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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.

BalloonBeneath 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?


11 Comments on "The Either/Or of Burqinis and Balloons"

  1. A thought provoking article. Someone said to me recently that it is not those who wear the Niqab or who dress differently that disturbs them but the Yobs and louts who run amok and shame us all. She said these are the ones who we should be focusing on. As someone who only occasionally drinks the odd glass I can never understand why you have to down 12 pints or copious amounts of vodka and tonic to have a good time. Is this a peculiar British thing to see who can down the most alcohol and be sick first and if so why. Is this the only way to have fun?

    The picture you present is of two worlds some may argue two polarising and extreme worlds and you David represent the centre ground where most of us would feel comfortable. I am not sure if any mothers with young children were around on the train but how uncomfortable would they have felt with Women loudly talking about their conquests and boyfriends Budgie smugglers. At times we seem to live in a society where some do not think of others and have no respect for their feelings. How many times I wonder do people use abusive language on public transport but people are too intimidated to speak up. Better to suffer in silence than probably be abused or even worse physically assaulted

    I probably sound old fashioned but this is about standards of decency and appropriate behaviour in public. A lot of us have heard the foul mouthed football fan at a match use language he would never use at work or seen People abuse NHS staff who are doing very difficult jobs. Yes some sections of our society seem to lack common courtesy and it is no wonder that some who come from more conservative backgrounds and who dress differently look at them and think I want no part of that culture for myself or my family.

    • Thanks Paul. Yes, a polarised world but I think the boundaries are changing. That balloon was trivial but emblematic of so much. There were two policemen standing not far away and it didn’t seem to concern them. And, yes, plenty of children knocking about. To me, I’d rather the police took more time looking out of low level stuff like the balloon than terrorists because in a practical sense, it’s what they’re there for and it’s how they can contribute more to the greater good.

      I don’t think it’s about being old fasioned. I was arguing about this stuff when I was much younger and it’s not as though I’m prudish. I don’t mind football fans swearing. I swear like a docker at times. I also enjoy foul mouthed comedy and stuff which many would think is beyond good taste. But context is important and it’s that general cultural decline that concerns me. Without a better sense of who we are, we only give ammunition to the fundamentalists who claim that godlessness is bad. Sometimes I find that hard to disagree with but it’s a problem of secularism to find its cultural and moral heart.

      • Yes agreed David Context is important although I think swearing at a football match is one thing but threatening to kill the ref or his wife is another. There does seem to be as you say a cultural decline perhaps shown also by the rise of trashy reality TV shows where the more extreme vulgar and crass you are the better. The “Average” person does not get on to Big Brother or Geordie Shore. How can it be reversed though not sure?

  2. It’s simply cyclical David. In one lifetime it may be seen a as degeneration but when you look at the whole it is simply a liberal point in the cycle. If you read accounts of Victorian bank holidays it is factory workers fuelled with crates of beer singing bawdy songs in packed carriages, not so different from your experience. In the interim we have had razor gangs ruining the bank holiday in the 20’s, mods and rockers fighting it out in the 60s and football hooligans creating mayhem in the 70’s and 80’s. In Victoria’s lifetime we went from open copulation in St James Park (the London one) to covering up table legs. Paul mentions boozing, the perception is that we drink more than ever as a country, yet we are lightweights compared to our Victorian counterparts. It was heavy legislation that more than halved alcohol consumption and it has been liberalisation of that legislation that has seen consumption rise, the message being that given a chance the British love to have a drink. Indeed the thread that runs through British history is a love of fighting, drinking and money, exploited to great effect by the Royal Navy during Napoleonic times. Given no one else to fight we will delight in fighting each other.
    I’ll leave you with Hogarths excellent Beer Street and Gin Lane 1751

    • Cheers, Rob. Yes, I see the history but I don’t really feel the cyclical argument. It’s all a bit too defeatist or fatalistic, as in, yes we have a problem but it will swing back as it always does.

      Of course Chaucer wrote his drunks and so did Shakespeare with his Sir Toby Belch and Falstaff. Yes, there was the Gin Act and its aftermath and then Victorian ideas of sobriety which didn’t exactly match the reality. Statistics suggest we’re heading back towards Victorian levels of alcohol consumption. I accept all of that but it’s not really central to the point I was trying to make about the vulgarisation of the mainstream. As somebody who is secular, it worries me that secularism is often portrayed as the negation of the spiritual and that our belief system is almost non-existent. People don’t seem too interested in morality and moral questions and that to even think that something is wrong is in itself wrong. I think that’s what I was trying to get to with this piece. A bit of a ramble through my own predilections and doubts, I’m afraid. 😉

  3. Different views on humanity that’s all David. For me there is nothing new under the sun with regards to human behaviour. Thinking we can put an early end to some kind of moral malaise is akin to swimming against the tide, very tiring and ultimately futile. Better not to go into the water at all or wait till the tide turns. I actually think we are heading back to Victorian times in many ways but then maybe that is destined to be the norm. Of course if people made a stand to stop it then they could, but again history suggests that they won’t. After all if the people who are hurt most by government decisions won’t bother voting…….. All very miserable and cynical I know but that’s how I tend to roll 😉

  4. Thank you David for putting into words my own anxieties at the state of moral standards in the UK. I am no angel nor have any religious fervour to fuel my concern. It is just a sense of unease at how degenerate we have become.
    A “Flower Child” of the `60s, I grew up with free love but the “cattle market” that now seems to pervade our world (just watch Naked Attraction on TV to witness the nadir of our moral compass) bears no comparison to that time. Our society seems to have been quietly perverted by a cynical group of people determined to make money from sex and booze. The pervasiveness of online porn, the new opiate of the people, is truly mind boggling. But then I look at myself and think am I turning into a modern Mary Whitehouse? I don’t think so, but many of my more liberal friends believe otherwise. Consequently, I tend not to express my opinions for fear of offending them. How dumb is that I wonder?
    I agree that it is high time we had a public debate – whatever that is – about such issues. Schools, surely, are the place to start but the mantra of free expression that is currently fashionable in education is unlikely to teach moral standards when it is struggling to impose discipline. And alcohol! Yes, I remember when I was in my early teens – trying a swig from the bottle of Scotch in my parents` cupboard. Revolting! How can grown-ups like this stuff I thought. But then along came alco-pops and suddenly 10 year olds were getting drunk. Another example of cynical marketing driving demand amongst the young, and dare I say it, impressionable.

    • Yes the State of Moral Standards in the UK. As we speak we have a member of parliament accused of allegedly paying for two Male prostitutes( with questions about the source of that money) and allegedly using illegal drugs .Some arguing it’s a private matter whilst others arguing his position is now untenable. Doubtless he will be forced to resign from the the Home affairs select committee but the episode shows how unclear how moral compass is

  5. Max Blake (@wheelymax) | 6th September 2016 at 5:01 pm | Reply

    Hi David. I’ve been meaning to get on here to comment at length since I read the article on holiday. Having just re-read it you really do pose some interesting questions which I’m totally ill-equipped to answer! I suppose, in a way at least, it boils down to what you hate the most. Whilst usually my answer would be “religious bigotry my second answer would probably be “the dumbing down and coarsening of our public discourse. So are we left at the lesser of two evils? for me that is easily the penis shaped balloon. Those women you mentioned weren’t harming anybody (though I do cede your point about children but they’ll see as bad on any other day) whereas the Burqua on the other hand…. to paraphrase a meme I saw on Facebook the other day ‘Regressive pretend Muslim parents say “daughter, this is a Burqua wear it or not, I dont mind.”! We must be careful to say what we mean about the Burqua (and Islam in general) and avoid playing with moral equivalences. (NOT that I am accusing you of either!) Like I said it is essentially an Aesthetic choice, isn’t it?

    • Thanks Max. Glad to see you back and hope the holiday was a good one.

      There, I think, you have my original question: why must it be an either/or? I hate religious bigotry but that needn’t make me a balloon-waving hedonist. Yes, given a choice I’d choose the hen party and the balloons but why must I make a choice? There are other positions. What I suppose I’m looking for, if there is such a thing (and I bet there is) is something like a ‘conservative atheism’. I mean conservative with a small ‘c’ as much as I mean atheist with a small ‘a’. It’s something I keep finding myself coming back to, which is a way of defining moral values but without recourse to Gods. I know Hitchens occasionally touched on this but never, afaik, in great detail. I’d like to see, for example, a reasoning that makes a good case for civil manners that is grounded in science or something akin to science whether it’s psychology, sociology, or even economics. It could be a Darwinian argument or it could be economic. It’s just that I don’t see any of that. I just see, as with the case of Keith Vaz (and here I touch on Paul’s point), people say it’s a ‘private matter’ simply as a gestural response that makes so little sense. It’s like people have collectively shrugged their shoulders and accept that without God then there’s no room to make moral pronouncements. I’m certain that’s not right. I want the right to say Vaz is wrong but without having to say ‘because God said it’s wrong’.

      Sorry if my reply rambles. This either/or troubles me more than this article probably suggests it does.

  6. Yes I do not need God to tell me murder or stealing is wrong it is for most people an obvious moral code. If someone steals from someone it is not deemed a private matter but if they do something that is morally indefensible but within the law it can be deemed a private matter. I agree people should be able to say Vaz or anyone is wrong without backing it up by saying God said so. If I am driving I do not tailgate because God said it’s wrong I do it because I know it’s the decent thing not to do. Yet some drivers will not act courteously and act selfishly .Is this “it’s all about me” mentality or the “decline of community” one of the reasons of a decline or ignorance of moral values. Some of course would argue it’s the decline of religion in people’s lives but you can still have a strong moral code without religion. Like Max I feel totally ill equipped to answer the question but it’s one that should be talked about

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