The recent debates on the burqa in France and Quebec point to a uniquely contemporary problem: the strange short-circuits we encounter today between the private and the public. I do not mean to be perversely provocative when I draw comparisons between the burqa debate and the popularity of more and more lurid kinds of reality television, but I do see a kind of underground connection that may clarify both our notions of privacy today and the disproportional anxiety that the burqa seems to cause to secular society, whether in Europe or North America.
We live today in a media culture in which the notion of privacy seems quaint and outdated. Teenage celebrities are sure to be at the center of sex-tape or sexting scandals; we are fascinated by people like Tiger Woods with unique and extraordinary talents, not for those remarkable talents, but for the banal sexual appetites (always for porn stars and cocktail waitresses, the poutine of the sexual world) that make them just like any of us. We assume that the only good conversations are confessional ones. And even those of us with some shred of decorum left are still not averse to posting private thoughts as our Facebook tag lines. This is not, however, a lament over the loss of some paradise of privacy and integrity. Back in the sixties, my farmer uncle in New Brunswick had a party-line telephone that he shared with six other households. I can vouch for the fact that people — even stolid maritime farm-folk — were gossip-mongers even before Big Brother and Entertainment Tonight hit the airwaves. No, rather I am mapping out the advent of a new form of communal life: what we might call the “public-private.”
We are all familiar with the “public-private.” It is that area of private emotional life (what used to be private life, at any rate) that is now fodder for prurient entertainment, the private dragged — or tossed — into the public sphere. The “public-private” is only interested in those aspects of private emotional life that are the most titillating, the most primitive, the most ridiculous. We want to know about adulteries, distasteful habits (a recent posting on Huffington Post discussed Jessica Simpson’s lack of dental hygiene), emotional blowups, domestic quarrels. In the realm of the “public-private” we care nothing for those aspects of emotional life that are more subtle: those moments of regret, the badly incorporated bits of grief that are the result of any life lived beyond infancy, the small centers of love and joy around which even the most despised life tries to orbit. We don’t want to know about those. We are even a bit embarrassed to encounter true privacy, true interiority. We will continue to be satisfied with the spectacles of lust and hypocrisy to which we have become accustomed.
This is why the public display of the Burqa is so disturbing. In the wearer of the burqa, we do not encounter the amusing “public-private,” but something far more disturbing: the “private public,” the woman who, appearing in public, nevertheless demands and enacts a deep privacy, a reserve that can only be destabilizing for those who encounter it, especially those for whom the concept of privacy has become a punch-line.
The first protest against the burqa, always ridiculous, is that it threatens public safety by hiding identity. Never mind that such laws always include exceptions for festive occasions (where the crowds present a ripe target for a masked terrorist). If the burqa represents a threat from radical Islam, is it not just the opposite of an attempt to hide identity, to slip unnoticed past the safety nets? Does it not represent, from a military standpoint, the exact opposite of camouflage? If the enemy is the one wearing the burqa, will we not see them coming a mile away?
Jean Francois Copé, in a recent interview with The Economist, reveals more truthfully the source of burqa-anxiety:
We consider in France…when we talk about brotherhood, fraternity, we need to know a little bit about the other one….When you meet someone on the street that you don’t know, the first thing is to shake hands and to smile. When you smile to someone and you cannot see if the other one answer to your smile because you cannot see his face, you just miss the first part of his identity and this is why we think that this is not consistent with the values of democracy, of liberty, of respect.
What Copé is describing here is the anxiety of encountering the face that insists on keeping itself to itself. It is the encounter with the “private public” self, with the person who insists on participating in all the necessary activities of public life without taking on the additional burden of doing so in a way that will reassure the most anxious of us that there is a “warm human self” under the veil. The wearing of the burqa is, indeed, an implicit rejection of the right we have accorded ourselves of entering uninvited into the emotional lives of others. Copé’s implicit assumption here is “How can I accord you any democratic rights if you do not reveal yourself to me?” as if the right to equality under the law depends upon emotional confession. Such a confession, crucial between lovers and friends, has never been a necessary condition for democracy. Indeed, when Robert Frost subtly disparages the New England wisdom that “good fences make good neighbours” he seems less wise today then he did when “Mending Wall” was first published. The walls that protect our privacy, that set a part of our lives aside for those we choose to let in, are in need of mending.
This is why, despite the tiny minority of Muslim women who wear the burqa (only 2000 of a million and a half adult Muslim women in France), the appearance of the burqa in public so scandalizes our sense of the normal. We can accept the vulgarity of the “public private” with its carnivalesque divorce trials and feuds between drug-addled celebrities. We are not disturbed by this form of public display. What does disturb us is the presence in our midst of a deep privacy, the “private public” self that will not play our game, and whose commitment to privacy in a world of voyeurs cannot but appear to us as at once an affront and profoundly enviable.