Friday, 16 July 2010

Faces & Statutes

The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin, was published in 1872. It was very controversial at the time, and for a long time afterwards for two reasons.

Firstly it implied a continuity between the expression of some sentiments with people and beasts ... as though we are somehow related!

Secondly it implied a hardwiring of our expressions – a biological lingua franca that bridged gender, race, geographical distance, culture and time. You can’t make up your own smile or your own frown any more than you can make up your own fingers. They’re simply there, biological mechanisms which universally fit a purpose across a species.

This issue, of intrinsic facial expressions, was still being argued about through the twentieth century. But repeated work done across cultures including with very isolated peoples finally demonstrated that humans all frown, grin and sneer in the same way for the same reasons.

Pop psychologists and inspirational speakers often remind people of how important the physical component of our presentation is when we communicate. Albert Mehrabian’s 7% spoken words, 38% voice tone and 55% body language is probably the most oft cited, although these figures come with their own caveats which he stated but are not often repeated.

However, whether we can put a consistent percentage value on these things is irrelevant. The fact is that physical presentation matters. It nuances and assists verbal content. Look at how, disembodied through cyberspace, we still use emoticons on digital communications :-D

Evolution simply doesn’t take time and effort to produce highly complex, utterly useless systems.

In fact, seeing a discontinuity between facial expressions and verbal output puts us on alert. Nietzche wrote:

"One can lie with the mouth, but with the accompanying grimace one nevertheless tells the truth"

And watching another’s expressions can help us to empathise. As Edgar Allen Poe had it:

“When I wish to find out how wise or how stupid or how good or how wicked is anyone, or what his thoughts are at the moment, I fashion the expression of my face, as accurately as possible, in accordance with the expression of his, and then wait to see what thoughts or sentiments arise in my mind or heart”

And perhaps we’re not the only species sensitive to the facial expressions of other humans. A team at Lincoln University led by Dr Kun Guo discovered that dogs have left gaze bias when looking at human faces – not other objects or other animals - just humans. The idea is that we may reveal our emotions more authentically on the right side of our faces and gazing left helps the dog to intuit the human state better. Probably more work needed, but it’s an intriguing notion. If we attain simpatico through our facial expressions, why should our longest serving friends not have got in on the act?

The modern master of facial studies is probably Paul Ekman, a professor of psychology at the University of California Medical School. With his colleague Wallace Friesan, he catalogued the 43 distinct muscular movements that the human face can make with its over 50 muscles, calling them action ‘units’. Taking combinations of up to five action units at a time, they catalogued over ten thousand combinations and then noted the three thousand which meant something, the reflection of an authentic human state.

The face is simply the most exquisite piece of biological communication machinery in existence. Can you think of a better one?

In this light, it hard to see how deliberately covering a face can be seen as less than an assault on personality, on individuality. It’s an attenuation of a person’s relationship with the world and the other people in it, a hobbling of the natural medium through which we emote and communicate, even when not speaking.

This week, French MPs voted to pass a law which will forbid the wearing of facial covering in public places. This will, no doubt, be distressing to people who wear motorcycle helmets to restaurants and balaclavas to the theatre. But its real intention is to forbid the wearing of the veil by a minority of muslim women.

Given what we now know about faces, shouldn’t we all regard this is a virtuous law?

I don’t think so.

The Harm Principle' is one of the principles upon western liberal thought is based. As John Stuart Mill wrote:

“… 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.”

It’s difficult to see how the wearing of a veil harms others.

There are exceptions of course. Minors shouldn’t be able to wear a veil any more than they should be able to get a tattoo. In sensitive security situations such as passport control or entering buildings, people must be required to show their faces. In professional situations such as teaching, there must be no impedance of communication and therefore no veil.

But if a woman chooses to walk down the street completely covered, that surely must remain her own business.

Of course, she may be being coerced by a man. The proposed French law places far lighter penalties upon women than on the men who force them to wear veils.

But considering this situation carefully, how on earth could the law prove coercion without a full disclosure from the coerced? It’s probably unworkable.

At its worst, this law could further restrict the free movement of women who are subject, for economic or social reasons, to the dress codes imposed by husbands and fathers.

It’s hard to see what the French law will achieve but resentment. It’s unlikely to move the willing veil wearer to a secular philosophy, to move the oppressed veil-wearer to liberty or to move marginalised muslims to fuller integration with French society and values.

In my view, as a personal practice, the wearing of the veil is to be deplored, but the French law looks like sanctimonious bullying.


  1. I agree, and in such a situation as a woman decides to go out veiled anyway, I don't see how it will be effective other than by police basically hassling her in the street, which I really don't think is good for anyone. I would rather see - as I think is alluded to here - a ban on children wearing the veil, which should be sufficient both to prevent coercion (and hence inculcation), and to make it perfectly clear to those growing up in our secular democracies that it really is their choice. If they reach 18 and want to veil their faces, so be it.

  2. Couldn't agree more, I made a significantly less polite, but similar argument in favour of allowing Sharia courts in the UK. Nice to meet you on Monday.

  3. Great post,although I'm not so sure that it is right to dismiss out of hand the benefits that a ban on the veil could bring to those women who suffer under religious oppression.

    I think you would agree that the maximisation of liberty and freedom is suitable as an ultimate end. That said, before we decide for or against the veil ban we would need to have a sense of exactly how many French veil-wearers are or are not free to choose their own modes of dress.

    If the legislation were to be thrown out it would allow the men who curtail their wives' freedoms free reign to continue to do so.

    Would an accommodation for religious oppression be then seen as the necessary cost of maintaining the freedoms of those who wear the veil voluntarily?

    It is in some ways a 'trade off' of liberties. It is also a perfect example of the stand-off in Western society between 'freedom from' and freedom to.'

    Whether the legislation passes or is thrown out there will be people with their liberty restricted in one way or another. Either the voluntary veil wearer is told she has no freedom to wear the veil, or the oppressed veil wearer is told that her freedom to choose not to wear the veil will not be protected under law.

    The only way to really break the stand-off is to find a way of establishing under which state of affairs the least number of people suffer from a curtailment to their freedom and for the French to legislate accordingly.

  4. The values or needs of communities dictate that aspects of the evolving human animal are not suitable for an evolving human society - for example the mode-of-operation of the male reproductive instincts have become obsolete, as has the need for gender-based division of labour. How can the social needs of humans be protected from their evolutionary shackles?
    One answer is legislation. Religion, government, society; all legislative systems. This is understandable. It is a difficult trick the species has to pull off, sustaining the Dionysian animal alongside the Apollonian intellect.
    But if rape, sexual oppression and violence are to the thinking human unacceptable, why must the female be covered up or punished to prevent it? And if there is no need for the physically strongest members of the group to be the primary resource providers, why must the female be conditioned to search for the resource provider as opposed to the resource?
    If the male-centred, male-driven socio-moral 'evolution' of the species became instead more balanced and truly humanistic, perhaps - in time - what people can and cannot wear in public may come to consume less of our energy.

  5. There shouldn't be a total ban as the French and Belgian governments are pushing for, but there should be a partial ban. I.e. anywhere where identity or communication are important.

    No one should be allowed to collect a child from a school unless they are willing to show their face to a member of staff. Passport control you mention. No teacher or university lecturer should be permitted to conceal their face from their students. Private businesses should be allowed to decide for themselves if they wish to allow people concealing their face from entering the premises or not. (C.v. restrictions on "hoodies" in certain shopping centres)

    As you point out, any form of facial covering produces asymmetric communication. Whilst it is not appropriate to ban the burkha in the streets there are many places where it is insane not to ban it.

    At a bare minimum, it should be understood by all members of society that it is very rude and impolite to be wearing any form of facial covering whilst in conversation with another member of the human species.

  6. I reached this article thanks to @jackofkent and I'm glad I did. There's a bit of a debate on this topic in the Irish Times Letters pages. I hope you don't mind if I quote from this article to make a similar point.

  7. why should muslim women be allowed to cover their faces, when young people are prevented from wearing hoodies....?? doesn't quite sit right, does it? or are we saying that all young people are potential thugs and all veiled women are innocent citizens? make it one rule for all, or none at all....

  8. A ban seems heavy-handed. All I ask is for veiled women to be treated the same as masked men.

  9. Assallamu alaikum peace be upon you

    Was it not the case in recent history when no British lady left the home without being fully dressed i.e. jacket, floor length skirt, hat and gloves, this attire signalling her dignity, self respect and the protection of her natural, innate female modesty? Would she have not been villified as being less than respectable? Are women wearing veils at funerals or weddings to be fined? If Sarkozy and France's standards of dignity and respect for womenkind amount to this: perhaps, in the interest of fairness, laws can be enforced which fine men for making profits from vulnerable and gullible women in public nude 'fashion,' strip clubs and porn generally. ( What is the truth regarding women/mothers having the freedom to choose whether to strip etc? No freedom to choose if they are facing poverty, homelessness, debt, lacking in qualifications, child friendly employment, imagined potential, socially disadvantaged, no husband, no family or community support and have children at home who need to be fed, clothed, bathed and kept warm. This anti Islamic, socially divisive ploy is simply another iron in the fire of the Crusaders..ask the Albigensian's...oh can't, they were all annihilated because they were becoming influenced by the true enlightenment of mercy, dignity, compassion and justice for all that is Islam.
    'We' hate your freedoms? Try resisting the paying of penalty charges or crippling taxes and see how free you truly are.
    Did tptb in France actually canvass the opinions of Muslim women who freely choose to wear the veil and resent the encroaching surVEILlance from airport scanners to CCTV's? You've been fed nothing but lies about Islam since Pope Urban II's et al rallying speeches for the first crusade ( to the 45 scud missile threat etc ad nauseum. But you know this.
    fyi, there is no Islamic law which requires women to be veiled. It is a matter of cultural and personal privacy. Respect with regard to modest dress for wives, daughters, sisters, mothers is enshrined in Islamic Shariah and thus not subject to the whims and exploitations of the fashion and sex industries.
    Incidentally, an example of the disingenuous East West alleged dichotomy mindset and hypocrisy is that female circumcision is absolutely unIslamic yet no hue and cry over women undergoing the expense, pain and dangers of cosmetic surgery? Madness, wherever both are found. There is no East or West..only the struggle for peace, dignity and justice for all humankind. Who is dropping the bombs in the name of freedom eh?
    Assallamu alaikum peace be upon you