristophanes is just trying to get a laugh out of it, but the weighing of the poets and their poetry is not ultimately successful in determining whose poetry is better either. The only way Dionysus is able to make this decision is by deciding the contest with regard to which poet has better advice to save Athens. (187, 1420)  It should be noted that Athens was at war with Sparta in the Peloponnesian war at the time in which this play was performed. So, in this play neither rational debate nor the weighing of poetry through some technological artifice are able to determine who is the best tragedian, and the only way to deal with the question is to change it from a question of who is best, to whose advice will best help Athens deal with its situation. The former is an extremely abstract question, while the latter is far more concrete. Consequently, Aristophanes seems to be saying that reason tends to be indeterminate when it is used to answer abstract questions. We can see this as reason, whether through speech, or as embodied in a technological tool ultimately fails to figure out who is the best tragedian. Thus, Aristophanes critique of reason seems to be that it it not always able to provide us with a determinate answer to abstract questions, and consequently, while it  may have a place in society it cannot serve as its ultimate foundation.

Now, as something of a partisan of reason I find Aristophanes` conclusion troubling, and unsettling, but he does provide an interesting challenge as it not obvious that if we argue and think about an issue for long enough that we will find an answer that any reasonable person can accept, and if reason is to serve as an ultimate foundation for society and politics it would have to provide a justification that all reasonable people can accept.


Works Cited

Aristophanes. Frogs and Other Plays. Trans. David Barrett. New York: Penguin, 2007. Print.

Aristophanes. Lysistrata and Other Plays. Trans. Alan H. Sommerstein. London: Penguin, 2002. Print.

On Tragedy: Abrahamic, Ancient Greek and Modern Horizons

The term “tragedy” and “tragic” are bandied about in many contexts, but what exactly is it about a situation that makes it tragic? I want to suggest that the everyday use of the word tragic within developed European and North American societies is deeply out of step with the Shakespearean understanding of tragedy and more in line with the way that tragedy is understood in Ancient Greek drama.  Furthermore, this seems to be the case because there are some deep similarities between our understanding of the universe and the Ancient Greek understanding.

For Shakespeare what makes something tragic is rooted in the notion of hamartia or tragic flaw. For example, Julius Caesar is tragic because the protagonist, Brutus,  is an admirable man in almost every way  and yet he is driven by his hubris to act in ways that not only destroy himself, but also many others.  In this sense Brutus can plausibly be viewed as blameworthy for his actions, and so as someone who is punished for his tragic flaw. What makes this tragic as opposed to just being due punishment is that Brutus is very admirable, and thus we find his punishment both appropriate and regrettable. In this sense Shakespearean tragedy is very much rooted in the notion of a divine or cosmic justice, and this is very central to all Abrahamic faiths.

This conception of tragedy seems to hardly be at play by the way we typically use the term. We typically say that those young people who die in freak accidents or of disease have tragic fates. Consequently, what makes the death of the young by disease or freak accidents tragic is that they experience a great evil through no fault of their own, and consequently are not given an opportunity to live a fully developed life. Their deaths seems senseless as they have had horrible fates that do not seem to be part of any divine plan, as opposed to their deaths being merited, but regrettable.

On the other hand in Ancient Greek drama and, in particular, in the plays of Sophocles, we see a notion of tragedy that is far more like the one we ordinarily use, that that which is present in Shakespeare. For example, in Oedipus Rex, Oedipus eventually realizes that unknowingly and unwilling he has killed his Father, and married and had four children with his Mother.  Once Oedipus realizes the truth about who his parents are, he blinds himself in a fit of psychological distress and is exiled from Thebes and thus is not able to live a fully developed human life, as he is separated from his family, his home and his city, and the general fellowship of others.

Although, it should be noted that some have seen Oedipus as having the tragic flaw of an all consuming desire for knowledge, but even if this could be construed as a flaw, Oedipus’ desire for knowledge does not seem to be unreasonable, or the fundamental reason for his discovery of the truth about his own birth. Oedipus does not pay heed to Teiresias’ warning to not try to discover the reason for the previous King’s death, but he does not pay heed to this warning as it seems like a convenient ruse that would allow Creon, his wife’s brother, to take power. In addition Teiresias does not seem to offer any convincing reason for Oedipus to stop pursuing the truth; instead he just gives warnings of the doom that will come if Oedipus takes this path.  So, Oedipus does not seem to be someone who is blameworthy in any significant sense. Consequently, our conception of tragedy seems closer to the Ancient Greek understanding, as in both cases we think of tragedy as occurring when individuals experience great evils that prevent them living fully developed lives through no fault of their own.

Is it a mere historic accident that our conception of tragedy is more similar to the Ancient Greek conception than to the Shakespearean understanding? I don’t think so. I think it reflects the fact while we are the inheritors of a culture that is deeply rooted in Abrahamic faiths, many of our modes of thought resemble Ancient Greek thought.

Before I go any further I would like to contrast Ancient Greek and Abrahamic religion as this is necessary background for the rest of this discussion. The God of Abrahamic faiths is typically seen as omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent. But this conception of God seems out of place in other forms of religion such as Ancient Greek religion. In these religions the Gods are certainly far more powerful than human beings, but they are not the eternal, necessary, morally mandated all powerful rulers of the universe. This can be seen by the fact that the fates that control all destinies are a separate agency from the Olympian Gods and thus can plausibly be seen as not under the authority of Zeus. Similarly, the Olympian Gods were not the initial rulers of the universe, but rather Zeus was able to overthrow his father Cronos through his power and cunning, rather than because he possesses some form of moral superiority.  So, in essence in Abrahamic faiths God is the morally mandated ruler of the universe, whereas in Ancient Greek religion the rulers of cosmos are but successful agencies who have managed to achieve the rule of the cosmos.

The similarity between the Ancient Greek conception of tragedy and our conception of tragedy is no coincidence.  Instead, it reflects the changing background understanding that western societies have of the universe.  Many of our current modes of thought do not reflect a universe in which a benevolent ruler ensures that good will ultimately triumph, but rather see the universe as a collection of forces that just is rather than being something that ought to be.  For example, “the environment” is one such force as it is not something that is amoral and not something fully under our control, and yet it can cause horrible damage to our lives. Likewise, “the market” is another. In our case these forces are impersonal things like “the environment,” “the market”, “the economy,” and “society” among others, whereas for the Ancient Greeks the forces that dominated the universe had the characteristics of persons. But the similarity runs deep as in both cases the universe is not something that operates according to an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God’s rational plan, but according to the interplay of forces that are amoral. Against this kind of cultural background it makes sense to say that horrible things can happen to people through no fault of their own, and that these acts form no part of any divine plan, and so are tragic.

This is not to suggest that there are no Abrahamic elements of our culture, as there are many, such as our notion of progress, but instead that our society’s culture also contains quasi Pagan elements, and so our culture is far more than a simple secularization of Abrahamic cultural norms.