Appearances, and Laws for the Exclusive Benefit of Society

Things are pretty rough here,  but man, some days, it’s especially good to be an American. As opposed to a female citizen of the United Arab Emirates, say. Although it’ s a progressive country by middle eastern standards, according to the UAE’s Federal Supreme Court,  “a man has the right to discipline his wife and children provided he does not leave physical marks.”

As an aside, note how similar this sounds to Phyllis Schlafly’s selected ramblings, on how criminalizing violence against women “abuses the rights of men,” and on how unhappy women should shut up and get over it, because “grievances are like flowers.”

But I digress. The line the FSCOUAE draws is especially odd, becuase it doesn’t seem to be geared to protect the women or children involved in these beatings, at all. One can do a lot of damage without leaving a mark: there’ve been studies on just how abusive American men have learned to avoid bruising and scarring, and consequentially, we know it’s all too easy to beat someone within an inch of their life without actually leaving any telltale mark. Why do we care, then, about the appearance of violence?

Without having read the Court’s decision (I can’t find it online), one possible reason may be that it’s more about keeping up appearances than about actually protecting any individual player. Citizens of the UAE want to believe they live in a peaceful, happy society, even if violence is known to lurk just below the surface.

This instinct seems to have a lot in common with socially restrictive American regimes. The hardest battles over social reform come where the regulated conduct is particularly visible: arguments for restriction cluster around loose justifications to keep the behavior hidden, or outright fearmongering, but the concern is always the minority group’s visibility. Applied to gay rights, recall the National Organization for Marriage’s banner Prop 8 ad:

We know that gay couples exist. How could we not? But we’d rather not have them participate in civil society: especially in schools or other peculiarly public settings. A solid plurality is now okay with gay marriage, in many states, and it’s getting close nationwide. That number jumps when the option of letting gay couples unite under a different label — “civil unions” — is offered. Like the UAE, our socially conservative friends opposite are struggling to preserve a whitewashed society, even (and perhaps especially) if it hurts the minority.

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