Tuesday, September 6, 2022
At our conference on "Liberalism's Limits: Religious Exemptions and Hate Speech" this summer, sponsored jointly with our longtime colleagues at Università LUMSA in Rome, the distinguished political historian Chantal Delsol gave a keynote address titled The Insurrection of Particularities, Or, How the Universal Comes Undone. You can see the full text of the talk over here (translated by me from the French, with Professor Delsol's permission, or available in the original for French readers). A bit:
On October 18, 2017, the French National Assembly adopted the State Law on Religious Neutrality. Article 11 provides that an accommodation for reasons of religion may be granted if 5 criteria are satisfied: the request is serious; the requested accommodation respects the equality of men and women, as well as the principle of religious neutrality of the State; the accommodation is not excessively constraining; and the requester has actively participated in finding a solution. By the same token, there will be no accommodation with respect to the obligation of all employees of the State to work with their faces uncovered and without wearing any religious sign.
One sees here the extent to which the legislator struggles to preserve as far as possible State neutrality tied to secularism, without actually achieving it, and doing so less and less. We are today on a kind of slope, which is the subject of our conference today: that which was accorded an exception more and more becomes the rule. The Quebecois speak of “reasonable accommodations,” to underline well that one should not surpass the limits of good sense. The example is cited in France of the authorization given for prayer in the streets which stops traffic. So, too, laws forbidding the scheduling of exams for students during the holidays of various religions, which made one journalist say, “soon only February 29 will be left to schedule exams.” The question is in fact posed about the diversity and plurality of exemptions, but that is only a subsidiary question consequent on others. These concessions, which raise a vision of equality solely constituted of privileges, interrogate our vision of the universal, and finally our way of being a society.
Our societies appear more and more to be aggregations of minorities disparate in every respect (they may be social, sexual, religious, or cultural, etc.). And everything happens as if the goal of governments is nothing more than to establish equality among these groups, which, always claiming and becoming indignant about not obtaining enough, monopolize public space. At this point, leaving behind Tocqueville who feared a tyranny of the majority, we could, as Philippe Raynaud put it,  fall into a tyranny of minorities.
This is not a superficial phenomenon. It is instead the result of a transformation of our view of the world.