December 24, 2011

Social Pressure Does Not Constitute a Ban

Merry Christmas
Merry Christmas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
What does it mean when an Islamic cleric bans women from handling "penis-shaped" foods for fear that it might arouse them? Assuming the particular cleric is an outlier without real power, it means he's going to be mocked. But what if the cleric was powerful enough that his word was considered law? Under such circumstances, women who ignored his directive would be punished for doing so. This is what we typically mean by a ban. That is, someone with the authority to do so bans something so that ignoring the ban brings punishment.

In the United States, a ban is inseparable from the law. Prohibition was a ban on alcohol; current law bans marijuana and a variety of other drugs. Simply put, something that has been banned is illegal. Bans are enforced through the state's police power in that you can be arrested, charged, and (if convicted) punished for violating a ban.

So what are we to make of H. Res. 489, a congressional resolution introduced this month by Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO) and with 55 co-sponsors which insists that the House:
(1) recognizes the importance of the symbols and traditions of Christmas;
(2) strongly disapproves of attempts to ban references to Christmas; and
(3) expresses support for the use of these symbols and traditions by those who celebrate Christmas.
Has anyone really been suggesting that references to Christmas are banned (i.e., become illegal)? Of course not! Are efforts like H. Res. 489 merely more pandering by conservative politicians seeking to exploit a hopelessly misinformed base, or might something else be going on here?

American conservatives are notorious for confusing social pressure with bans. In some regions of the U.S., there is a bit of social pressure to be sensitive to the values and beliefs of others. For example, a Christian who entered a predominately Jewish setting and loudly wished everyone "Merry Christmas" while ignoring the fact that most Jews celebrate a different holiday would probably be perceived as rude. Thus, there might be some mild social pressure not to behave this way. This is hardly a ban.

But aren't nativity scenes banned from appearing in government buildings? Nope. As long as displays from other traditions are equally represented, they are permitted. But what about public schools not being allowed to mention Christmas? Public schools, much like other public (i.e., government sponsored) institutions are expected to be inclusive, giving equal respect to various belief systems. There is nothing inclusive or equal about "Christmas plays," so we see "holiday plays" instead.

The difference between social pressure and bans seems fairly obvious to virtually everyone except regular viewers of Fox "News" and the politicians who pander to them.

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