So Boris Johnson is in trouble again. His comment on Muslim women wearing burkas as looking like bank robbers or letter boxes has caused enough stir even to knock Brexit off the front pages. I am no particular fan of Johnson but I read him because he produces interesting and provocative ideas. My aim today is not to discuss the issue although I think our society is turning towards being a nanny state. What I want to consider is the rôle which facial expressions play in the human race.
If we begin at the beginning we go back of course to Aristotle. He tells us that humans are a social race, and he derives from this the moral laws needed to sustain this condition. For example, we must avoid falsehoods because the communication of truths sustains society. We could go back further, even to evolution, to recognise that societies can only flourish if they respect and develop their social bonds.
The process, psychologists tell us, as a result of their studies, works like this. When we listen to people we hear and understand the words, but we can also recognise the feeling of the speakers. If, for example, someone is telling us a sad story we expect to see a sad face, and that affects our feelings. What happens is that the muscles of our own faces unconsciously react in accord. The brain is then triggered to recognise the presence of a sad feeling.
Psychologists and trained counsellors, who are using talking therapy, have to be skilled at this. And it is not easy to become accurately conscious of the feelings of the client. But, without this, therapy is unlikely to succeed. After all, our feelings are at the heart of our internal attitudes and choices. But at another level it applies in the pedestrian world. What happens if you don’t correctly recognise the feelings of your child, or the feelings of your spouse? Or judge them incorrectly?
I assume that the burka exists to defend Muslim women from having any social interplay with others than their own family. They can use words for necessary communication but avoid the emotional intimacy which their faces inevitably express. So I think they are a bad idea as they interfere with the social bonding a society needs. A moral theologian might describe it as against the natural law. But, unlike those countries which forbid the burka, I think we should permit it (leaving aside occanions such as court appearances or aviation passengers). I am very much against any regulations which prevent people making their own choices, unless it is absolutely necessary to do so.
So, thanks to Boris for putting the burka into the limelight, and making me think about it.