When I was in graduate school many years ago, I dated a Lebanese Muslim who wasn’t particularly devout. However, despite his secular, sophisticated upbringing—he grew up in a pricey neighborhood in Beirut and attended a Swiss boarding high school—he still struggled with my criticisms about Muslim countries’ treatment of women. When I once referred to clitoridectomies as a Muslim practice, he became positively apoplectic that I viewed the procedure as a Muslim norm. After all, no one in his family had undergone such a procedure.
But I persisted. As an earnest young feminist, I couldn’t help but want to have a conversation about the political and personal oppression of women in Muslim countries, an oppression quite often manifested in violence. I needed to know that it mattered to him and that he recognized it as a social ill that needed rectifying.
He would counter these observations by pointing out that his uncle, who was doing his residency at a local Philadelphia hospital, treated battered women all the time. Battered women here, battered women in the Middle East. What was the difference?
A Culture’s Intentions Matter
Sadly enough, I struggled with that one. After all, he had a point. With or without prohibitive legislation, the abuse of women happens everywhere. What was the difference?
Implicit within that question lies another more general question about law: Of what value is a law to a country if the behavioral outcome in its society is no different from those in countries without such a law? For it is an obvious truth that a society that legislates against certain behaviors doesn’t eradicate them by doing so. It may not even diminish those behaviors to an appreciable degree.
After a lengthy consideration, I eventually arrived at the conclusion that, although justice may often elude us, the law has an essential value. This is that a society, through its laws, is declaring something fundamental about itself, something equal in importance to the efficacy of the law. Legislation makes explicit a culture’s intentions.
Now let’s return for a moment to the issue of battered women. In the West, after hundreds of years of fierce debate concerning women’s status in society, most people now agree that a woman’s safety and wellbeing should not be left to the mercy of the men into whose hands fate has delivered her. Rather, we have come to believe that, as autonomous beings with equal rights, women should be afforded the protections of the state—protections equal to those of men.
Thus, in the developed world, women have recourse to the law, which means an opportunity for some degree of justice if those rights are infringed. That’s one layer of value to the law—deterrence and punishment—which ideally increases the safety of all members of a society.
In addition, it’s essential to appreciate that, in our culture, the law represents shared intentions—the general population’s agreement to a set of desired social norms we elect representatives to codify. The progression from tribal customs to written legal codes was thousands of years in the making, and for most of that time law was a top-down affair, instituted by tribal leaders and kings.
In contrast, our historical moment is unique in that each member of our society contributes to the formation of that code with his or her vote. But the important point here is that it’s these shared beliefs that are the foundation upon which the law is predicated. Our laws reflect who we want to be as a society, and they derive from values we hold in common (despite a cacophony of arguing voices) and which, it is no exaggeration to say, form the foundation of our entire world.
We Should Ask Hard Questions When Values Conflict
The tricky part is when our values appear to conflict. Those are the issues that need to be on the table, and this is why asking the hard questions of each other—and especially our legislators—is essential.
The abortion debate concerns the very definition of life; the issues surrounding homosexuality give rise to fundamental questions about sexual and marital freedom, and perhaps even whether there is such a thing as truly private choices. We need to debate these issues thoroughly and not hold back for fear of offending people so that we fully understand the implications of our positions. This we definitely don’t, as evidenced by the readiness with which we align ourselves with certain popular trends in order to be “nice” or “accommodating.”
For instance, we might think it’s “nice” and “supportive” to don a head scarf on World Hijab Day, but those who do are like Marie Antoinette playing at being a shepherdess, merely play-acting. After the day is over, we can take off our scarf and return to our wide-ranging freedoms. But in Iran, women are arrested for removing theirs.
Here, it’s a game of dress-up; over there it’s a matter of imprisonment and torture. It might make us feel open-minded to support the ideas of all cultures, but some of these ideas clash irremediably with the foundational values of our republic. We must face this head-on.
Take, for instance, the photo of endlessly accommodating Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attending a gay pride event wearing socks adorned with “Eid Mubarek” in honor of the last day of Ramadan. He was trying to have it both ways, when that is impossible. His performance, intended to be culturally generous, was instead a superficial display of deeply contradictory values.
Homosexuality is punishable by death under Islamic Sharia law, as we’re now hearing trumpeted from Brunei. It’s one or the other, not both. We need to be honest about these contradictions, and define with clarity what our real values are. Otherwise, by blindly following the herd, we might be chipping away at our own foundations.
This is why the uproar over Jeanine Pirro’s recent Fox News opinion segment, in which she posed questions regarding Rep. Ilhan Omar’s allegiances, was a mistake. We must ask people about their belief systems. Doing so is bringing their fundamental values into light, which especially matters when dealing with elected representatives.
Otherwise, even something that appears to be bedrock to our polity, such as equality under the law, becomes vulnerable to extinction. This work is what the Founders were referring to when they said the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. It means embracing—and even engaging in—that cacophony, even when it’s shrill.