Europe's “Philosophical” Problem
by Tibor R. Machan
France, England, Holland, Germany and some other countries are reeling from it now. It is the controversy over young Muslim women wearing the veil in schools. But I do not agree with a recent reviewer, David A. Bell, in The New Republic, who exclaimed, "This is one of the strangest, most philosophically rattling, controversies in recent European memory ..." He said this after observing that "Jack Straw, the leader of the British House of Commons, recently attacked the wearing of veils as a 'visible statement of separation and of difference,' and requested that women remove them when visiting him."
The reason this is little more than hyperbole is that a philosophically rattling controversy would have to be far more basic, bear on far more fundamental issues, than does the one about wearing veils in public. For example, "Is there a God?" or "Are human beings free?" or "Can the human mind understand things as they really are?" Now those would be philosophical.
This isn't to say that the veil issue is insignificant. But there is a plain enough solution to it and in America that solution has been tried in some areas of our highly diverse culture. This is to significantly diminish the public square. If one keeps much of society—church, home, work, recreation, travel and the like—within the private sector, there can be an unexpected measure of diversity about how people comport themselves without this posing any kind of controversy. Yes, in America we also face the (by no means philosophically but otherwise) bothersome controversy of what to do with young people who are herded into public schools as a matter of the nearly one-size-fits-all public policy of coercive and publicly funded education. But that's kind of a relic and all the fuss about school choice and charter schools and independent schools testifies to this fact.
In a bona fide free country different groups of people with their different religious and philosophical convictions, habits, rituals and such have no trouble following their own ways. That is because of the institution of private property rights! Yes, Virginia, the right to private property accommodates all such peaceful differences among a citizenry. Only when people are drafted, conscripted into some sphere, such as primary and secondary schools, do troubles arise. (Just ask the Amish about all this; they’ll tell you a sorry story.)
Indeed, ever since the U. S. military has eliminated conscripting young citizens into the services, they, too, no longer face this problem of the impossible, uncomfortable, often offensive mix. American society, with its innumerable ethnic and religious and other culturally divers groups manages to do quite well provided people aren't coercively made to mingle. Of course, when you extort money from everyone, via taxes, so as to pay for various practices that some object to, such as stem cell or climate change research, abortion, publishing propaganda in support of (or against) sex education and so forth, then trouble is not far away. That's because peaceful mingling is, well, peaceful but coerced mingling produces considerable acrimony.
If so-called public resources or public spheres are utilized for some purposes but not others, those among the public not favoring the purpose that benefits from such resources or is provided space in such spheres will be upset. To use what is "ours" for goals that are not in fact ours at all is naturally going to be found objectionable. Why should Roman Catholics, whose religion rejects abortion, have to pay for abortion clinics? It places them into a morally unacceptable situation, namely, funding what they consider morally wrong. Why should a school that wants to make it possible for all students to learn without distraction have to admit and make room for a few who insist on displaying their faith for all to have to confront?
In a free country, however, these problems are solved by the institution of the right to private property—different groups can practice their ways without imposing them on others within their own borders. In the very few public places, such as, say, a court house, the rules of the public realm would apply to all equally! And that is hardly a source of major displeasure. But the same isn't true when it comes to such phony public places as a community swimming pool. There, if one is coerced into some uniform practice of, say, wearing a certain kind of bathing garb, members of some groups will object and justifiably feel put upon.
So, it turns out Europe's main philosophically troubling controversy is manageable along lines shown by much of American society—place borders around groups so they can exclude those who refuse to conform and subject only the very few public spaces adhere to uniform policies.