Two different British newspapers carried stories showing once again how good intentions can lead to not so good consequences. In both cases actions were undertaken in accordance with waning but still fashionable ideologies—respectively victimology and multiculturalism (which are probably as prevalent in the United Kingdom as in the United States).
Victimologists are busy expanding the catalogue of officially certified categories of victims; multiculturalists are people who never disliked a culture, however bizarre. Yet policies inspired by these ideologies are frequently initiated by morally admirable individuals. What decent person could possibly object to a law against sex trafficking, or to educational programs that protect the rights of religious minorities? Well, sometimes things get a bit more complicated. A sociologist may remember Max Weber’s concept of unanticipated consequences; the Irish sage who formulated “Murphy’s Law” had the same idea in mind (“What can go wrong, will go wrong”). But there is a more ancient wisdom that can serve as a lesson here: Confucius’ “Doctrine of the Mean”—the middle way that avoids all excessive zeal, in private as well as public life. Murphy might have said: “Virtue carried to excess leads to vice”. This is what Anglicans have called their “via media”, a calm attitude in the face of both Catholic and Protestant zeal. The comparison with Confucians may indicate a deep affinity. The Mandarins of imperial China shared with the elite of the British Empire the conviction that they were morally superior to anyone else on earth; that conviction was instilled by an education that involved the acquisition of perfectly useless achievements, such as calligraphy or cricket. But I must not digress….
On March 24, 2015, The Guardian carried a story by Henry McDonald with the title “Sex worker to launch legal challenge against Northern Ireland prostitution”. The Stormont, the regional legislature, had passed the law in October 2013; it is scheduled to be in force in June 2015. The central purpose of the law is to combat human trafficking, especially of women to serve as prostitutes. But one clause in the law provides that customers of prostitutes, but not the latter themselves, be subject to prosecution. This provision, the first of its kind in the United Kingdom, was in imitation of Sweden and other northern European countries. (Sweden was, perhaps still is, in the vanguard of progressive causes. When I first visited there around 1970, a group of feminists seriously proposed that public urinals should be prohibited, because they were discriminatory—the men should be forced to sit down. I don’t know what happened to this project.) The issue is timely because a similar law is being considered in the Irish Republic, where it is being propagated by a lobby of radical feminists and Catholic nuns. (To what extent do the two groups overlap? )
The campaign against the impending law in the North and the putative one in the Republic is led by a ”sex worker” (in case you don’t know, that is now the politically correct professional title)—Laura Lee, who lives in Edinburgh but visits clients in Belfast and Dublin. She is supposed to have some training in law and psychology, but she also favors sado-masochistic practices. The story is illustrated by a photo of an angry-looking woman, holding a whip in her hand. (It is not clear whether this suggests a woman whipping or being whipped. One should not presume too quickly that radical feminists necessarily prefer the former script.) The case will be initiated in Belfast High Court, then pursued up the ladder of the British legal system, all the way to the law members of the House of Lords and if necessary the human rights court of the European Union. Lee’s basic position is straightforward:
“I am doing this because I believe that when two consenting adults have sex before closed doors, if money changes hands then that is none of the state’s business. The law they have introduced has nothing to do with people being trafficked but simply with their moral abhorrence of paid sex.”
She also objects to the assumption that prostitutes in Northern Ireland are trafficked in from some impoverished country; most are supposedly indigent single mothers with children from right around the corner. (She claims that throughout 2014 there was not a single arrest for trafficking in Northern Ireland.) Lee also predicts that the law will drive prostitution underground and will therefore pose a threat to health.
This is not the place to discuss whether paid sex is “abhorrent” or not. (I can think of many more morally repugnant actions.) Nor do I want here to discuss the relation of morality and the state as understood by Lee. But she is empirically correct when she suggests that progressive ideologues look for victims even where there are none. God knows that there are enough real victims in the world without inventing imaginary ones. Women in territories conquered by ISIS or other Islamist terrorists are surely victims. I would think that many women from the poorer countries in eastern Europe who become “sex workers” in the EU, are truly victims; indigenous European women who practice the most ancient profession in five-star hotels and travel from one to another in business-class, cannot easily be squeezed into the category of victims.
The other story, by Sarah Knapton, is from The Telegraph of March 23, 2015: “Solar eclipse: Schoolchildren banned from watching ‘on religious and cultural grounds’”. I had been aware of the eclipse that could be seen in much of Europe. But the headline stumped me, until I read on. The primary school in question is in the Borough of Ealing, an area located in west London with a large Hindu population. I had found out some years ago that there is a common belief in India that being outside and watching an eclipse can be very dangerous; terrible things could happen to you. (I doubt whether this has much to do with Hinduism as a religion.) I was at a conference in Europe. One of the participants was a highly educated Hindu academic. Just before the eclipse was expected to be visible, she hastily excused herself and withdrew to her room. She did not re-emerge until the celestial spectacle was over (it did not take long). When she returned, she admitted somewhat sheepishly that this was “an ancient Indian superstition”, that of course she did not believe it. But she then said, laughing uneasily, “you know, better safe than sorry”. The children had been told that they would be able to go outside and watch the eclipse through a pinhole in a piece of cardboard (to protect their eyes from the direct impact of the waning and waxing of the strong sunlight). As homework on the day before the children were told to prepare the cardboard shades themselves. Apparently many of the children were looking forward to the adventure; they were disappointed when the headmaster cancelled the planned exercise, “on religious and cultural grounds”. They were only allowed to watch the eclipse on screens in the classrooms (no pinholes needed). Then came trouble.
Some parents were upset and vocal about it (the story did not give the numbers of Hindu and non-Hindu parents). One father of a seven-year old girl wrote: “I am extremely upset about it… This is an issue about scientific matters versus religion. Superstition is an outrage—is it going to be Darwin next? We will be like mid America” (my italics). If something like this happened in America (think of creationism as an issue before the Texas School Board—litigation up through the state and federal court systems!) In this case, so far, the Ealing Council (the local educational authority) and the national Department of Education have decided not to investigate the incident.
Multiculturalism in education can mean instilling respect for every culture and religion adhered to by the children in a school (that, if you will, would be a Confucian option). Then there could be a pandering to whatever identity politics is vocal in the relevant population. There is also a militant secularism, on both sides of the Atlantic, though with different historical backgrounds and social contexts. Lawyers looking for new business in the UK might want to research whether American tort law could be developed in Her Majesty’s courts.