The left-right political axis is of little value when it come to many issues of moral principle. Pragmatism on both sides often usurps moral consistency. The issue of personal liberty, the freedom to think and speak as one wishes, has often been seen as a moral principle that defines one side or the other. But the evidence that this is correct is very poor, both sides tend to support liberty when it supports their cause and suppress it when it is inconvenient.
Historically those on the right stressed duties over rights, and the placed more importance on obedience than on freedom of thought and word. In the past these issues (subjugation of liberty to king, nation or church) had been the greater threat to peoples’ freedom. This lead to many feeling that it was an issue which delineated the two groups – the left fighting for liberty and change the right reacting to preserve order and the status quo – the progressives trying to expand liberty against the repression of reactionary and conservative forces.
Unfortunetely, however, the principle of liberty has never been high on the left’s agenda. Trotsky warned of this in 1924 when he said “To be sure, a revolutionary dictatorship means by its very essence strict limitations of freedom.” and Lenin likewise with his pithy statement “It is true that liberty is precious; so precious that it must be carefully rationed. ”
Indeed, in recent years the major threats to issues of freedom and liberty appear to have come from the left-hand side of the political spectrum. Issues of “hate speech”, “hate crimes”, various types of”denial” and silencing people in held to be dprsking from positions of “provilege” have, at times, seriously threatened our ability to be free in our thoughts, words and deeds. It has been particularly distressing to those of us who come from a liberal or left background to watch the left abandon these principles and allow the right to take the moral high-ground.
But the issue of the “burkini” seems to be a return to form for the repressive right. There have been attempts to blame this illiberal ban on ‘aggressive secular forces’. They argue that this is “laïcité” flexing its muscles; putting pressure on all religious groups to protect the secular state. Or it has been argued that this is attempts by the progressive forces to protect women from oppression by the burqa; assisting them in their fight against an islamic patriarchy.
Neither of these motivations are honest or credible. It is clear from the anger in the debate, and the content of the rhetoric, that the focus is on the islamic symbol itself. Not behaviour, not gender, not modesty but symbolic islamic dress. The intention of these local laws was to cause discomfort to those who followed Islam, nothing more and nothing less.
It is understandable that there is anger after the recent terrorist attacks in France and is should be no surprise that beaches of the South of France have become the battle ground following the truck attack in Nice. There is a desire to hurt those who are seen as having hurt us. This is ‘god-sent’ to the racists who now have a seemingly acceptable focus for their hatred and it will prove a fertile recruiting ground for them.
This is the main problem with this type of anger and desire for revenge, it is blind and counter-productive, it punishes the innocent and misses the guilty, it drives more to believe the propaganda of the terrorist and it divides our society when it needs to be strong in the face of attacks on its moral values.
No-one can consider that forcing French muslim women to dress in a manner they feel immodest will improve society nor will it assuage the anger that gave birth to it. We arrive at this travesty of a situation because we have ignored a basic moral principle. We are free to think and act as we will as long as we do not harm any other person. As John Stuart Mill put is “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
This is an inviolate right and not a possession of either the right or the left in politics. Only Libertarians, Liberals and Anarchists give this the focus it deserves. Holding to prionciples such as these guides us past horrible mistakes such as the “burkini ban” and in the past this was widely recognised. Laws to control our behaviour should be rarely used, individuals behave better than states and come to better, more creative, solutions. Indeed even Lenin saw this when he realised “While the State exists there can be no freedom; when there is freedom there will be no State. ”