It is likely that any article written by a white male journalist that starts with a title like “See the veil for what it is” would raise my hackles. So when I saw the article today I had a bit of a reflexive response: here’s another white guy, with little demonstrated understanding of women’s issues, feminism, or Islam, about to tell us what the veil really is.
Dan Gardner wrote the piece, today, December 14.1 It’s not as bad as many articles written on the topic. But there are some significant failures of reasoning.
I should note that I am not an expert in Islam, immigration policies, or pyschology.2 I should also note that Dan Gardner has written two books in psychology, which in his words are “books praised by psychologists.” I should also note that I find Gardner’s writing generally better than then average newspaper or magazine reporter.3 But this is also part of the problem.
The column is a total of twenty three paragraphs. Most of the article is a review of some basic psychology.4 Starting at the fifth paragraph, a full twelve paragraphs are committed to reflecting on human psychology, faces, brains, pattern recognition and human emotions. If the article was just about this, I would have no problem. Most of the notes Gardner makes about emotions and faces I find reasonable. You can find most of it in TED talks, or books on popular psychology or even in Skeptic Magazine. It’s worth reading and reflecting on these kinds of issues. And I’m happy to see newspapers trying to publish this kind of information.
The problem is what happens before and after those twelve paragraphs. The last of theses twelve paragraphs is this:
This work, along with a mountain of other research, has established that the face is hardwired into human psychology. It is the locus of identity. It is the canvas of emotion. We are so supremely sensitive to faces that the tiniest changes in facial musculature — even inadvertent or unconscious changes — can completely alter the apparent meaning of spoken words. Suppressed anger can be revealed, desires surfaced, lies exposed. A subtle affection may be expressed. A deeper trust established.
I mostly agree with all of this. The face is important to human psychology. It is a canvas of emotion. Micro-expressions are interesting. Emotions can be revealed. A deeper trust can be established through the mutual sharing of facial expressions. It’s all good, if a little banal.
I don’t believe, however, that the face is “the” locus of identity. I doubt any psychologist would say so. It is a locus. You can see here that Gardner has begun his descent into fuzzy reasoning. He needs to in order to do what happens next.
In the very next paragraph, a claim is made that damns the entire article. In the very next paragraph, number sixteen, he claims:
But none of that can happen if a veil is in the way.
If he had just said, the veil can interfere with this, I would be okay with that. Heck, I think sunglasses interfere with some pattern recognition and social interactions. I think hats do to. That’s why poker players wear sunglasses and hats. But to conclude that none of this can happen with a veil is unfounded. None is an absolute term. None is total. It’s rhetoric. And it’s rhetoric from someone who probably has never interviewed, or had a basic relationship with, a woman that wears a veil. 5
Gardner goes on to write that a woman “who consistently wears a veil in public is cut off from the people around her” – another claim that has no argument, no citation, no data, no evidence to back it up. Similarly with his claim that “she has no identity.” That’s utterly false.
A woman who chooses to wear a veil still has her words, her voice, her body, her eyes, her hands, her movements, her behaviours, her choices, and probably myriad other important loci of identity, with which to create and maintain relationships.
Luckily, a woman who has actually chosen to wear a veil wrote to Gardner to try to help him understand the topic that he was publishing on. But, unfortunately, his response demonstrated we he failed to see why her criticism crushed some of his central claims.
A second problem in reasoning
In the fourth paragraph, Gardner argues that the veil “cripples integration.” I think this is his thesis and the rest of the article is meant to be a kind of theoretical argument for it. But he actually presents no direct evidence of this. And it’s no wonder. This is actually a hard issue and I doubt a newspaper has enough interest or money to pay someone to get clear on the issue. There could be a hundred reasons with women wearing a veil might have a hard time integrating into Canada. To his credit, Gardner does mention repeatedly that bigotry is also a problem, but he never really grapples with it enough to satisfy me that he takes it seriously.
But I think basically his argument looks something like this:
premise 1: Human faces are essential to good social functioning.
premise 2: Anything that partly covers the face, will block good social functioning.
premise 3: A veil covers the face.
conclusion 1: A veil blocks good social functioning.
premise 4: Good social functioning is necessary to social integration.
premise 5: The veil blocks good social functioning.
conclusion 2: Therefore, the veil blocks social integration.
This kind of reasoning is much more interesting if we can actually see what the arguments are.6
I actually think that premise 1 and premise 2 are both demonstrably false. Human faces are not essential to normal human social functioning. Nor is covering part or all of the face sufficient to blocking good social functioning. That’s why telephones work. That’s why internet chat works. That’s why veils at weddings are so great. That’s why it makes sense sometimes to wear a veil to a funeral. The poker game succeeds just fine when the superstar wears sunglasses. Scuba divers wear masks and welders too. Veils work just fine in some contexts.
In the case of music auditions, large veils, that block gender and race assignments, actually improve social functioning.7
The issue here is context. We live in a misogynist and patriarchal context. We live in a culture that makes jokes about rape. We live in a society where the single largest cause of nonfatal injury to women, is abuse from a partner.8 We live in culture that is racist towards Islamic people and brown people.
So does a veil “cripple social integration”? Good question. Maybe it does. But I reject the claim, without signifcant evidence, in a context where white men feel entitled to police the behaviours of women and racialized minorities.
It is more plausible to me that more important determinants to failed integration include: misogyny, racism and language barriers.
A third problem in reasoning (Actually it’s not a problem: update)
In the first few paragraphs, Gardner claims that veils are anti-woman, anti-social, and anti-human.9
Someone could plausibly construe the rest of his article as an argument (even if unconvincing) as to why the veil is anti-social. But there is obviously no argument as to why the veil is anti-woman or anti-human. To do so would require some more premises like this:
- Any behaviour that is anti-social, if committed by a woman, is also anti-woman.
- Any behaviour that impedes or changes social interactions, is anti-woman.
- Because our evolutionary forebears didn’t wear veils, it is anti-woman, for a woman do to so now.
- Because most human brains can’t resist looking at and recognizing faces, it is anti-woman for women to wear veils.
These premises are all obviously bogus. But perhaps Gardner has some better premises that he’s not telling us about. Until then, his claims are not reasonable, and his conclusions are not warranted.
After a considerable and difficult Twitter exchange with Dan Gardner, he expressed some concerns with my analysis. This third problem might not be a problem. He pointed out that his argument was roughly this:
They [veils] make it very difficult for women to fully engage as equals in society.
Here is the approach that I didn’t see. He claims others did. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but it is a plausible approach that deserves further consideration. Regrettably, Gardner thinks of himself as a “human talking about other humans” and doesn’t appear to have a gender analysis or an analysis of power and privilege. So, there you go.
He said some stuff I agree with
I’ve already mentioned that Gardner makes many true and interesting claims about faces and human brains. Gardner also concludes the article by saying that “we must protect a stigmatized minority from bigots” and that we must “defend the freedom to dress as we wish to the greatest extent practicable.” I agree.
Gardner’s article might be contributing to public discourse about women’s rights and veils. But Gardner’s article also contributes in some unhelpful ways. The column contributes to the prevalent cultural norm that it’s okay for guys to, injudiciously10, theorize about what is anti-social, anti-woman and anti-human. When men do so, there should be an expectation of a greater burden of proof. Tacit premises should be made explicit. Personal bias, thoughts and reflections should be duly noted. Citation should be required (give me a hyperlink). And one’s recognized expertise about the issue, in this case Islam and veils, could be helpfully included.
But at the very least, the reasoning shouldn’t be fallacious.
Also, in this series:
- You can find the article at the Ottawa Citizen and probably also on his personal site soon. ↩
- For more information about the niqab, see this article or this article about the hijab. ↩
- You can check out Gardner’s personal site here. ↩
- By basic, I mean that most of this stuff gets covered in introductory psychology classes. ↩
- This is speculation, please correct me if I’m wrong here. ↩
- Perhaps Gardner intended for premise one to be “human faces are important (not necessary or essential) to human functioning.” There are actually lots of ways to tweak this argument to make less absolute and more interesting. And in this regard Gardner’s article is interesting. Although I should note, that even with a revised premise, most of my criticism hold. ↩
- Malcolm Gladwell makes this point: because the bias of human resource professionals is so strong many good players get rejected if veils, or screens, aren’t used. ↩
- The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery (American). 2008;90:1590-1597. doi:10.2106/JBJS.G.01188 http://www.ejbjs.org/cgi/content/abstract/90/7/1590 ↩
- He also claims that the arguments for and against banning veils in public are reasonable. ↩
- Update: thank you to Matt for pointing in the comments out that this sentence needed a qualifier. ↩