Sub fusc and the limits of liberalism

Here is a brief and absurd canter across some ground in political philosophy, through the lens of the sub fusc referendum.

If you don't know what that means, fair enough. Sub fusc is the traditional academic dress of Oxford University. It looks like this, and the current university rules are that you have to wear it, along with an academic gown and mortarboard, when you're taking exams. Currently, the Student Union is holding a referendum on whether that rule should be abolished so that sub fusc will be non-compulsory.

You can read the official cases for and against the change, but actually they're kind of misleading, because the real division is whether you think the fact of tradition, just taken by itself, has any value. If you do, then more or less nebulous concerns about projecting an image of elitism won't worry you; if you don't, then there's no real benefit to sub fusc, and so the worries about access (nebulous or not) are good enough a reason to get rid of it. So unsurprisingly Tory supporters are lining up in defence of it, and most Labour types are against.



Here's one idea that's coming up a lot: "it's not about whether you like sub fusc - if you like it, you can still wear it, but there's no reason to make everyone else wear it! It's the best of both worlds!" Game over, right? If you think it's great and want to avail yourself of the supposed academic benefits from wearing it, go for your life, but don't make everyone else.

The trouble is, obviously, that if it wasn't compulsory, a huge number of people would stop wearing it, and then even most of the people who are defending it now wouldn't wear it. Nobody wants to be the only one in the bizarre archaic outfit! And the value of the tradition lies in it being a universal signifier of serious, momentous Oxford exams, which it isn't unless everyone is wearing it. (Something like this. I'm sort of riffing, here, because I obviously think sub fusc is ridiculous.)

So the best-of-both-worlds case for relaxing the rule is a bit too optimistic. Because it's not true that everyone can do the thing they find valuable - wearing relaxing clothes if they want, wearing traditional ones if they want - regardless of the rule. For many people, what they find valuable involves other people, not just themselves, doing certain things.

Which brings us to liberalism. The anti-sub fusc campaign is basically just a reiteration of a tenet of classical liberalism. There's no need to decide what a good way of living is: just let everyone choose for themselves, and they'll all choose the way they like the look of most. And maybe having all these people living in all these different ways will even be productive, because they'll be 'experiments in living' that help everyone figure out what ways of living appeal most to them. (I'm very grateful for Justin Bieber's freedom, say, because it's furnished me with excellent evidence that I don't want to be a teen pop star. But meanwhile he seems to be enjoying himself. Everybody wins!)

And the problem with the anti-sub fusc campaign is basically a problem for liberalism more broadly. Because some ways of living aren't compatible with everyone just choosing their own way of living. And if the rule is 'let everyone choose for themselves', then not everyone will be able to 'choose the way they like the look of most'. (My most preferred way of living might be one where I'm never exposed to the risk of seeing piercings in people's ears or eyebrows or whatever. But other people's preferred way involves them having piercings. Not everybody can win.)

Ultimately that just means that we have to be willing to say "well, the ways of living which involve requiring other people to live in ways they don't want to are off the menu". I'm pretty willing to say that, and plenty of other people are willing to as well. But it's a difficulty for liberalism, simply construed, because:
   (a) it means it can't be quite what it always claimed to be - liberalism wants to not make any judgement about what kinds of lives are valuable or permissible, but it looks like it'll have to; and,

   (b) more seriously, some people think that the ways of living it'll have to rule out, which require coordinating with other people and perhaps imposing requirements and restrictions and aren't compatible with other people doing whatever they want, are among the most valuable sorts of life - certainly better than the atomised, individualist lives to which it doesn't matter what everyone else does. This, broadly and roughly, is communitarianism.

I don't really mind about (a) and don't believe (b), but maybe that's because I'm anti-community, anti-tradition, groupless individualist maverick who's missing out on the most valuable things in life.

Anyway, if you can vote, you should vote against keeping sub fusc. It's dumb, communitarianism or no.

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