No principle at stake here


Another New Statesman piece on “Islamophobia” – as usual not defined or specified, as usual functioning to conflate dislike of Islam with hatred of Muslims and thus make the former taboo along with the latter.

Last week I was asked to think of an issue on which I’ve changed my mind. I said the Iraq war, but if I’d been asked this week I might have said something else: Islamophobia. I used to think it wasn’t a problem.

Before I explain why, let’s look at one particular news story, by which I mean embarrassingly trivial non-story. Marks and Spencer is allowing its Muslim employees not to serve alcohol or pork products. A privately owned company has a policy that if its employees want to opt out of doing things to which they have a religious objection, they can.

I mean, it’s not the craziest idea I’ve ever heard.

Oh come on. If the thing the employees want to opt out of doing is just a routine part of the job, and their not doing it is a nuisance for other people, then it’s not just a slam dunk that it’s not a problem for employers to say go right ahead. If people get jobs as cashiers in supermarkets and then want to refuse to sell some of the products…it’s not just obvious that that’s fine.

We here in the US have extra opportunities to be aware of that because of pharmacists who refuse to sell the morning after pill, and some even birth control. You see what I mean? It’s making their religion an inconvenience to other people; it’s refusing to do bits of their job because god.

But of course it’s not a real issue, and neither is there any principle at stake here beyond queue management. The desire to be served quickly in a shop seems to have got tangled up with weighty concepts like “free society”. Listen, if you think you’re queuing too long at M&S, go to Sainsbury’s – that’s the beauty of a free society. Shops can sell pretty much what and how they want, and we can buy from where we want. M&S is not a school nor the Church of England nor the BBC. It’s a commercial retailer acting within the law.

On Twitter, Jenni Russell put it to me like this: “Just as Christians can’t refuse to have gays in B&Bs, so Muslims shouldn’t refuse to serve people buying legal goods.” Let’s see: one of them involves denying adults the right to love one another. The other involves denying the basic human right to buy a bottle of Merlot from the first sales assistant available.

No, it’s not that easy. There is a principle at stake here beyond “queue management” – the principle of treating everyone the same, as opposed to staging self-important little Religious Refusals. It’s the principle of secularism extended to the broader outside world, where we really just do not want strangers picking and choosing among us on religious grounds. We don’t want Catholics refusing to sell meat on Fridays, we don’t want Southern Baptists refusing to sell to women in jeans, we don’t want Mormons slipping little pamphlets into our reusable shopping bags along with the milk and marmalade, we don’t want Jews asking if our food is kosher, we don’t want Muslims refusing to sell us pork or alcohol.

…a year of stories like the M&S one has persuaded me that our national news agenda is distorted by a deep suspicion of Muslims. Islam animates our media like few other topics, and just as the left’s obsession with Israel overlaps, unprovably but unmistakably, with anti-Semitism, so there is something that just smells funny about the recurrent shock-horror headlines over vanishingly insignificant issues of conduct. Playground spite is being dressed up as “debate”.

Take the row over whether university societies should allow segregated debates: it’s a tiny story affecting about seven people, but because it involves Islam, national figures weigh in and commentators with virtually no knowledge or interest in the people concerned express passionate certainty.

Oh well, if it affects only about seven people (which it doesn’t), then never mind – just go ahead and allow gender segregation. Of course, Ian Leslie isn’t the one whose gender is seen as a source of pollution…

Comments

  1. Kiwi Dave says

    Perhaps an atheist cashier could refuse to handle any currency with ‘In God we trust’ on it and see how that works out.

  2. kbplayer says

    I would say people were especially annoyed as everyone who had read about this special religious dispensation in M&S would have at one time bought a bottle of wine from a hijabbed woman in a corner shop and a packet of sausages from her husband.

    If someone working at M&S for a while had asked if they could be transferred to the sock department because they’d prefer not to handle food that would probably be accommodated, as a slight change of hours is accommodated because of child care. M&S is known as a good employer, and good employers are flexible. But everyone saw themselves standing grumpily in a queue, then being told, sorry you can’t be served by ZY.

    It’s a bad PR job by M&S. And they make frumpy clothes (tho’ their tights and knickers are excellent).

  3. Shatterface says

    You never see the argument the other way around: that is only effects a minority of a Muslims who don’t want to serve pork so they should just suck it up and do their job.

  4. latsot says

    This sort of thing seems to me more like a flimsy excuse for petty bullying than it does a misguided principled stand. It seems like classic more-pious-than-thou behaviour, which is an attempt to make oneself feel better by making other people worse which is almost the very definition of bullying. It’s the sort of bullying it’s hard to complain about because the offense itself is fairly minor. But the recognition that one is being bullied is kind of horrible, even if the ostensible outcome for the customer is mild inconvenience.

    It’s also a privacy issue, albeit a fairly subtle one. It makes customers literally stand out in a crowd against their wishes. It makes customers seem like the ones who are holding up the queue with the clear implication that everyone else is being inconvenienced due to some moral failing of that one customer. The customer has no choice because she doesn’t know that the person on the til is going to do something insane like not scan the barcode on some pork.

    My point is that it’s not just an issue of whether employees get to decide what they sell to people. It’s an issue of whether they’re allowed to (albeit mildly) bully customers. I vote not.

    It’s worth pointing out that it has been widely reported that it’s M&S policy to allow employees to refuse to sell products on religious grounds. As far as I can tell, that isn’t true.

  5. Ariaflame, BSc, BF, PhD says

    There is some of this already in that under age workers can’t sell alcohol, no?

  6. latsot says

    @Ariaflame

    There’s a difference between certain people not being allowed to sell certain things by law and the same or different people choosing not to.

    These things are very different. For one thing, the shop has no choice but to comply with the legal requirements. Neither have its employees. For another, there is no implication of moral failing on the part of the customer if the person on the til is not legally entitled to sell the item. For yet another, as far as I’m aware there is no law anywhere in the world preventing minors from selling pork where adults can.

    Your analogy isn’t very good.

  7. says

    Surely stores / shops that sell alcohol don’t hire underage people to sell it do they? Or do they.

    Here in the US, as far as I know, it’s all about the age of the customer, not the seller. But maybe I just don’t know.

  8. footface says

    And here’s the real over-reach:

    On Twitter, Jenni Russell put it to me like this: “Just as Christians can’t refuse to have gays in B&Bs, so Muslims shouldn’t refuse to serve people buying legal goods.” Let’s see: one of them involves denying adults the right to love one another. The other involves denying the basic human right to buy a bottle of Merlot from the first sales assistant available.

    In trying to explain why—of course—these are different, we get this non sequitur. Refusing to have gay people in your B&B is different because it denies adults “the right to love one another.” No, it doesn’t. It denies them the ability to stay in that particular B&B. Couldn’t they just enter the marketplace and find another B&B, just like the inconvenienced M&S customers are encouraged to? Maybe these slights aren’t so different, after all.

  9. Rich Roberts says

    Here in Michigan, I have run into the situation where an underage cashier can’t ring up alcohol. A number of times I’ve gone into my local farm market and in addition to fruits and vegetables, I’ll pick up a bottle of wine. If the cashier happens to be underage, they have to go fetch an older cashier to swipe my wine bottle over the scanner. It’s no major inconvenience but it does seem rather silly. I’m not sure it was an oversight in the way the law was written or if there was a concern that the underage cashier couldn’t be trusted to ask for proper ID.

  10. Wylann says

    Ophelia, most states in the US have a minimum age required to sell alcohol (it’s 19 in most places, although some have different rules for selling in a grocery store vs serving at a restaurant/bar).

    However, the stores/pubs in question always make sure there is at least one other person available, and it’s rarely much of an inconvenience.

  11. says

    Alcohol is a tricky one, isn’t it. It’s one case in which sometimes the people selling it do have to pick and choose among customers, which is what I said we don’t want sellers doing to us. Servers in bars and pubs and restaurants are not supposed to serve more of it to people who are already drunk, and they can be held liable in drunk driving cases, I think. Until just last year supermarkets in this state (Washington) couldn’t sell it at all.

    Very tricky. Difficult.

  12. Shatterface says

    The law prevents ALL underage people serving alcohol – just as it prevents them drinking it.

    The laws on alcohol don’t discriminate according to race or gender or allow underage people to opt in or out.

  13. Shatterface says

    If the company is making profits from pork or alcohol I don’t see what difference actually scanning the items makes – you are still complicit in the sale of park and alcohol.

    It’s like saying, okay, I work in a brothel – but I only play the piano. You are still working for a pimp.

    Boycotting a whole business because you disaprove of part of their product line is standard practice for customers: if you disaprove of what M&S sell them you shouldn’t shop there, let alone work for them.

  14. says

    That’s not the relevant difference though. Refusal to sell pork is based on a putative religious “law” that’s taken to include handling and otherwise dealing with, so it too doesn’t discriminate according to race or gender or allow people to opt in or out. The relevant difference is that there are secular (i.e. rational) reasons not to let very young people have intoxicants, while there are no secular/rational reasons for banning one particular kind of meat.

    To put it another way, it’s the difference between a law and a religious taboo.

  15. kbplayer says

    Actually getting a young thing at a check out who has to ring a bell so that someone else can scan your bottle of beer is mildly annoying as well. I always forget and don’t glance at the check out to see if someone looks old enough. The thing about youth though – you grow out of it.

  16. Shatterface says

    he relevant difference is that there are secular (i.e. rational) reasons not to let very young people have intoxicants, while there are no secular/rational reasons for banning one particular kind of meat.

    There might be secular/rational reasons for banning ritually slaughtered meat but the humane treatment of animals is given a religious exemption too.

    The thing about youth though – you grow out of it.

    Quite. Rational or not, age restrictions effect everyone equally – but only temporarily.

  17. brucegee1962 says

    Well, my wife used to be fairly poor back in her younger days, but she is a committed vegetarian, and she drew the line at working in any place where she would have to sell any type of meat products. So it’s possible to have such scruples for non-religious reasons.

    I’ll confess, though, that I’m somewhat confused about both the original article and Ophelia’s response. I thought that the discussion here would be whether this type of decision is a good idea for M&S from a business perspective. But what the OP seems to be arguing is that the government might want to get involved with their decision somehow, and that this is a poor idea. And Ophelia seems to argue that … the government SHOULD get involved? Or something? I’m not quite sure what she’s arguing.

    We don’t want Catholics refusing to sell meat on Fridays, we don’t want Southern Baptists refusing to sell to women in jeans, we don’t want Mormons slipping little pamphlets into our reusable shopping bags along with the milk and marmalade, we don’t want Jews asking if our food is kosher, we don’t want Muslims refusing to sell us pork or alcohol.

    Butbutbut…..if a Catholic, or a Baptist, or a Mormon, or a Jew, or a Muslim happened to OWN the store in question, and did any of these things, wouldn’t that just be a matter between the store and its customers? If the customers don’t like the meatless Fridays, stores with no womens’ jeans, kosher food, or porkless restaurant, they’ll just go elsewhere, right? So why does it suddenly become somebody else’s business when it’s an employee, rather than the owner putting forward restrictions?

    So I’m trying to figure out how the government would even be capable of getting involved. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that my wife finds out about the religious exemption allowed to the Muslim employees, so she goes to M&S and asks for a job as a cashier, with the stipulation that she won’t sell any meat or leather. They tell her to take a hike, so she sues. The M&S lawyer says that they’re a private business, so they can do whatever they like with their employees; choosing to ask or not ask them to do particular duties is no different than requiring them to work or not work on religious holidays.

    What’s my wife’s lawyer’s argument? That just because some employees are allowed special exemptions for whatever reason, all of a sudden every employee should be able to do whatever the heck they want?

    Or is this not the sort of thing you’re talking about?

  18. latsot says

    @Brucegee, It’s interesting that you clipped the following (by Ophelia) from your quote:

    It’s the principle of secularism extended to the broader outside world, where we really just do not want strangers picking and choosing among us on religious grounds.

    Picking and choosing and judging and shaming on grounds we don’t agree with right out of the trap. That is the objection.

    There’s an asymmetry. Businesses can decide not to sell pork or contraceptives or whatever. But when a customer walks into a retailer which – crucially – does sell those things, there is no expectation that she’ll be judged by an employee and refused service for phantasmagorical reasons.

    This is rather different to going to a kosher butcher and demanding bacon, isn’t it?

    Different again is when B&B owners refuse service to homosexual couples. Do you really not see the difference between setting up a business that doesn’t serve pork and one that doesn’t serve homosexuals?

  19. Minnow says

    I agree with the article on this. Would we be equally appalled if women workers at a large newsagents negotiated the right not to sell or handle pornographic magazines? It would seem fair enough to me, so long as it was an agreement and not enforced by law.

  20. Minnow says

    Servers in bars and pubs and restaurants are not supposed to serve more of it to people who are already drunk, and they can be held liable in drunk driving cases

    I know something like this holds in Australia but I did’t realise it was true in the US. I am pretty sure there is no such law in the UK. But it doesn’t seem tricky to me. If someone wants to buy a legal product and they are of a legal age, it should be none of the seller’s business what that person does with it or what condition they are in. There is only one person responsible for drunk driving in my view. Of course all retailers have the right to refuse service if they don’t like the look of you. They just can’t have a block policy (no blacks, Irish etc).

  21. latsot says

    @Minnow:

    Would we be equally appalled if women workers at a large newsagents negotiated the right not to sell or handle pornographic magazines? It would seem fair enough to me, so long as it was an agreement and not enforced by law.

    I’m not sure this familiar argument helps us understand anything. I feel sorry for people who have to do things they don’t want to due to economic reality, but shop workers have a choice – of sorts – that customers accosted by random employees do not. The employees know what they’re getting into. I hope there are means for such people to change things for the better, but refusing to sell particular items really isn’t one of those avenues, is it?

  22. says

    Minnow (aka Minow) – the last time you commented here, as Minow, you claimed

    The only argument I have seen that claims this sort of ‘segregation’ (the scare quotes because it seems to me only to be segregation in the sense that women-only changing rooms are) is damaging depends on the idea that Muslim women are too weak minded to choose for themselves where they sit and must therefore be protected from having a choice.I don’t know if that is racist, but it strikes me as pretty misogynistic.

    Bernard said he found that claim a tad disingenous and asked you

              Have you actually heard anyone argue like that? Have you read an argument like that?

    You replied,

    Yes, on this blog.

    After several more comments I told you 

              Minow. I see you have ignored Bernard’s skeptical comment about your claim to have seen people arguing “on this blog” in a way that “depends on the idea that Muslim women are too weak minded to choose for themselves where they sit and must therefore be protected from having a choice.” Like Bernard, I don’t recognize that sort of argument on this blog at all. Either substantiate that claim or withdraw it before you comment any further.

    Yet here you are again – using the alternative spelling of your nym – without having substantiated the claim.

    You have to take care of that bit of business before you comment here any further.

  23. Minnow says

    I’m sorry Ophelia, I was away from the internets for a little bit and missed your follow up comments. I will go over to the thread in question and point out the article when I have had a moment to dig it up.

    I should be more careful with typos I know, especially with my own name (although I am not actually called Minnow).

  24. brucegee1962 says

    #19 latsot:

    There’s an asymmetry. Businesses can decide not to sell pork or contraceptives or whatever. But when a customer walks into a retailer which – crucially – does sell those things, there is no expectation that she’ll be judged by an employee and refused service for phantasmagorical reasons.

    It seems as if this entire argument is predicated on a kind of fantasy in which the harried customer waits through a long line, but arrives at the front only to be informed by the snooty salesclerk “Oh, I refuse to dirty myself by handling your sinful/disgusting pork/contraceptives — go wait in a different line.”

    But any salesclerk who did that would be deservedly fired — not for having religious scruples, but by BEING A LOUSY SALESCLERK, irrespective of religious values. I mean, if I’m ringing up a Duck Dynasty t-shirt, and I tell the customer loudly that only bigots and morons watch that show, then I’m still being a poor salesclerk even though my reasoning is hardly phantasmagorical.

    Surely there are ways that stores could set this up so as not to inconvenience their customers, such as with signage for lines saying “Pork/alcohol” and “No pork/alcohol” — just like current special alcohol zones, or aisles for people with 15 or fewer items.

    Mind you, I’m not saying this would necessarily be a wise idea for stores, and I probably would think twice about frequenting such a place. But again, that’s a matter that’s between the store and its customers and not a good place for government involvement.

  25. Minnow says

    The employees know what they’re getting into. I hope there are means for such people to change things for the better, but refusing to sell particular items really isn’t one of those avenues, is it?

    Latsot, I agree that employees should not have the right to refuse to sell things they disapprove of, but I don’t see a problem if they negotiate special terms with their employer. I don’t think anyone on here would be outraged if an employer agreed that her female staff should not be forced to sell pornography (if that were one of the items available in a large store), but some people seem to be outraged when Muslims negotiate similar special conditions so I think the analogy is worth the candle.

    I think some of the problem is that this has been misrepresented in some comments as a refusal by shopworkers to sell certain items, but that isn’t what seems to have happened. Instead they have been exempted from selling them by agreement, and that doesn’t seem like a problem for me.

  26. says

    Minnow/Minow – ok. Naturally I don’t expect you or anyone to see every comment. On the other hand when you make a ridiculous and clearly insulting claim, that’s a bad time to leave. It’s an annoying internet habit to stir up trouble and then split, only to come back a week or two later to start the process all over again. If you’re going to pick a fight you shouldn’t then run away, or if you do run away then you shouldn’t come back. The ethics of commenting.

    To spell out what was clearly insulting in case you play dumb again, it was clearly insulting to say that you’ve seen the claim that “Muslim women are too weak minded to choose for themselves where they sit and must therefore be protected from having a choice” here.

    Don’t bother making any more new comments until you’ve backed up that claim.

  27. Minnow says

    I didn’t really run away, discussions can be quite slow and if I am not around I am not around,. I prefer to mix it up but I can’t always. In fact, and you may not quite believe this, I often try to limit the number of times I post in a thread. I don’t really see how my comments on here can be construed as trouble stirring either.

    I have posted on the thread in question, though, backing up my claim. You may not agree with me, but I think my paraphrasis is fair even if it is bound to be provocative. But insulting? To whom?

  28. latsot says

    @brucegee

    I don’t understand your point. Such a salesclerk should indeed be disciplined for censuring people for buying pork in a pork shop. I can’t see where anyone has argued otherwise.

    But you’re being disingenuous. Refusing service on the basis of religious idiocy is far more common – and far more readily accepted – than refusal on the basis of any other kind of idiocy. Someone will always pop up to defend people who refuse to sell pork in a butchers shop. You’d have to look a lot further to find someone who defends not selling shirts with the logos of questionable TV shows. I’m not saying you won’t find one – you definitely would if you looked hard enough – but you’d have to look a whole lot harder.

    At the risk of being even more boring than usual, I’ll say it again: I have no problem at all with shops that don’t sell pork or contraceptives or alcohol or whatever (unless, say, it’s a pharmacist or something which has a duty of care). I do have a problem with salespeople who take it upon themselves to decide people are wrong for wanting to buy those things and for refusing to sell them and/or lecturing the people who want them. I have a problem with it regardless of whether that behaviour is sanctioned by the owners of the shop. I have a problem with it regardless of whether the salesperson is religiously motivated.

    It’s hilarious that you accuse me of a fantasy (which you yourself constructed, not I) and then invent the amazing fantasy of the no-pork queue as being equivalent to the basket-only queue. Does this mark the first ever use of a brand new fallacy, the Straw Supermarket?

  29. latsot says

    @Minnow

    But insulting? To whom?

    To muslim women. To muslims. To women. And to anyone else who thinks that women – muslim or otherwise – are not weak minded.

  30. Minnow says

    But Latsot, we aren’t talking about people who refuse to sell things in shops, but free arrangements between staff and management that exempts people from selling certain things in shops. It is hard to see why that is an outrage so long as it is uncoerced. Going back to my earlier analogy, would it really be outrageous if a chain of newsagents allowed staff members, or maybe even just female staff members, to opt out of selling pornography? Why?

  31. latsot says

    But Latsot, we aren’t talking about people who refuse to sell things in shops

    Yes we are. That is precisely and exactly what we are talking about.

  32. Minnow says

    Yes we are. That is precisely and exactly what we are talking about.

    No, we are talking about an article that refers specifically to a particular supermarket chain making a private and (as far as anyone knows) uncoerced arrangement with its staff to allow some to be exempted from selling certain items if they so choose. Anyone who simply refused to sell something for whatever reason could be sacked. The point of the article is, why should the general public be so vexed about this if it isn’t simply that anything to do with Muslims puts the wind up? I think that is a point well made and the porn analogy helps to show why.

  33. brucegee1962 says

    @29 latsot

    I do have a problem with salespeople who take it upon themselves to decide people are wrong for wanting to buy those things and for refusing to sell them and/or lecturing the people who want them. I have a problem with it regardless of whether that behaviour is sanctioned by the owners of the shop.

    OK, fine, you’ve got a problem with that. So you know what? Don’t shop there. Tell all your friends not to shop there. Start a facebook group telling people not to shop there, or stand outside on the public sidewalk handing out leaflets. All of those things are perfectly within your rights as a consumer — that’s how capitalism works. If enough people join you, they’ll either back down or go out of business.

    Where we part ways is when you seem to imply that there should be some kind of government involvement setting up rules for what kinds of arrangements businesses can voluntarily enter with their employees. I don’t know — perhaps that isn’t what you’re implying. I’m as much a big-government liberal as many people here, but that goes a step too far even for me.

    If you do think there should be some type of legislative and/or judicial regulation, though, please explain what you think it should be instead of beating around the bush.

  34. says

    If M&S sells alcohol and pork products, then their Muslim employees are getting their paychecks, in part, from the sale of such products. If the Muslim employees really don’t want to dirty themselves by dealing with such things, they should quit and work for someone who doesn’t sell them at all. Their current selective refusal to do their jobs is just plain childish and hypocritical.

  35. says

    So you know what? Don’t shop there. Tell all your friends not to shop there. Start a facebook group telling people not to shop there…

    If the clerks were refusing to serve black people, would you offer the same limited and toothless response? Because we tried your “all you can do is complain and vote with your feet” policy WRT racial discrimination here in the USA, and it didn’t work. We found out the hard way that we needed LAWS to make discrimination go away.

  36. says

    So you know what? Don’t shop there…

    Why aren’t you giving the Muslim employees the same advice? What’s wrong with telling them “Don’t work there?”

    Yet another case of libertarians twisting their ideology to support authoritarian policies.

  37. says

    Where we part ways is when you seem to imply that there should be some kind of government involvement setting up rules for what kinds of arrangements businesses can voluntarily enter with their employees.

    Where have you been? Governments have been doing that for over a hundred years, and they’ve been doing even more of it since shortly after WW-II. Do try to keep up.

  38. latsot says

    @brucegee1962

    Are you serious? I never suggested for a moment that the government do anything about my personal dislikes. You made that up – absolutely bewilderingly – out of whole cloth. An extraordinary strawman argument.

    As it happens, I have no problem with capitalism, but but I certainly have a problem with capitalism unfettered and the blind and foolish assumption that the market is necessarily the most important consideration. We know perfectly well that unregulated markets can and sometimes do lead to widespread suffering.

    I’m largely against suffering.

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