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Don’t stand so close to me June 29, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Equality, Ethics, Freedom.
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The problem with the Haredi demand to separate men and women on buses is not merely that they are trying to coerce their own values on others in a public space. There are cases when it is justified to enforce constraints on the behavior of others, even on behavior performed in the privacy of one’s own home. For instance, should Haredim (or anybody else) decide to follow the Biblical teaching that “He that spareth his rod hateth his son” (for after all, “Thou beatest him with the rod, and wilt deliver his soul from the nether-world“), we should not stand around worrying over whether we have the right to force our own values on child abusers. So what makes the difference?

The all-important factor is reasonable justification. Like all other beliefs about the real world, values should not be arbitrary; some notions about how we ought to live our lives are supported by good evidence and argument, while others are not. The idea that equality and freedom are better than discrimination and dictatorship is not merely my opinion – we can talk objectively about the effects that various political arrangements and social norms have on the well-being of the people involved. A person surely has the right to impose whatever restrictions he wants on himself, but as soon as his actions start affecting others we must demand that he provide good reasons for them. What must be made absolutely clear is that assertions such as “that’s what I believe” or “that’s my tradition” or “that’s my religion” cannot constitute justification for harming another person. Such vacuous, infantile mantras are worthless as defenses for murder or theft, and they are worthless as excuses for oppressing others or for demanding special privileges denied from others. Saying “that’s my religion” is no different from saying “that’s what my father says,” and the appropriate response is, “so what?”

After millenia of oppression, we have come to understand that there is real value in treating all people equally, regardless of gender. We have realized that there is no good reason why women should not have the same rights and opportunities as men in society. We know that men and women are perfectly capable of interacting as equals with no dire consequences, and they may even find conversation and friendship with members of the other sex to be beneficial. Accordingly, we should not encourage norms which imply that women are vehicles of temptation and sin against which men cannot be expected to control themselves. The rightful presumption is in favor of equality, and anyone suggesting a policy which conflicts with this value must present compelling evidence and argument for why it is necessary (e.g., physical differences between the sexes justify segregated gym classes). I have not seen any such evidence presented in the case of segregation on buses, and in fact it seems quite clear that the women forced to the back of the bus are not considered “separate but equal” – rather, they are looked upon as second-class citizens who should be neither seen nor heard. We must make it clear that those who think this way are wrong, no matter if they are following an ancient tradition, and such policies will not be tolerated in state-funded settings. It may be that in this case the damage done is not enough to warrant intervention against segregation in privately-funded circumstances, but in more severe cases, we have no right to use “respect for alternative beliefs” as an excuse for leaving others to their fate. For instance, no parent has the right to force ignorance upon his children, denying them basic knowledge of the world and disabling their ability to think or learn. If you still believe we have no right to impose our own standards on members of other cultures, consider life under the Taliban (and elsewhere in the Muslim world), where women have acid thrown in their faces and are beaten or killed for such “offenses” as not veiling themselves, going to school, refusing arranged marriages, even for being raped. We must free ourselves from the politically correct dogma that all cultures and all belief systems are equally valid and equally valuable. Injustice and oppression must be fought wherever they are found – especially when they come from those who self-righteously claim the moral high-ground while insisting that their dogmas require no rational justification.

I’ll conclude with a quote from Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s autobiography Infidel. She was born into a Muslim family in Somalia, later living in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya before seeking asylum in the Netherlands, where she was eventually elected to parliament. This is from the book’s last chapter.

It is always difficult to make the transition to a modern world. . . . It was difficult for me, too. I moved from the world of faith to the world of reason—from the world of excision and forced marriage to the world of sexual emancipation. Having made that journey, I know that one of those worlds is simply better than the other. Not because of its flashy gadgets, but fundamentally because of its values.

The message of this book, if it must have a message, is that we in the West would be wrong to prolong the pain of that transition unnecessarily, by elevating cultures full of bigotry and hatred toward women to the stature of respectable alternative ways of life. . . .

Life is better in Europe than it is in the Muslim world because human relations are better, and one reason human relations are better is that in the West, life on earth is valued in the here and now, and individuals enjoy rights and freedoms that are recognized and protected by the state.

We cannot afford to take those rights and freedoms for granted. Hirsi Ali lives under constant threat to her life because of her criticism of Islam, but the problem is deeper than Islam. For us, the work begins at home.

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