This is the twenty first century – the age of freedom, individuality, progress and stark honesty. Or is it? Yoshino’s revolutionary writing “Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights” give us sufficient reason to believe that things haven’t changed as much as they should. “Covering” is described as an act “to tone down a disfavored identity to fit into the mainstream” (Yoshino, 211). The truth is, almost everyone sees himself as “disfavored”. It is not just a simple case of low self esteem. It is the universal feeling of being inferior to another on account of gender, class, race, religion, wealth, beauty or any other reason.
In order to cover up this undesirable characteristic, the individual resorts to hiding behind a false projection of himself which is deemed as more acceptable. Consequently, the short woman wears uncomfortable high heels to conform to the view that tall women are beautiful, the Asian takes on an English name and tries to pass off as one to get better job offers, the lesbian will marry a man just to cover up her sexual orientation. “The desire for authenticity, our common human wish to express ourselves without being impeded by unreasoning demands for conformity” (212) will lead anyone to do anything to be worthy of recognition.
Only very small children are relatively free from the problem of “covering”. They do not see the need to conform and remain spontaneous in their words and actions because they are happy just the way they are. Gradually, parents, teachers and peers will take away their authenticity, encouraging them to cloak their true selves in a robe of social acceptance (213). To see the best incentive for covering, all we need to do is take a look at today’s advertising. A new car can take you to a certain elite club, a cream can make you as white as you wanted to be, a drink can make you attractive to the opposite sex.
Any product is positioned to make you better than you already are, in effect making you feel worse in comparison, therefore encouraging the act of covering. Many historic factors have gone into creating the neurosis that necessitated the propagation of the false identity. With colonialism, white supremacy bred racial inferiority complex. Patriarchy gave rise to the modern super woman who works like a man, covering her normal feminine emotions to the best of her ability. The spread of every new religion led to intolerance towards the existing faiths, resulting in mass conversions to alien faiths.
Having said that, it is necessary to understand that generalizing has its own problems. It cannot be assumed that every act that does not seem natural to a person or a group is an act of covering. A woman who smokes may not be covering up her frustrations of being a woman but may be doing do so essentially because she has always loved to smoke. The man who converted to another religion may have done so because he had a natural change of faith. “Covering” and conforming to stereotyping are not interchangeable. The authenticity of the individual’s nature cannot be decided by anyone else but himself (216).
According to law, “The aspiration of civil rights as always been to permit people to pursue their human flourishing without limitations based on bias” (220), which brings us to Factor X. Fukuyama says that if we “strip all of a person’s contingent and accidental characteristics away, there remains some essential human quality underneath that is worthy of a certain minimum level of respect” (Fukuyama 72). This is termed as Factor X. The same feeling is echoed in Yoshino’s thought that if an individual is described with enough attention to the details; his universal self will begin to shine through.
Human dignity and the act of covering are directly related to the desire for recognition. This struggle for acknowledgment has been a basis for difference of opinions from time immemorial. It is to be pointed out that sometimes even public acknowledgment cannot change an individual perspective. After being crowned Ms. Universe, Susmitha Sen, the Indian beauty queen underwent breast enhancement treatments just to conform to her own hackneyed view of beauty. (Dola, Telegraph) The popularity of plastic surgery and drugs like Ritalin point to the fact that physical and behavioral modification is the most common covering method of the century.
We search for an identity not only as individuals but as members of a group based on religious, ethnic or gender. The problem with dignity is that it is not measured with a common yard stick. Even in liberal societies, where human dignity is accepted and considered a basic right, there is the policy of exclusion. Again, gender, economics, race, disability etc. play a part in this exclusion process. It is almost as if society attributes different levels of human dignity as per convenience. In the past when the world was called uncivilized, authority according to power and hierarchy with regard to family were objects of discussion.
Today the process is more complex than ever before. Fukuyama lists the grounds for human dignity as moral choice, reason, language, sociability, sentience, emotions and consciousness. The genetic endowment of all these qualities “distinguishes a human in essence from other type of creatures” (Fukuyama 91). This brings us to a very pertinent question. The magnitude of these qualities differs in every individual. Does it give them more/less dignity? The answer is “no”, because the essence that is talked about is the same in everyone.
Similarly, when a person has been deprived of moral choice, reason, language, sociability, sentience and emotions through a natural cause like an accident that leaves him in a coma, is he still entitled to the benefits of human dignity? The answer of course is “yes”, because even without all these, as long as he is alive, he still possess the one single most important feature that contributes to dignity – consciousness. While scientist come up with their diverse versions of consciousness and its properties, the very idea of explaining the intangible in terms of science is contradictory.
(Fukuyama 100) We cannot find an infallible answer as to what is the singular factor that makes us superior. It would be better to agree that “If what gives us dignity and a moral status higher than that of other living creatures is related to the fact that we are complex wholes rather than the sum of simple parts”(90). Therefore the need to protect the full range of our complex, evolved natures against attempts at self modification. The future advances of biotechnology should be limited because human behavior is already being manipulated.
No matter what the consequences, we are ready to experiment with any drug that promises to change the natural course to aid our functional needs of convenience (79). Fukuyama states that we need not believe that God has created human beings with something extra so as to allow us a special place in the universe. The evolution theory may also be disregarded but we have to admit that there is a “very important qualitative, if not ontological, leap that occurred at some point in the process” (90). This understanding “ultimately has to constitute the basis for human dignity”.
Unless we have a clear understanding of human dignity, we cannot make a case against covering. “…every contemporary liberal democracy does in fact differentiate rights based on the degrees to which individuals or categories of individuals share in certain species typical characteristics. ” (Fukuyama, 94). Children do not have the same rights as adults under the presumption that their capacities of reasoning and moral choice are not yet developed. Some societies strip criminals of some basic human rights and in some countries, even the right to live. After the discovery of America, the country was touted as the “melting pot”.
Here cultures were encouraged to liquefy and metamorphose into something solid. Instead, each culture staunchly maintained its differences which led to the new slogan of “celebrating diversity”. But today when tolerance is at an all time low, “the renaissance of assimilation” (Yoshino 212) brings out fresh needs of covering all over the Globe. The controversy of the veil in UK, which caught the media frenzy in recent months, is another example of political pressure to assimilate (BBC News). Jack Straw’s comment that veiled women make community relations harder, led to fiery protests from all quarters.
This issue contains the kernels of every single topic which we have discussed so far. The gender bias led women to protest for and against the issue. Since race is involved, Civil Liberties group questioned Mr. Straw’s right to comment on negative symbolism. Because wearing the veil is a code of belief, the Islamic Human Rights Commission asserted that Straw was guilty of “selective discrimination on the basis of religion. ” Simon Hughes, a Liberal Democrat opinioned that Mr. Straw had no right to ask a community to dress differently. There is a no win situation in this literal “covering”.
When you say don’t use the veil, you are conforming to the western ideas of liberation which may not necessarily be acceptable to a woman from the East. On the other hand, if you agree to the use of the veil, you conform to the orthodox traditions that may be disadvantageous for women. When human dignity is a given, there will be no need for “covering” because labeling will become a thing of the past. If the society accepts the fact that every individual has identical rights, dignity and freedom to choose, there will be a new social order where everyone has the luxury to be himself.
It can only be hoped that the next generation will find a more meaningful approach to self analysis that will make covering absolutely unnecessary in the future. Works Cited Yoshino Kenji, Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights, Random House, 2006 Fukuyama Francis, Our Posthuman Future, Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, Picador, 2003 Mitra Dola, “On a scale of Zero to Ten”, The Telegraph, 24th April 2005 news. bbc. co. uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/uk_politics