Jeremy Browne and the Contradiction in Terms

I am quite used to the coalition and parliament as a whole proposing policy that has ulterior motives, is misguided or makes no sense. However, Jeremy Browne has introduced a new experience for me in proposing that we debate a logical absurdity. To follow the words of the article, he has said that ‘there needs to be a national debate about whether the state should step in to protect young women from having the veil “imposed” on them.” In other words, he proposes we ensure young women’s freedoms by removing a choice. That is, we are asked to consider if we can champion freedom by eradicating it.

Disclaimer: Now, I usually try to avoid blogging about political issues. This is after I embarrassingly endorsed Nick Clegg on this blog in the run up to the 2010 UK general election. So, this post verges on breaking a promise to myself not to do this again. However, strictly speaking, this post is not going to be about the political debate that Browne is attempting to spark, but about the nature of political freedom as such. It is therefore philosophical rather than political.

In line with this, we need to bracket out immediately the issue of whether or not women’s faces being covered in line with a religious belief is legitimate or through oppression. I have nothing to contribute to this worth saying other than that sometimes it will be legitimate and sometimes it will be oppressive. What I have to say applies in all cases regardless of the answer to this question. Further, the debate should not centre around this issue as it only distracts us from the logical absurdity of the proposal.

Disclaimer over.

Browne is proposing that freedom be revoked in the name of freedom. He does not put it in this way. He seems to be making a fairly typical liberal argument against a particular freedom.

He said: “My own view, i don’t think we should end up like different countries where we tell people how they go about their business. [But] I do think there is an issue with teachers in the classroom…that might be an area where a full veil might be inappropriate.

In short, I promise I don’t think we should tell people what to do privately, but there are situations in which we can revoke freedoms in the public sphere. This is a traditional liberal view and is frankly unsurprising. Contrary to the idea that to be a liberal means people should be allowed to do whatever they want, liberals believe that people’s freedom to do harmful behaviour must be prevented. What Browne is suggesting is that wearing a veil might be harmful, and that we must debate and discover whether this is true.

So far so sane. However, when he explains the project more clearly, we get a very odd idea.

Mr Browne said he is “instinctively uneasy” about banning behaviour, but suggested the measure may still be necessary to ensure freedom of choice for girls in Muslim communities.

Banning behaviour because it is harmful is one thing, but banning behaviour in the name of ‘freedom of choice’ makes no sense whatsoever. The obvious point is that these girls clearly do not have full freedom of choice because they cannot choose to wear the veil. But there is a deeper problem. You cannot enforce freedom. To do so is like putting a fire out with petrol. Freedom must be chosen freely because, if it is coerced, it is not freedom at all.

You can, in line with the negative conception of freedom, get rid of the obstacles to an individual’s freedom. But, we can only really consider someone to be completely free when they are also free in the positive sense: when they actually act freely out of their freedom.

If it truly is the case that these girls are being oppressed, then banning the veil would only to be to replace one oppression with another oppression harder to detect. You must be western liberal subjects who determine their own destinies by choosing what to believe in the same way that we choose the toppings on a subway sandwich. And, even if this was something to want, we would have only created the semblance of freedom not freedom itself. You can ensure that a girl who chooses not to wear a veil comes to no harm. But, if we are to take the traditional [positive] conception of freedom seriously, she can only become free if she brings it about herself.

To remove the choice of the veil and enforce liberalism on a girl is only to replace one unfreedom with another. Were this proposed ban to be enacted, she would continue to be as unfree as any other consumer who has whatever clothes, gadgets and subway toppings they want.

PS: Browne’s comparison between having the competency to choose a religion and to choose whether to smoke or drink is just idiotic.


  1. Great post, Matt. It’s an inconvenient truth for those with minds full of judgemental/well meaning stereotypes that plenty of women wearing the veil are confident, strong individuals, fully at ease with themselves. And plenty are not. I would guess the ratios are equivalent to among any other group of women/human beings. Sad that this Browne guy can’t think of something a little more relevant to debate given the current state of the nation…

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