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Burke and Burkinis

Albert Camus adored swimming in the Mediterranean Sea. It would be fascinating to know how this great philosopher, who was acutely aware of France’s complicated relationship with the Arab world, would have reacted to the burkini ban on the French Riviera.

It’s a controversy that has brought rashness on both sides. Witness the jarring images of police on the beaches ham-fistedly trying to impose the ban, and also the patently false words coming from the Muslim head of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights that the burkini has nothing to do with matters of “public order.” No one in fashion can accept that clothes and how you style yourself has no meaning or is a matter of cultural indifference.

I do want to offer a few comments about sumptuary laws, however, and at more length, about whether Marks and Spencer is right to sell the burkini. Stated more broadly, is there such a thing as a national brand and, in consequence, is such a business morally obliged to support its particular civilization? France’s Socialist government, believing the answer is yes, has criticized the venerable English retailer.

“In her view what she wears is her own business—and no one else’s, a right she thinks that should be enjoyed by all women everywhere.” This statement ends a recent New York Times article on the burkini and expresses the view of a Muslim woman wanting to wear a burkini.

Let us try to put religion to the side and assess the truth of this statement. Were I to walk into a new class wearing a Star Trek bodysuit and in all seriousness start to teach, that would be an issue. I’d look awful; but even if I looked just like dashing James T. Kirk, it would still be an issue. Students would rightly think I was not serious-minded and likely would even feel that I was imposing upon their generosity far too much. Quite apart from food and safety regulations, the costumes for the games we play, the professions that require dress-ups, and modesty laws, there is a large array of social norms requiring dress compliance. Consider funerals, events that are “Black Tie,” girls’ night out, First Communion, or meeting the in-laws for the first time.

There is a hideous song by Miley Cyrus containing the line, “It’s my mouth, I’ll say what I want to.” This is as false as what the woman said to the New York Times reporter. And its falsity is the same whether you are on university grounds or in a local car parts shop.

What about the owners of a business saying we’ll sell what we want to—does that ring any more true? Marks and Spencer has recently been criticized by the French government’s women’s rights minister for investing in the “Islamic garment market.”

Pierre Bergé, longtime partner of legend Yves Saint Laurent, has this to say:

Creators should have nothing to do with Islamic fashion. Designers are there to make women more beautiful, to give them their freedom, not to collaborate with this dictatorship which imposes this abominable thing by which we hide women and make them live a hidden life.

This dense statement makes reference to a number of values and disvalues. A full unpacking of both would take some time but suffice it to say here that Western fashion defers to beauty, liberty, visibility, and mobility. Let’s take this from Bergé’s statement: the burkini is no part of the trajectory of Western fashion.

Let’s also take it as uncontroversial that there are national brands: James Bond, Aston Martin, Burberry, Mulberry, Ferrari, Hermès, Cucinelli, and, amongst so many others, that staple of the British high street, Marks and Spencer, affectionately known as M&S.

Now, the trickier part: Is a national brand obliged to affirm the values sustaining its own civilization?

It’s likely libertarians and conservatives who would struggle most with this question. The liberal humanitarian would immediately say that Marks and Spencer must sell the burkini as part of its CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) obligation to globalism, and specifically to British multiculturalism. For the liberal humanitarian, national obligations makes no sense.

Libertarians, in contrast, are allergic to CSR. They would deny that social justice obligations are implied by property-holding, preferring the claim that holding property in business is for the sake of making money and it would be entirely at the discretion of property owners how they then spent that money. However, many libertarians would also recognize that this view of property is a legacy of long philosophical and legal meditation, and might be nervous about a staple of the British high street like M&S departing so significantly from Western fashion. Libertarians are not insensitive to the idea that a culture broadly committed to riches, vanity, fashion, and autonomy helps sustain a robust account of property rights.

Conservatives, meanwhile, are faced with a very sticky wicket. They don’t much care for CSR as typically expressed but do have their own variants, linked perhaps to virtue theory (Alasdair MacIntyre), distributism (Max Scheler), or CST (Catholic Social Thought), and so unlike libertarians would hold strongly to the view that businesses have all manner of ethical obligations. Unlike the humanitarian liberal, however, they would think M&S has an obligation to support those values that have long sustained the company. Moreover, the appeal of the burkini to the value of modesty would not be lost on the conservative. The puzzle is whether a modesty claim quite outside the trajectory of Western fashion would be acceptable.

Edmund Burke (1729-1797) can help here. Burke was an Anglo-Irish political philosopher during the latter part of the 18th century. His Reflections on the Revolution in France is a classic and viewed as the bedrock of contemporary conservative thinking. It is a magnificent read. He argues that the institutional life of a nation must follow the “method of nature” if it is to be happy and successful.

The method of nature expresses “the spirit of philosophic analogy” and works along the lines of a “family settlement.” Institutions change; they have a history, but they also have stable coordinates in space and time. Like a family, an institution will have a past (history), present (place), and future (trajectory). In the natural world, creatures thrive by balancing inheritance, territory, and reproduction. Families and institutions are no different.

Under this way of thinking, the very idea of a brand, especially a national brand, expresses an inheritance (in business-speak, its “DNA”). This inheritance is also a place: a brand has a geography. Companies need to think about logistics, risk, environment, materials, personnel, capital, and design for that very reason. They have geographical identities. Founded in Leeds in 1884 by Michael Marks and Thomas Spencer, M&S is Western, and as Pierre Bergé points out, being Western means to defer to a particular cluster of values—aesthetic, political, moral, and technical—these being the inner bearings of a brand’s trajectory.

Brands have become unstuck before, precisely by losing sight of their value geography. Just ask Gucci. M&S might want to re-check its coordinates.

Reader Discussion

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on September 07, 2016 at 10:58:49 am

Moderator: Please delete initial response, which was submitted without proof-reading and is replete with typos - thanks:

I see this whole M&S controversy as merely a company having astutely identified an under-served, emerging market and having sought to exploit and monetize it – it’s not like M&S has (yet) rolled out an entire line of Islamized fashion – for a company to do so, seems, on the contrary, quite Western. How about the converse; shall I be condemned by the government and special interest groups for continuing to print Bibles in the West solely because, “being Western means to defer to a particular cluster of values—aesthetic, political, moral, and technical” – when Christianity no longer resides in the West’s cluster of values? – in my opinion the decision to produce and sell burkinis is a private business decision, one that naturally and rightly assumes the risk of market back-lash, (as I anticipate will be the decision to no longer print Bibles if/when that market has fully evaporated).
The only rational and reasonable basis for government getting involved in something as banal as a hyper-modest swimsuit is whether or not these women are being “forced” to wear this unrevealing attire, or if it is their free choice – of course, this must be considered.

In my view, there is a much deeper question here – can a government rightfully restrict, in a free-society, the right of an individual or group of individuals from dressing in a certain manner in the public arena? It’s unlikely that any Western company would produce and sell (openly), KKK fashion, however, quite aside from this, the KKK white-sheet attire has, and intentionally is, a much greater symbol of intimidation than communicated by the burkinis, and yet KKK members are never (to my knowledge) prevented from donning their costume during their assemblies or on the court-house steps, or on the steps of their front porches; KKK costume is blatantly intimidating and perhaps a good argument may be made to ban them from public gathering places like beaches, but, the burkini in my view does not rise to the same level. Wearing a Pittsburgh Steeler Jersey to a Cleveland Brown or Baltimore Raven home-game might be perceived by locals as an intimidating symbol, but should Pittsburgh fans be arrested or publicly stripped at the stadiums of their jerseys? What’s next – banning Catholic Priests from wearing clerical attire in public because a group finds them distasteful reminders of piety or somehow intimidating? Do we really want to compartmentalize or restrict yet another freedom due to irrational perceptions?

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Image of Paul Binotto
Paul Binotto
on September 07, 2016 at 15:03:35 pm

"Is a national brand obliged to affirm the values sustaining its own civilization?"

What a crock. How can public nudity be so essential to Western values, when it was affirmatively prohibited by the Western state at all of the times when the real progenitors of Western civilization were doing their work?

Maybe you should think the unthinkable, that today the Muslims better adhere to certain values that are indispensable to civilization--any civilization--than the current citizens of the West.

It is remarkable to see conservatives, who supposedly believe in "family values," suddenly identify the fashion industry as a crucial pillar of Western civilization. The only explanation is that they follow the rule: if the Muslims are for, we must be against.

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Jones
on September 07, 2016 at 18:00:07 pm

" if the Muslims are for, we must be against."

And if WHAT the Muslims are FOR is the utter subjugation of women, then YES, we should be against it! consider what else the Muslims deem proper for women - clitoridectomy; being treated as THE criminal when making an accusation of rape; treated like chattel in marital relations, etc etc etc etc.

Yep, maybe we should be AGAINST it as it is a symbol of the total subjugation of female Muslims. I suppose that is a "better adhere[nce] to certain values that are indispensable to civilization–any civilization–than the current citizens of the West. "

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gabe
on September 07, 2016 at 18:27:33 pm

Mr. Gabe - don't you agree, there's a vast difference between being against the burkini if it is viewed as a symbol of female oppression, and making the garment illegal to wear in public, or assaulting a woman by forcibly tearing the outer-layers of the swimsuit off of her in public (or in private)? - this type of behavior is not only unacceptable in a free society, but it only compounds the women's plight and degradation. IF the men are forcing the women to wear this outfit, assault and harass the men, not the women.

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Image of Paul Binotto
Paul Binotto
on September 18, 2016 at 14:13:46 pm

[…] http://www.libertylawsite.org/2016/09/07/burke-and-burkinis/ […]

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Image of My take on the business ethics of the burkini – Veneration & Refinement: The Ethics of Fashion
My take on the business ethics of the burkini – Veneration & Refinement: The Ethics of Fashion
on November 07, 2016 at 17:22:37 pm

[…] a bit of a contrarian. Outspoken about France’s Burkini ban (for some of his comments, see my http://www.libertylawsite.org/2016/09/07/burke-and-burkinis/), he seems to enjoy being critical of Paris and France, generally. He raves about Apple products […]

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Image of Let’s hope Pierre Bergé is wrong - Veneration & Refinement: The Ethics of Fashion
Let’s hope Pierre Bergé is wrong - Veneration & Refinement: The Ethics of Fashion
on April 03, 2017 at 17:44:47 pm

[…] Edmund Burke is one of Britain’s towering intellectual figures, a man, who, like his contemporary Adam Smith, continues to impact our moral and political order.  I have spoken about Burke here: http://www.libertylawsite.org/2016/09/07/burke-and-burkinis/. […]

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Image of Apple bows to Burke - Veneration & Refinement: The Ethics of Fashion
Apple bows to Burke - Veneration & Refinement: The Ethics of Fashion
on September 05, 2018 at 20:19:05 pm

[…] — I have written about the mistake the heritage brand M&S made in making the burkini (https://www.lawliberty.org/2016/09/07/burke-and-burkinis/) — but Burke, Scheler, Kolnai, and Huizinga, would all respond positively to this idea of a […]

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Image of A fashion club, literally. Kolnai right again? - Veneration & Refinement: The Ethics of Fashion
A fashion club, literally. Kolnai right again? - Veneration & Refinement: The Ethics of Fashion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.