Which Community?

I’ve just been chatting with my colleague on the phone, and along with other things we discussed, we agreed that this post is a lot of nonsense – and nonsense of a kind that leaves us shaking our heads (yes, both of them) in baffled amazement.

Islamaphobia is often defined as slanderous untruths. I think there is an excessively narrow definition of Islamophobia at play here. It is not right that simply stating ‘the truth’ is sufficient to clear one of Islamophobia…One must take the content in the whole. If the overall impact is intemperate and insinuating, the overall conclusion is that it is oppressively anti-pluralistic. One must also take into account the context. If ‘truth’ about a community is expressed intemperately and one-sidedly, and that community is already under a burden of suspicion and disadvantage, then one must conclude that this is a freedom of speech exercised in such a manner to oppress and marginalize the group.

Um – really? Always? Is that a good general rule? I suppose it depends (as it so often does) what you mean by ‘community’ – and that’s probably exactly why the word was used. Because of course we all know that communities are good things, warm fuzzy kind loving things, so obviously any community that is under ‘a burden of suspicion and disadvantage’ is being unfairly persecuted in some way. Stands to reason, doesn’t it. So even if one tells the truth about a community, if one does it the wrong way, then one is oppressing and marginalizing the group. ‘The group’ – that’s another one of those words. Kind of dodges the question, doesn’t it. Suppose the truth that is being told about this community/group is that it treats some of its members like dirt, that it not only oppresses and marginalizes them, it beats them and when angry enough, kills them. Then is one really oppressing and marginalizing the whole group by telling the truth even in an intemperate way? Or is one in fact ‘oppressing’ or rather exposing and with any luck stopping part of the group, to wit, the perpetrators?

Yes. The problem (one problem) with that whole absurd quotation is that not all communities are in fact good or benign or harmless, even to all of their own members. Is that really a big news flash? If they are engaged in oppressing and marginalizing, battering and murdering, coercing and depriving, people within that very community (or outside it) then the truth should be told about that. Yes, intemperately. And there are communities and groups like that in the world. So as a generalization that paragraph just won’t wash. (The rhetoric of ‘community’ and ‘group’ is yet another example of what Julian was talking about in that Bad Moves I commented on last week – language that is ‘the means by which question begging occurs.’)

But cultures must be respected as rounded expressions of full humanity, just as we expect our cultures to be treated so. By all means, condemn what one wishes in whatever culture, but liberals must remember that we are a world not of human atoms accorded rights defined by ahistorical reason, but organic and evolving communities deserving of respect by virtue of their framing of human existance. To serve liberalism by highlighting all that is wrong with Islam is to whip up prejudice and is thus unconscionable.

Well, again – what does ‘respected’ mean? And what on earth does ’rounded expressions of full humanity’ mean? Nothing, would be my guess – just a formula to elicit some kind of right-on emotion. But if it does mean anything – again, the question arises: what if these ‘cultures’ deprive some of their members – as some cultures certainly do – of the ability to develop their own expressions of full humanity? Must such cultures then be ‘respected’? If so, why?

Mullholland has a lot to say about the silly assumptions of ‘liberals’ but he makes some silly assumptions himself, such as the assumption that communities and groups are single entities that all feel and think alike, that all have the same interests, that all feel oppressed and marginalized as one by the truth-telling of outsiders. But communities aren’t like that. Even ‘groups’ of two people aren’t like that, not all the time, and whole communities certainly are not. Susan Moller Okin put it this way in Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?:

Most cultures are suffused with practices and ideologies concerning gender. Suppose, then, that a culture endorses and facilitates the control of men over women in various ways (even if informally, in the private sphere of domestic life). Suppose, too, that there are fairly clear disparities of power between the sexes, such that the more powerful, male members are those who are generally in a position to determine and articulate the group’s beliefs, practices, and interests. Under such conditions, group rights are potentially, and in many cases actually, antifeminist. They substantially limit the capacities of women and girls of that culture to live with human dignity equal to that of men and boys, and to live as freely chosen lives as they can. Advocates of group rights for minorities within liberal states have not adequately addressed this simple critique of group rights, for at least two reasons. First, they tend to treat cultural groups as monoliths–to pay more attention to differences between and among groups than to differences within them.

You could say that.

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