The Atlantic

The Burqini Debate's Irresolvable Tension

Liberals emphasize personal choice, but their conception of choice has its limits.
Source: Eric Gaillard / Reuters

When I wrote a largely personal, impressionistic piece last week about the burqini, it elicited one of the most charged reactions I’ve seen about anything I’ve written. The piece—or at least one reaction to the piece—went viral. The subtitle (“Is there any right way to react to the burqini?”) bothered many readers, who felt that even posing the question left open the possibility that it might be answered incorrectly.

In the piece. But the burqini (along with the headscarf and the face veil) is such a charged topic precisely because of the reactions it elicits on both sides of the debate. Freedom of choice, autonomy, and individual agency are at the heart of the classical liberal idea. They’ve never been defended consistently by liberals, including liberal greats like Thomas Jefferson or , but the basic principle underlying these ideas has been clear: that people should be able to pursue their own conception of the Good, as long as they don’t harm anyone in the process.

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