Stilling the Jerk of My Liberal Knees

Look at this picture (click to embiggen) of a woman arrested in France for refusing to remove her veil. A tiny, defenseless woman, a plucky warrior for the rights of a minority to live and breathe free, is manhandled by racist government thugs.

It came up on my Facebook wall recently, from a group called the Muslim Defense League (MDL) United We Stand, Divided We Fall (“Fighting against racism, fascism and oppression”).

The photo caption was “A Muslima is arrested in France for refusing to remove the veil! If you are against this act then Share it everywhere!”

Yes, it looks horrible. One little woman being arrested by large uniformed enforcers. But … I can’t feel wholly outraged at it.

I’m taking it at face value that the event described is actually what it’s said to be. But I don’t think the context of the picture is what it purports to be, an innocent private person arrested in a way that offends the rights of individuals.

This is not JUST some downtrodden privacy advocate or religious freedom protester molested by merciless government enforcers. It’s a couple of other things smuggled into the conceptual package, arguments I’m afraid I don’t accept.

Firstly, I don’t think anyone has a “right” to wear a mask in public. I just don’t. I would much rather live in a society where I can see the faces of the people I live among.

It seems to me that, in public at least, people around you in a society have some sort of right to see your face. We’re a social animal; I suspect that needing to see the faces of those around us, so we can judge the moods and intents of these diverse strangers, is something evolutionarily innate to us. Not being able to do it … well, in my own case, it would definitely make me less comfortable. In private, you can wear whatever you want, but public places strike me as a different matter. In my mind, the “right” of people to see our faces trumps our individual right to wear masks. (Of course, with the exception of parties and Halloween.)

(BTW: I hope nobody will bring up Trayvon Martin in the comments. I was and am totally in favor of the arrest and prosecution of his killer, and I do not agree with those who said his hoodie was the reason he got shot.)

I can’t help but imagine what would happen if I walked into a bank or an airport wearing a mask. Nothing good, I’d bet. And yet here’s this person, tiny defenseless woman though she might be, who is Exhibit A in a demand for the right to do just that. In my mind, she and others are attempting to claim MORE rights than I have, based on an argument from religion, or culture, or whatever it is.

In other words, she’s asking for special privilege, something the rest of us don’t have, and won’t get.

The choices are:

1) Nobody gets to wear masks in public.
2) Everybody gets to wear masks in public.
3) Some people get to wear masks in public.

The only choice I’m wholly comfortable with is the first one.

I’m honest about the fact that I don’t care much for Islam itself. In fact – hey, “atheist” here – I dislike ALL religion. Yes, people have a right to follow their religion, including Islam. It’s sad to me when people make that choice (sadder still when defenseless children are forced into it by religious parents or authorities), but I can live with it.

But if you look past the shocking image of “defenseless Muslim woman accosted by violent thugs empowered by a racist government” … I think you can find a contrary position that deserves a public airing.

I’ll go you one farther: I look at this picture and feel more than a little manipulated. “Little woman hauled away by big men” definitely pushes my protective buttons. I instantly WANT to be on her side, defending her.

But she’s not JUST this little woman, is she? And those are not JUST faceless thugs hauling her off to be, for instance, beaten and gang-raped.

Drop someone less sympathy-button-pushing into this same situation and see how it makes you feel. Then drop this same little woman into a totally different law-enforcement context and see how THAT makes you feel.

For instance: Imagine that the figure in question, the person making this claim for special religious/cultural privilege, was a massively muscled biker with chain-wrapped boots, skull tattoos on his thick, hairy wrists and a picture of fighting pit bulls screened onto the front and back of his burkha.

Likewise, change the context of the picture so that an identical tiny, defenseless, burkha-wearing woman was being hauled away for running a puppy mill, and the picture alongside was a stark shot of sickly, skinny female dogs with matted fur and crusted eyes, trapped in filthy cages with litters of dead puppies.

Would you feel the same about HIM and his burkha-wearing right? Would you feel the same about HER and her defenselessness in the face of arrest? I don’t think so.

Remove the defenseless woman from this visual argument about rights, and it doesn’t seem to be as much about rights. Remove the argument about rights from the picture and the tiny, defenseless woman doesn’t seem quite so sympathetic.

To me, this feels less like an honest plea for equality and more like a deliberate manipulation of some of what I consider the best within me. As if someone wants me to see this defenseless little woman and leap to her defense. Which in this case would also be the defense of the followers of Islam to walk among us wearing masks.

Which – sorry – is a right I do not support, and will never support.

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