November 08, 2006

Stanley Fish, Locke and Tolerance

Stanley Fish writes eloquently in this week's Chronicle. His argument based on a recently published book is that tolerance, the much-vaunted liberal virtue is actually tolerance merely of a circumscribed number of political beliefs. He points out that in the United States, the article is heavily biased toward an American readership, that

those Americans who refuse to leave their sectarian beliefs and convictions of core identity at home when they venture into the public sphere — fundamentalist Christians, Orthodox Jews, strongly observant Muslims, gays and lesbians, etc. — must be made to understand that only by relaxing the hold of those personal commitments and promising to act as liberal citizens (rather than as Southern Baptists, Hasidic Jews, or citizens of the Queer Nation) in public spaces will they be welcomed into the fold. Should they resist the requirement to live a double life — apostles of individualism, progress, profit, and secularism in the courthouse and the ballot box, devout upholders of religious and cultural imperatives at home — they will either be tolerated and marked as "other" (the Amish) or made the objects of surveillance and profiling (anyone wearing a turban or a burkha) or detained and perhaps deported.

He is right to point this out and argue it- it isn't a novel point as Fish recognises John Locke argued this point many years ago. Locke beleived that the security of the state trumped the value of toleration. What Fish doesn't acknowledge is the robustness of Liberalism- a Liberal tolerates anyone willing to accept the key liberal value of toleration. Like a Democrat becomes unsure about a party elected that promises not to hold elections, so a liberal becomes intolerant of someone not willing to recognise toleration. What Fish tries to do is to reconfigure this as a tolerant liberal impeding other's lifestyles- he's wrong. Impeding say the fundamentalist isn't stopping him living strictly by a religious text, but stopping him making others live that way. The liberal has no problem with him living in a certain way but does when he says its crucial to him to force others to live that way.

Stanley Fish doesn't offer answers- I'd be curious to see how you could be more tolerant than the Liberal position. Ultimately any system of toleration involves a ban on a lack of toleration in government policy- ultimately me recognising your right to live as you choose means that you have to recognise my right to live as I choose. How you abandon that and keep a tolerant polity I'm not sure.

Maybe in this Fish needs to beware- quibbling about tolerance may let in those who are really intolerant.

7 comments:

Political Umpire said...

Fish was for a short time an object of fascination for me at University. I still have a copy of his book There's No Such Thing (and it's a good thing too). Essentially the Chronicle article is a rehash of what he has being saying about liberalism for years, which by his own admission isn't original anyway.

I think the reason for a lot of what Fish writes is understandable annoyance at the high handed preaching of the liberal elite in America, and the rather suffocating repetition in all areas of American life of "American values" which I noticed on my recent trip there.

His thesis is that since liberals find that their ideas are incompatibile with, for example, religious fundamentalists, they are acting identically with those fundamentalists by seeking to exclude their values from the public sphere.

That is true enough as far as it goes. It is, however, undeniable that the diversity of views which liberals would permit greatly exceeds those of fundamentalists. Liberals permit any dress code short of whatever the prevailing minimum standards of 'public decency' might be; fundamentalist Islamists seek to impose the full veil on women. Liberals believe in sexual orientation, racial and gender tolerance and equality; fundamentalist Christians believe in none of them. And whereas religious fundamentalists would burn infidels at the stake, liberals are content for the fundamentalist Amish to live quite separately and in accordance with their beliefs.

In a nutshell, every system of political thought allows things and disallows others. Liberalism allows a lot more than others, therefore it is quite correctly described as 'tolerant', which is more or less what you say in your third to last paragraph.

One related point is that fundamentalists often seek to bring themselves within the liberal umbrella in order for their views to gain currency. So for example some Christians brought an application for judicial review a few years ago concerning their 'right' to discipline children physically. They argued that their beliefs (spare the rod, spoil the child) deserved respect as a minority cultural practice and so, therefore, they should be able to cane away.

The point they misunderstood was that respect for beliefs (and I'm not personally expressing a belief here about physical discipline, which I don't necessarily disagree with) (i) does not permit those beliefs to be forced on others, and (ii) does not entail respect for those beliefs themselves.

Thus the Christians were not entitled to force their beliefs on others (the children), nor for respect for them to hit anyone other than themselves.

Of course that's a bad example, since it opens up the can of worms about children's rights and whether freedom of religion permits people to indoctrinate their children, but it suffices for the point I was trying to make.

Gracchi said...

I think to be honest we agree on this- I like your illustration despite the fact it opens up the whole children issue. Its interesting but listening to Ronald Dworking on Radio 4 he argued that behind liberalism lurked a principle that a person could and should make their own life in the way they wished so long as it didn't hurt others. That principle I think is pretty important and I think is what I would declare to be tolerance- personally I think part of the problem with the creed of liberalism is that it isn't stated often enough or clearly enough.

As for Fish I sometimes do worry about the tendency of such as him to make these arguments and end up on the barricades opposing liberalism. He does seem in a sense to want to be avant garde and leftwing by doing so, hence the reference to queer nation alongside the fundamentalisms, but personally I think he ends up supporting some of the most conservative and restrictive practices around.

Gracchi said...

Sorry that shouldn't be Dworking, a rather odd activity, but Dworkin

edmund3 said...

political umpire where is your evicne for the following

racial and gender tolerance and equality;... religous fundamentalits belive in none of these"

what does "sexual orientation equality" mean? It seems to me a term without meaning

and what religious fundamentalists have "burnt infidels at the stake" in the 20th century?

I think part of the point where Fish has some cliams despite the dubiousness of much of his logic is that what is the right to differ with those " diversiteis of views" if for example you don't accept gender equality are you allowed to live that way-as long as you don't coerece others? Many who bear the name liberal in the US would deny this

Your beating point is a good one- it's just like aboriton (only less extrem since of course the parental authoty to hit is very diffent in extremity from the parental authoriyt to kill at whim) however given how central the rearing of children is to socity it shows that any acceptance of basic liberal/ libertarian tolerance raises nearly as many questions as it answers.

Political Umpire said...

Graachi, I also think we're pretty much in agreement on this one, and Dworkin is always a good place to go for the liberal viewpoint.

Edmund3, it is clear that religious fundamentalists have been a good deal less tolerant than Classical Liberalism, there's enough evidence of that without me labouring examples beyond say, the Spanish Inquisition, the legal system of modern day Gulf States, the pronouncements of Southern American preachers such as Jerry Falwell etc etc.

"what does "sexual orientation equality" mean? It seems to me a term without meaning"

It means not discriminating against those of a different sexual orientation, so not outlawing consensual homosexual activity, not running people out of office who happen to be gay, not refusing jobs to people on that ground etc.

and what religious fundamentalists have "burnt infidels at the stake" in the 20th century?

It's a figure of speech. In the C20 the Taliban, for one, did a few similar activities.

edmund said...

Dear political umpire i think part of my point is that the term fundamelists is very unhelpufll peopoe tend to use it to mean "religion i don't like" . It's actualy orial yused for a group of a merican protents who have no unsual histoy of political perseuction. I certly agreeo n the tablian- one reason why i asked about the fires point is that I thought you might mean the nazis-who were not just not fundamenatlist but religisouly very liberla (when they were any kind of chrisan) and formed thier own theologiclaly liberal denomination. So my point is really that some types of fumdalist are indeed "intolerant" but because the term is menagliness you have to say who you actually mean.

On that subject

I'd be interested in what you were thinking of by the following? specirfically?

clear that religious fundamentalists have been a good deal less tolerant than Classical Liberalism,.....

the pronouncements of Southern American preachers such as Jerry Falwell etc etc.

ie which pronounments also on sexual oriention equyality you say

"what does "sexual orientation equality" mean? It seems to me a term without meaning"

It means not discriminating against those of a different sexual orientation, so not outlawing consensual homosexual activity, not running people out of office who happen to be gay, not refusing jobs to people on that ground etc.

it appears to be "the law not persecuign people who engaged in homosexual sex" which seems reasonble but you thne say "not refuisng jobs to peopl on that ground/" does tha mean you think that "sexual oreintation equality" entials foricng people to hire peol; engaing in homosxeul sex, even when you disapprove of it, how is this compatibe with classical liberal notions of tolerence? and does it work both ways ie is a gay rights group forced to hire people who think homosexuality is evil?

and you still haven't defended the floolwing

racial and gender tolerance and equality;... religous fundamentalits belive in none of these" "

obviously you jight mena the tablina(see discussion of fundamenatlism above) -though the taliban at least in theoyr accept racial equality

Political Umpire said...

Edmund I’m always interested in others’ point of view, even (especially) when they differ from my own, so I appreciate your comments. I am bound to say - and I know none of us have subeditors – that it would be a lot easier if you could run a comment through a spell checker before posting it, as I’m afraid I have found your’s rather hard to read.

There is always a tension amongst liberals between the notion of freedom to allowing people to discriminate, and the notion of equality protecting people against irrational discrimination. Should a Muslim school be permitted to specify only Muslim teachers, even for non-religious subjects such as mathematics? Some believe this is unlawful discrimination; I myself tend to think it is a logical consequence of freedom of religion and freedom of assembly. No one suggests such institutions should be forced to hire anyone, the way anti-discrimination legislation tries to work is to preclude anyone from specifying only a particular religion or sexual orientation or gender or race or whatever in their job advertisements, and to provide a remedy for anyone sacked simply on those grounds.

The inherent difficulties in proving and policing such discrimination takes up a lot of the employment courts’ time.

I think you are wrongly inferring that I am lumping all religions under the 'fundamentalist' banner. I should have said 'some' fundamentalists don't agree with some or all notions of gender, race, and orientation equality - which they don't. But let’s get back to the original point of the discussion. There are some who in the name of religion would seek to outlaw consenting homosexual relations. Liberals do not. That is one example of greater ‘tolerance’ of liberalism as opposed to some religions. You observe that the Nazis committed all kinds of illiberal atrocities, on a secular rather than religious basis. Indeed, and so liberalism can similarly be marked out as more tolerant than fascism. Therefore, I (and, I think, Graachi as well) maintain that Liberalism is – pace Fish – more tolerant than other ideologies, even though it is not anarchy.