Manners, pianners, tables and chairs…

By skepticlawyer

…All belong to the people upstairs.

Well, that’s the theory, anyway, at least in England. Middle and upper-class people (and all the fine and subtle gradations in between) are known for their politeness. This is not merely anecdata, either — the phenomenon has been extensively documented by anthropologists such as Kate Fox (I do recommend her Watching the English, by the way; it explains a great deal) as well as by linguists and economists.

This class division with respect to politeness is as sharp as a knife, too: Fox’s vivid portrait of the upper and upper-middle-class people who put all their degree testamurs from Oxbridge on the walls of the downstairs loo while their middle-class contemporaries have a lounge-room ‘flannel panel’ on one wall is piercingly funny because it is true. The loo location indicates modesty about one’s achievements, but guarantees that every guest will get to see what you’ve done. At length.

This is why Tory peer Baroness Warsi’s recent, lengthy complaint in a speech at Leicester University that anti-Muslim prejudice has passed the English ‘dinner party test’ has prompted considerable debate mixed with a degree of national soul-searching and some rather sarky comments from those To The Manor Born (as opposed to the recently empeered and erstwhile working-class Warsi) to the effect that English dinner parties have rules analogous to ‘Fight Club’: what transpires at the dinner party stays there, presumably on the basis that one ought not force one’s ideological air biscuits on unsuspecting third parties.

This ‘fight club’ rule appears to have taken over from the older ‘no sex, religion or politics’ rule on the basis that dinner-party chit-chat is thereby reduced to sport, celebs, fashion and other minutiae. Alternatively, the no ‘sex, religion or politics’ rule was invented by a man who wanted to talk about football, and women and cricket aficionados have now had enough of it. Whatever, as they say.

Warsi comments:

For far too many people, Islamophobia is seen as a legitimate – even commendable – thing. You could even say that Islamophobia has now passed the dinner-table-test. Take this from Polly Toynbee:

“I am an Islamophobe, and proud of it”.

Or this speech title from Rod Liddle:

“Islamophobia? Count me in”.

But of course, Islamophobia should be seen as totally abhorrent – just like homophobia or Judeophobia – because any phobia is by definition the opposite of a philosophy. A phobia is an irrational fear. It takes on a life of its own and no longer needs to be justified. And all this filters through. The drip feeding of fear fuels a rising tide of prejudice.


We need to think harder about the language we use. And we should be careful about language around religious “moderates”. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot. It’s not a big leap of imagination to predict where the talk of “moderate” Muslims leads: In the factory, where they’ve just hired a Muslim worker, the boss says to his employees: “not to worry, he’s only fairly Muslim”.

In the school, the kids say “the family next door are Muslim but they’re not too bad”. And in the road, as a woman walks past wearing a Burkha, the passers-by think: “that woman’s either oppressed or making a political statement”. So we need to stop talking about moderate Muslims, and instead talk about British Muslims.

Warsi goes on to criticise the media (and, by implication, David Cameron, who uses the ‘moderate’ and ‘extremist’ division when it comes to Islam) for perpetuating what she perceives as an artificial divide. The same speech also reveals that Benazir Bhutto Fails Law Forever (the monotheisms, without exception, are shit for women. Proving this is a very simple matter of comparing ‘before’ and ‘after’ law codes in the country in question, and noting that Islam is unusually bad for women relative to what pertained before when compared not only with paganism but also with Judaism and Christianity).

Rather than speculate on Warsi’s future in the Tory Party, or get into high dudgeon because she failed to clear her speech with Tory HQ, or argue about media irresponsibility, I want to consider the ‘dinner party’ aspect, and the complexities that arise when minorities demand acceptance, rather than tolerance, from the majority. I do believe that demanding the former (allied to attempts at controlling how one’s group is portrayed) are fraught with danger. I’ve written about this before:

People – as a general rule – do not respond well to difference outside a certain ‘range’ in their community. Of course, a given community may have a wide ‘range’ – central Oxford, where the University dominates the Town, has a wide ‘range’ when it comes to accepting difference – in clothing, politics, attitudes, activities. However, woe betide any ‘Townie’ who wants to accompany his hoodie and tattoos with a boom-box in the Cornmarket – he’ll be moved on rapidly, and if he persists, ASBOed. Central Oxford’s ‘range’ does not extend to a common feature in American cities – youths playing ‘private’ music in public. I explained this to an American colleague who visited me last week (and noticed the lack of boom-boxes), and he was incredulous. Similarly, a Gownie who strays too far from the Centre while wearing academic dress (especially at night) is in grave danger of being beaten up. The Townie ‘range’ does not extend to oddly dressed members of the (purported) ruling class.

As an aside, I’ve come to the conclusion that the width of liberal societies’ ‘range’ has constricted in recent times thanks to minority demands for acceptance rather than tolerance. The two words have very different meanings, yet proponents of the latter often confuse it with the former. Something of this difficulty may be gleaned from reading the Wikipedia entry on the term. It is possible to be homophobic, Islamophobic, racist, sexist or what-have-you (insert rotten attitude du jour here) while still maintaining tolerance. Intolerance comes about when people act on their prejudices.

In this context, it is worth remembering, for example, that Courts of Equity did not–before the development of modern employment law–enforce contracts of service. The legal rationale was simplicity itself: forcing people to work together when they hated one another was at best counter-productive and at worst downright dangerous.

It is also worth remembering that much modern anti-discrimination law–of whatever sort–is designed to pierce the distinction between private attitudes and public behaviour. In this, it is distinct from statutes like the Civil Rights Act 1964 (US), which involved the active repeal of a great many old laws, collectively known by the label ‘Jim Crow laws‘. Of course, at the margins the two bleed into each other, but it is important to remember the very real difference between active repeal and the policing of private attitudes. One says, ‘laws mandating segregation and unequal pay are hereby wiped from the statute books’; the other says ‘you may not favour one group over the other, regardless of your personal feelings’.

I have long suspected that laws doing the former are not only necessary but possible: they stop employment and public services from turning into a perverted sort of Club Good where only some people have entry, and provide a clear starting point for litigation. I have also long suspected that laws purporting to do the latter may make members of the minority in question feel good about themselves, but they don’t work and can even be counter-productive. That last link is a deeply upsetting econometric analysis of how the well-intentioned drafters of the Americans with Disabilities Act have produced a statute that undermines employment opportunities for disabled people, rather than enhancing them–sometimes to catastrophic levels.

I also recognise that the bleedy margins of anti-discrimination law are horrendously complex. As a lawyer, I have the greatest sympathy both for the Christian B&B owners who refused service to a Bristol gay couple and who have lost their case accordingly, as well as for the gay couple in question. The pair even did the very English thing of ringing in advance in order to establish that their dog would be welcome (treatment of dogs is a live issue when it comes to British Muslims, which is why I mention it here). Part of me reflects on the wisdom of the old equity lawyers who refused to enforce contracts of service (why stay in a B&B where your dog is more welcome than you are?), but part of me also considers the situation where senior black staffers in various US administrations were forced to sleep in their cars in Washington DC because no hotel would offer them rooms. It is the latter aspect that this otherwise sensible leader in the Telegraph ignores:

Judge Andrew Rutherford, awarding Mr Hall and Mr Preddy £3,600 damages, told the Bulls that their views were out of date and added: “It is inevitable that laws will, from time to time, cut across the deeply held beliefs of individuals and sections of society.” It should surprise no one that the Bulls received such short shrift from the courts and that their strongly held religious convictions should count for so little.

Last year, Gary McFarlane, a Christian sex therapist, was sacked by Relate, the relationship charity, because he refused to counsel a homosexual couple. His case was taken up by Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, who said Christians are being persecuted because a strongly held conviction that homosexuality is wrong is being superseded by laws outlawing discrimination on grounds of sexual discrimination. The McFarlane case went to the Appeal Court, which found against him. In a similar case, a registrar who refused to conduct civil partnerships because they were against her religious beliefs was sacked. In both cases, the aggrieved parties could have gone elsewhere to be counselled or married, just as Messrs Hall and Preddy could have found a different hotel.

The cynical lawyer in me is also waiting for the moment when the B&B owners are Muslims who refuse rooms to a gay couple, or vice-versa. That really will be a legal battle of the minorities for the ages, and–if we are lucky–it may force us to examine the whole vexed notion of ‘group rights’ and the relative value of different views, religious or otherwise. It will also require several bulk shipments of popcorn while I and my fellow advocates watch.

When Warsi complains about people’s private dinner party conversations and attitudes, she is engaging in the same behaviour as the well-meaning law makers who drafted the Americans with Disabilities Act: she wants her minority to be accepted, rather than tolerated. She also wants to control how her minority is perceived. Both desires are seriously misconceived, not only because it is not possible to achieve the desired effect by dint of law (law, like politics, is the art of the possible), but also because the reason stereotypes exist is because they are true to a statistically significant degree, as Tim Harford outlines in The Logic of Life. A couple of years ago, I addressed this issue on a more personal level than Harford does with his number crunching:

Stereotypes are at once not very nice and potentially life-saving. They’re nasty when they let you write off whole groups of people as worse than useless based on the exaggeration of a single trait (‘Jews are money-grubbing scoundrels’). They’re damn handy, by contrast, when they let you make rapid a assessment of your circumstances (‘I’m in China, the people look Chinese, learning a few words of the local lingo is probably a good idea’).

The stereotype that Helen averts to is a bit more complex, though. It’s essentially learned, and rapidly so. Most Australians would have had (before very recent times) no fixed image of Indians (they’ve never formed a large immigrant group to these shores) apart from the wholly obvious ‘good at cricket’. It may not be pleasant to say so, but there’s no doubt that it takes two groups to make a stereotype: one group to behave in a particular way, another group to develop an—often unpleasant–idee fixe.

I’ll own up a tendency to the latter with a different ethnic group: white South Africans. It’s fair to say that before 2007, I hadn’t met a single pleasant white South African. Every time I encountered a Saffa, I seemed to encounter someone who was arrogant, rude and unwilling to give any ground to other people in conversation. Funnily enough, only one was an outright racist (querying why I was dating a black man). If the others were racist, they didn’t let that particular stereotype out of the bag. They just weren’t very nice, and I took to avoiding them. Now I knew this was an exercise in stereotyping, and I knew it was unfair, but like most people I’ve only got so much emotional energy to burn on building friendships. So I gave white South Africans a wide berth.

There are other times when I have engaged in this sort of quick and dirty reasoning, and yes, Muslims now fall into the excluded category, although it is a very English exclusion. They are not invited into my house or to the very popular legal study groups I run. Why?

En brief, I don’t like the way all the Muslims I’ve met behave around DEM’s Assistance Dog, I object to people in my house attempting to eat while wearing a full face veil who then proceed to drop food all over the floor (the woman has to flick the veil up and insert the food in her mouth without revealing any of her face. It is, as you would expect, messy) and I don’t like parents who let their children run riot. With several Muslim families I have met, this involves parents leaping on their daughters for the slightest infraction, while letting their sons carry on as though they’ve consumed an entire bottle of Cottee’s famous red cordial, neat. I am not child-friendly at the best of times, but differential discipline really ticks me off.

In other instances of the same thing (so you know this is just me being mannerly in the English way), I dropped a gay friend who liked me but who exhibited rather misogynistic attitudes (something I’ve noticed among some gays) towards my women friends. Since there were more of the latter and I had known them for longer, he was scratched off my dinner-party invitation list.

I could go on, but you get the idea. White South Africans, Muslims, a certain type of gay man. There are others. After being belted over the head with a bottle of Buckfast last year, I doubt I’ll be inviting any short-haired, hoodie-wearing young people with Glasgow accents to a social function any time soon.

These are my private attitudes. They were not derived from reading newspapers. They are based on personal experience and reduce my social transaction costs (to use an economist’s term of art). Because I know my own preferences, I find I object to well-meaning attempts to police my private attitudes, and have a very strong sense that Baroness Warsi and her co-religionists need to get over themselves. I should also point out that given a choice between Britain’s canine population and Britain’s Muslim population, the English will opt for the dogs, every time. On the grounds that the dogs are better company.

That said, I am greatly discomforted by the fact that I find myself in the same corner as the Christian B&B owners, who I think right in the general but wrong in the particular. I think what they did evinced terrible manners, and I care about good manners. I also recognise that, in different circumstances, I would like to be able to exercise a very comprehensive ‘right to exclude’. This is, I suppose, the true bleeding edge of the boundary between public and private spheres.

[Disclosure: As regulars know, I am an erstwhile member of the Oxford University Conservative Association. I strongly suspect that no similar organisation exists at the University of Edinburgh, Conservatives in Scotland being something of an endangered species].


  1. Posted January 25, 2011 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    [email protected]: OK… I’ll take up the challenge.

    If we are thinking about conflicts between ethnic groups, ol’ Herodotus always started with the weather in the land of origin as something that affected the psyche of individuals and then the entire community. Oversimplifying, if you were in a land that made siestas extremely sensible, that made being laid back a smart adaptation to the environment, then the civilization would be laid back, not prone to territorial aggression, etc etc etc

    Now, if the more traditionally labelled as having “phlegmatic/cold” peoples are having problems with immigrants, with heated arguments, problems other nations with traditionally high levels of immigration aren’t really having, then maybe everyones just getting a bit more “hot under the collar”… because… It’s getting harder to chill.

    If Herodotus’ guess has some validity, it might mean the conflict arises less from the particular religion, than the region where those religions just happen to be endemic. I’ve never heard “oh those eskimos… Such a violent lot…”, while the more equatorial americans were heavily into the ripping out of beating hearts, and still have big religious festivals carrying on the tradition of treating death as a distinct entity rather than phenomenon.

    (Yes folks.. Long bow, tongue in cheek, not serious…. Hope I’ve picked up the gauntlet in a way to raise a smile).

  2. Posted January 25, 2011 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    (Yes folks.. Long bow, tongue in cheek, not serious…. Hope I’ve picked up the gauntlet in a way to raise a smile).

    Ya think?

    Brain Size, Cranial Morphology,
    Climate, and Time Machines

  3. Posted January 25, 2011 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    Short video from Mr D, the last half of which is pertinent to Allah and anger

  4. Posted January 25, 2011 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

    I have long thought the Muslim thing about dogs was to prove how much they were not Zoroastrians (Zoroastrians thought the loyalty of dogs made them particularly noble creatures and servants of the light.)

    I am a cat person, rather than a dog person. I am managed by a cat called Priscilla. (Cats do not own you, that would be too much like hard work: they do, however, manage you.) The working theory is that we probably domesticated dogs, but that cats likely adopted us.

    The domestication of dogs has also been argued to have been a significant breakthrough for homo sapiens. Personally, I think the Zoroastrians were on to something and the Muslim notion that dogs are “unclean” one of the sillier religious taboos. Indeed, pernicious, given the issue of guide dogs.

  5. Posted January 25, 2011 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

    Regarding regions and aggression, the Middle East is a region of persistent waves of conquest which eventually ended up selecting for a conquest religion. (Maybe that also had something to do with it producing monotheism in general.)

    Regarding Muslims in the West and violence, getting useful general statistics is difficult, particularly given there is a certain active discouragement of assembling the basic stats in the first place. There is certainly a fair bit of angst about it: including rape.

    The last I find plausible: the way Sharia discounts female evidence, and particularly strongly in rape cases, sets up the development of rape cultures, since it is so hard for women to legally defend themselves and, even if they legally win, they lose due to their loss of “honour”. From this comes the “need” to control the entry of women into public space or male company. The background cultural attitudes then translate badly when they move into the West.

    Danish psychologist Nicolai Sennels has written some moderately depressing stuff from his experience working with young Muslims in prison in Denmark.

    Of course, Europe’s selection processes for its migrants have not been as successful as the Anglosphere’s more generally, as the comparison between migrant and local students’ test scores indicate. While second-generation migrants in Europe appear to be de-assimilating. Between poor selection processes and highly regulated labour markets this is not so surprising — except the girls are managing. Perhaps they are both more willing and perceived to be less of a problem.

  6. Mel
    Posted January 26, 2011 at 12:49 am | Permalink

    Hmm. My comment shot thru.

  7. Posted January 26, 2011 at 4:17 am | Permalink

    Try to repost, Mel. If you had more than 2 links, it gets redirected to spam and we don’t always catch it. Sorry.

  8. Patrick
    Posted January 26, 2011 at 4:24 am | Permalink

    If I was a muslim girl I’d be managing my way to glorious assimilation in a hurry.

  9. Posted January 26, 2011 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    There’s also the risk of being disowned by one’s family. Sometimes (although rarely), that risk goes as far as murder, but most often it’s trying to avoid one’s family breaking apart. People will put up with a lot of crap to stop the wheels falling off their familial relations.

    That said, the French data are very stark — Muslim women assimilate and get jobs, Muslim men finish up in the dole queue, and in both cases there seems to be a ghastly multiplier effect going on.

  10. Patrick
    Posted January 26, 2011 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

    You should all watch ‘la journée de la jupe‘ as well as ‘la haine‘, if you can find them subtitled. The latter is suprisingly good sociology and directly on point to this post, better than it is a film but I’d still rather my sociology cinematographically than any other way.

  11. Patrick
    Posted January 27, 2011 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    While I’m at it anyone who comments here and has not seen 12 Angry Men is seriously bad at prioritising.

    PS: can the moderation filter be lifted to ‘more than‘ 2 links?

  12. Posted January 27, 2011 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    I seem to have a comment on “Godwin!” just disappear. Not had that happen before.

    There is an issue with Muslim boys. Even in Oz, it is obvious, if you teach, that Muslims boys are so much more of an issue than Muslim girls.

    And it is specifically a Muslim issue. Muslim Lebanese boys are quite a different proposition to Christian Lebanese boys (who I am happy to teach any time).

  13. Posted January 27, 2011 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    I can comment on this post without problem, but “Godwin!” is apparently not accepting any comment.

    Perhaps it is because I mention Hitler? 🙂

  14. Posted January 27, 2011 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

    [email protected]/65 – looks like I just got one on Godwin.

    Maybe Hirtle a Gentle Macchia at the spamulator?

  15. Posted January 28, 2011 at 12:13 am | Permalink

    Sorry guys, I’m manning the blog alone this afternoon so bear with us.

    Patrick – I will take up the issue of links with Jacques, our resident hamster wrangler.

    Lorenzo – sorry, your comment came through as a multiple and Akismet decided you were tasty. Have just fished you out and will delete the extras.

    Dave – don’t tempt me.

    And… continue.

  16. Posted February 2, 2011 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    I see Lee Kuan Yew thinks that the eating together point is important for integration. (And promptly gets a very abusive response from a Muslim rights group.)

  17. Patrick
    Posted February 2, 2011 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    A muslim rights group that obviously doesn’t operate in Singapore nor wish to!

  18. Posted February 3, 2011 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] *chuckle* Or possibly Singapore is getting more liberal about these things in LKY’s old age.

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  1. By Skepticlawyer » Excusitis on July 25, 2011 at 7:03 am

    […] Nick Cohen on a related theme, this time drawing on the work of athropologist Kate Fox, whom I discussed here. Share and […]

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