Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Foursquare with Voltaire

My previous post is generating a surprising (to me) amount of controversy, and there were a number of comments that I thought deserved considered responses. But writing those responses in Blogger's tiny little comment window (Google people, are you listening?) was getting really annoying so I decided to escalate.

Do you consider their opinion to be more authoritative than any other obvious sources (say, a local christian bookshop or church committee or the bible), and if so, why?

This is a very good question, and I have three different answers for it:

First, the meanings of symbols have nothing to with authority. The meanings of symbols derive entirely from the intent of those who employ them, and from the perceptions of those who view them.

Second, it is fairly clear that the ring in this case is a Christian symbol. It is widely recognized as a Christian symbol, and it is inscribed with a reference to the New Testament, which should quell any remaining doubt.

But third, and most important, the ring is a red herring. If the girl had been wearing a crucifix on a chain the school's prohibition on jewelry would (presumably) still have applied. And surely no one would question that a crucifix is a Christian symbol.

So anyone should be allowed to take anything, call it a symbol of some religion

Yes, of course, as long as it is their religion. No one should be allowed to decide what is and is not a symbol of anyone else's religion.

(even though it isn't generally recognised as such)

Yes, of course. Some people have their own private religions with their own private theologies, symbols and rituals. Who are you to tell me that what I choose to be the symbols of my relgion are not valid?

it doesn't follow that you're allowed to say what you want, when you want, and where you want.

A straw man. No one disputes that freedom of speech has limits. You can't cry fire in a crowded theatre or commit libel. Clearly none of those circumstances apply in this case.

it doesn't entitle you to a free audience

It's a ring, for crying out loud. It's not like she's getting up in the middle of class with a bullhorn.

The real problem here is that the underlying prohibition on jewelry is inherently discriminatory against religions like Christianity which tend to render their symbology as jewelry rather than, say, clothing or makeup. Jews have yarmulkes. Sikhs have turbans. Hindus have Tilakas. But the principal symbol of Christianity is the Cross, and the principal means of displaying it on one's person (at least in the U.S.) is as a pendant hanging from a chain. So the issue is not the ring per se, the issue is that any blanket prohibition on jewelry necessarily discriminates against Christians, just as any blanket prohibition on wearing head-coverings indoors inherently discriminates against Muslims (and Jews and Sikhs).

6 comments:

quantamos said...

so i've been doing a lot of searching around, and have only found this one BBC article from a month ago that mentions that a crucifix would have been permitted. i'm suspicious that i can only find mention of this in *one* google news article.

that said, i think the criteria that a particular symbol be "obligatory" in order to be permitted is absurd. but then again, it is so difficult to strike a balance with free speech that everybody agrees with.

cerebrator said...

I'm against freedom if that freedom can be used to directly attack (physically or otherwise) others.

Otherwise, I'm all for it.

The cross is an example of a symbol used to represent an identity that does not see itself as a supremacist.

Banning the use of the cross is therefore an act of autocracy.

Dave Pearson said...

You hit the main point at the end of your post Ron: why does religion get special treatment? Why should it be that, the moment you claim that something is an expression of your religion, it gets special treatment?

And, no, I wasn't attempting to raise a straw man, I was simply pointing out that restrictions on freedoms of speech are part of the issue. Nodding in that direction, because such a thing exists, doesn't make it a straw man.

Tim said...

"The meanings of symbols derive entirely from the intent of those who employ
them, and from the perceptions of those who view them."

I'm not convinced. Seems you're saying everything is de facto not de jure. That leaves no room for common currency in understanding.

"Second, it is fairly clear that the ring in this case is a Christian
symbol. It is widely recognized as a Christian symbol, and it is inscribed
with a reference to the New Testament, which should quell any remaining
doubt."

Hardly! If that were the case, I could inscribe "Behold this body - a painted image, a mass of heaped up sores, infirm, full of hankering - of which nothing is lasting or stable!" on the back of an old Mini and the car
would be a buddhist symbol? Inscription carries no weight, quells no doubts.

Saying it arises in conservative theological circles is a good way of
saying it *isn't* widely recognized. It is tacked-on to Christianity,
grasping at the heel of the name, and while quite a few preachers in several denominations teach
it, abstinence is not a mandated thing, membership of SRT even less-so.

"But third, and most important, the ring is a red herring. If the girl had
been wearing a crucifix on a chain the school's prohibition on jewelry
would (presumably) still have applied. And surely no one would question
that a crucifix is a Christian symbol."

I would certainly question it, because the most authoritative sources in
which you'd expect to see mentions of symbols are canonical holy texts and early church practices. The bible does not elevate any symbol, even a crucifix;
and the first symbol of Christianity historically was the ichthus fish.

In this regard the school had weakened their case - by not strictly
applying a de-jure definition, only de facto, they had actually opened up
the flood-gates a bit.

Still, I'm glad she lost. To me the freedom of speech is the red herring,
because all parties can claim freedom in one way or another with no
decisiveness, but what I *really* didn't want was the girl's father touting
High Court support for the SRT movement.

Ron said...

Seems you're saying everything is de facto not de jure.

No, not everything, only symbols. The swastika can be a symbol of peace or a symbol of hate depending on who is displaying it. The Confederate Flag can be a symbol of oppression or of tradition depending on who is viewing it.

That leaves no room for common currency in understanding.

Not at all. People can agree on the meanings of symbols, and words are (generally) not subject to this kind of semantic relativism. That symbols can be ambiguous is one of the reasons people choose to use them in place of words some times.

I could inscribe "Behold this body - a painted image, a mass of heaped up sores, infirm, full of hankering - of which nothing is lasting or stable!" on the back of an old Mini and the car
would be a buddhist symbol?


If that was your intent, yes. Literature is full of examples far more outlandish (IMO) than that.

why does religion get special treatment

To be clear, I do no believe that the girl should have been allowed to wear the ring because it is a religious symbol. I think the girl should have been allowed to wear the ring because there is no legitimate basis to ban the wearing of jewelry. The school administration's capricious desire to stop the wearing of jewelry needs to be balanced against the student's right to free speech and free speech ought to win. That the person and speech in question has to do with Christianity is just an interesting wrinkle because, notwithstanding beliefs in certain quarters, Christians are not much oppressed in the Western world. But I thought it was interesting to note that it does happen.

Dave Pearson said...

I think the girl should have been allowed to wear the ring because there is no legitimate basis to ban the wearing of jewelry.

I take it you appreciate that many schools in the UK have a uniform? If I recall correctly my son's school has a "no jewellery" rule regarding the school uniform, it's not that unusual at all.

If I've got the right place it appears that the same is true of the school in question.

When a parent decides that their child will attend a certain school they also agree to the code of conduct of that school. Deciding, later, that some parts of the uniform rules should be ignored appears to have nothing to do with "freedom of speech". Throwing religion into the mix, as if it's some special get-out clause, makes it no more an issue of "freedom of speech".