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See the veil for what it is: further reflections

Written by Sherwin, published on December 20, 2011

At point blank with a gun

I read Dan Gardner’s column in the Ottawa Citizen on Wednesday and, dissatisfied with his analysis, wrote a blog post reviewing some of his errors in judgement. During that time I had some opportunity to engage directly with Gardner via Twitter, and on his blog, as well as with some others on the issues surrounding his column.

Some of it has not been particularly fun. My ideas have been criticized and some of those criticisms have been effective and, er, correct. But I have also been personally attacked. And sometimes my ideas were dismissed unfairly. A startling number of people have expressed xenophobic and, yes possibly, racist views.

There have been some upsides too. There have been voices of wisdom and insight. Some folks have engaged earnestly and with humility. There have been some interesting and effective criticisms of my criticisms. There have been some who are willing to admit their errors along the way. Looking back I can see that some of the comments I have made were hasty and abrupt. I have tried to speak and write honestly and gently, but I think I have failed in moments.

But I also think that some of my concerns of Gardner’s article are really important. But ultimately, it’s not for me to judge. But I do think it’s a worthwhile exercise to further reflect on these issues. I think there are several, actually many, important epistemological and ethical issues surrounding Gardner’s opinion piece from the Ottawa Citizen. And over the next few weeks I would like to write a series of shorter posts reflecting on these issues, one idea at a time.

By way of overview, I maintain that Gardner’s conclusions significantly overreach the evidence that he puts forward. The claims in Gardner’s article that I find troubling include, but are not limited to:

  • that reasonable arguments can be made in favour of Jason Kenney’s announcement that no one can wear the veil during the Canadian citizenship ceremony
  • that reasonable arguments can be made in favour of banning the veil in public, as France did
  • that the veil is anti-woman
  • that the veil is anti-human
  • that the veil is anti-social
  • that the importance of the face to human psychology cannot be overstated
  • that the universality of human emotional facial expressions is relevant to this issue
  • that we can no more stop looking at faces than stop breathing
  • that the pattern that the human brain most wants to find is the human face
  • that the veil cripples integration
  • that veils smother identity
  • that the face is the locus of identity
  • that the face is the canvas of emotion
  • that the veil prevents subtle affection from being expressed
  • that the veil prevents deeper trust from being established
  • that women who wear the veil have no identity

In summary I find these claims problematic because they are:

  • hyperbolic and total
  • an effective public relations screen for Jason Kenney’s announcement
  • expressed in a context that lacks nuance, caution and a recognition of Gardner’s own biases and knowledge failures
  • positioned as being authoritative, because Gardner “sees the veil for what it is”

Once again, for the record. I am not an expert in Islam. I am an atheist. I do think it is possible to criticize and judge individuals, religions and religious institutions, even as a privileged outsider. I will also add that I hold open the possibility that the claims that I’ve listed above, could in fact, be true. The epistemological issues at play here is not just whether they are true or not. The issues are how they are justified. They are regarding the way these claims appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on Wednesday, December 14th. And the issues at play here are also ethical issues.1

This is not the time for quick theories and rushed claims. Gardner has suggested that I expect too much from a thousand word opinion piece. Perhaps I do. Gardner thinks that I have persistently overlooked the length constraints of journalism. Maybe I do. So I think it’s worth reflecting on this and other constraints I find endemic in contemporary journalism. These are, after all, constraints on the way we know things and on the way we communicate this knowledge to others.

Similar constraints in time are not just endemic to journalism. I acknowledge, for example, that the post I wrote in response to Gardner’s column was rushed. By the time I read Gardner’s piece, had an unsatisfactory Twitter exchange with him and thusly committed to explaining my concerns via a blog post, my work day was well underway. But I was committed, so I wrote the piece.

That is partly why I want to slow down and take more time and energy to reflect on the variety of things wrong with Gardner’s article. But the first post I write will be a reflection on what is right about Gardner’s article. That seems important.

  1. I should note, that I believe epistemology and ethics have significant overlap. Further, I hold that epistemology is quite possibly a subset of ethics. However, without presenting many long arguments here about that, and given that some folks will find this controversial and distracting, I will opt to refer to both ethics and epistemology and I hope the reader will forgive me this rough and ready distinction.
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  1. […] think that if Gardner was more aware of his privilege, he wouldn’t have chosen to use such strong, absolute language. And he wouldn’t have chosen to make these conclusions in a thousand word editorial and then […]

  2. [...] Gardner did commit a significant portion of his short article to reviewing some scientific findings. But none of those findings were about his conclusions. Instead, he used scientific evidence about the importance of human faces to the human brain, to draw conclusions that were far too strong and, in my judgement, irresponsible. I’ve listed Gardner’s faulty conclusions here. [...]

  3. [...] have previously written that the article was a public relations screen for the Conservatives who chose to ban the Niqab from the citizenship oath. Here’s why I [...]

  4. [...] See the veil for what it is: further reflections [...]