“We All Have to Compromise”

Once again, apologies for the last week’s silence. I have a good excuse for once, however: I was in Israel to participate in a workshop on the “Law in a Changing Transnational World” at the Tel-Aviv University. The workshop was very instructive, and I plan on having a few posts in the coming days and weeks dealing with things I learned or heard about there. For now though, I will start with an anecdote, a story about what happened to me. I haven’t indulged into much of that here, nor do I intend to, but this particular story is, I think, directly relevant to some of the things I have been blogging on.

The story is from my flight back to New York yesterday. I had a window seat. My neighbour was an old and very conservatively dressed lady (a scarf over her hair, long skirt, etc.). And in the aisle seat next to her was supposed to sit an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man ― referring to him as a gentleman, as you will presently see, would not have been appropriate. When he came to his seat and saw the seating arrangements, he asked me ― but not my neighbour ― if I would mind changing places with her. I asked why. “Because,” he said, “I don’t like like seating next to a lady.” I asked my neighbour what she thought about it. She squirmed. So I said that I’d rather stay where I was. The man was visibly annoyed and displayed his annoyance hovering around the seat he did not want to take for a minute or two ― and then went away, never to be seen again. (There were a few empty seats on the plane, fortunately.) As for my neighbour, she turned out to be a Talmud scholar, and, needless to say, very religious herself. She also turned out to be worldly, knowledgeable about all sorts of things, a pacifist, and very pleasant.

The reason I’m telling this story is, of course, the protracted, and often unseemly, debate about how to deal with expression of religion, in the West generally, and specifically in Québec in light of the “Values Charter” proposal. Those who would like to ban various forms of religious expression from the public sphere often argue that religious symbols such as the burka or the hijjab stand for gender inequality; some of them also say, with various degrees of laboured politeness, that religious people want to take over our societies and remake them in their image.

Well, there certainly was an awful lot of sexism, and perhaps even some aggression in our would-not-be neighbour. His behaviour and beliefs are distasteful ― and, by the way, hate-speech or anti-discrimination legislation should not prevent me (or anyone) from saying this. And, importantly, in our private interactions, we can and ought to resist that sort of behaviour.

But what the law should do about it is a very different matter. Not only did we not need the law to make this person go away ― in this case at least ― but no law could force him to change his retrograde beliefs. Certainly laws such as the proposed “Charter of Values,” which would ban public-sector employees from wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols would not eliminate or even reduce the bigotry that some religious beliefs encourage.

What such laws do, however, is to marginalize religious believers, regardless of their actual views on such matters as gender equality or the separation of religion and state. If the “Charter of Values” were enacted (and not invalidated, as it in fact would be, by courts), my neighbour might not be able teach in a university in Québec ― depending on whether her scarf is construed as a “conspicuous religious symbol,” a point on which Bernard Drainville’s pictograms provide no clear answer. Would excluding her advance the cause of equality? I think not. My neighbour, in fact, was a living illustration of the fact, which those who claim to defend equality by banning religious expression conveniently ignore or even deny, that religious, and even very religious, women are not always stupid, deluded, or oppressed. Many of them are smart, knowledgeable, and free in any meaningful sense.

She also proves that religious people generally are not all fanatics bent on world domination. In her own words, “we all have to make compromises.” And also try to see people, not just labels, in front of us.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach public law at the University of Reading, in the United Kingdom. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and did graduate work at the NYU School of Law. I then taught in New Zealand before taking up my current position at Reading.

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