The city of Liverpool is not known for its subtlety and that is especially true if you visit on a bank holiday Sunday. I’d travelled into the city mid afternoon on my way to a non-alcohol related appointment and it felt like I was the only traveller still sober. The train was filled with locals already ‘on the lash’. Men cradled beer crates and laughed grossly at their own jokes. Women with thick makeup and with rollers in their hair (a unique Liverpool fashion) brayed about their plans and recalled lurid tales of past encounters.
It was a reminder, to me at least, that the problem of France is, really, a problem of everywhere. Defining freedom is tricky because no two freedoms are the same. My freedom to read a book whilst sitting on a train conflicted with the freedoms of the four women in the next row of seats to describe the degree to which alcohol could make them projectile vomit. Even if the two freedoms are equal, then the results are certainly not. I could not impose silence on my fellow passengers but they could impose the tale of a boyfriend’s ‘budgie smugglers’ upon me. It’s why, I suppose, I was in a particularly censorious frame of mind when I arrived in Liverpool and why the scene at Lime Street station seemed to sum up modernity in all its fractured and frustrating glory.
Beneath the station clock, a hen party had gathered. It was the usual collection of twenty to thirty year old women — a few hen mothers some years older — wearing pink Card Factory party sashes ahead of what was sure to be a long night on the town. The bride-to-be wore an L plate and held a balloon which floated at her side. The balloon was about thirty inches long and shaped like an anatomically correct penis. What made it ‘fun’, I suppose, was the drooling cartoon face drawn on the pink shaft making the whole thing look like a slightly elongated Philip Hammond.
Now, I know how I’m supposed to respond. I’m supposed to laugh, cherish the fact that we’re a nation with a lively sense of humour which, even if it’s a bit earthy, reveals some essential life spirit. We no longer live under the cloud of Victorian morality, a mendacious hypocrisy given the reality of the Victorian London. We’re now secular blue-skied Europeans, frolicking in the snow and our posing pouches because we’re fully in tune with the sexual zeitgeist. It’s violence that we’re meant to object to and not the human body, even in the form of a helium filled cock and balls.
As if to lend the scene some contrast, two couples were standing to one side of the group. Two women wore niqabs and were covered from top to toe in black so that the only part visible were their eyes. The men, as always seems to be the case, wore modish Western dress: Nike t-shirts, loose fitting cargo pants, baseball hats, and jewellery. They were dressed for comfort whilst the women were dressed for something that’s impossible to guess without knowing their souls: religious faith, oppression, or, perhaps they would say, freedom.
Yet as I stood looking at the scene, my eyes bouncing between the women in the niqabs and the floating priapic monster with its salivating grin, if felt like I was being asked to make a choice between two worlds. It was a choice I couldn’t make. Instead, all I could wonder if how liberal must we be before we are truly liberal and how conservative before we’re conservative?
‘Would you rather we were a homogenous, bland and dull country?’ I was asked on Twitter after I’d posted a picture of the balloon.
‘Well, of course not!’ I wanted to reply. ‘But does propriety demand that we accept some despotic tyranny of sameness? In order to be free, must I accept public spaces filled with floating plastic testicles?’ Is that, I began to wonder, the real struggle we face?
Seeking compromise where none can exist is very much the defining characteristic of the debate that’s currently happening in France and might well soon happen here in the UK. This week, a YouGov survey suggests that 57% of people in the UK would support a ban on the burqa, with 46% also supporting a ban on the burkini. Such bans do not come in hard and soft forms. They are very much an either/or choice. Yet forcing women to uncover would feel better if we weren’t presenting them with such a bleak version of Western secular life and it is a failure of our liberalism that the free side of the argument appears so morally bankrupt.
Advocates of our liberal values stand in front of the fundamentalists and proclaim freedom by presenting some polar opposite to oppressive values. Cartoons must go out of the way to offend the religious because, the argument runs, we will not allow their superstitions to define our freedoms. That is true yet, by the same logic, if we’re not going to allow our freedoms to be defined by what the religious conservatives dislike, then are we not equally forcing upon ourselves an unremitting diet of nihilism? If their god mean nothing to us, then neither do their taboos and moral convictions.
Standing on the station in Liverpool felt very much like we face a battle between a culture than is unapologetically set in its traditions and incapable of changing, and a culture that has lost its way in the belief that the alternative to religious conservatism is a hedonism. Too many of us in the West lack true convictions and the belief that we have an answer to the world’s troubles. We too easily fall back on that instinctive response to the language of prohibition which is to engage in the language of greater liberalism. If you demand that I speak quietly, then I’ll shout loudly. If you demand that I wear a shirt, then I’ll take off my pants.
The challenge for secular societies is to define a morality that does not look to transcendental entities to tell us what we should or should not do. We do not need a holy book to tell us not to run with scissors or to drive when drunk. We should also not need supernatural help to explain why the coarsening of the public space is a bad thing. There are reason why liberal societies are defined as much by their laws of censorship as they are by their laws of free expression. Before we start to demand that people undress for the good of the public, might it also make sense to decide what level of undress we will demand and fix the point where a few of our boundaries are going to be drawn?