Stanley Fish likes to play Confuse a Cat sometimes. So it seems at least.

This is what it means today to put self-censorship “on the agenda”: the particular object of that censorship – be it opinions about a religion, a movie, the furniture in a friend’s house, your wife’s new dress, whatever – is a matter of indifference. What is important is not the content of what is expressed but that it be expressed. What is important is that you let it all hang out.

My wife’s new dress? But I don’t have a wife. Does he think only men read the NY Times? Does he think women are too busy buying new dresses to read it? Strange guy. But never mind that; the point is, he’s wrong. He may be right about the editor of Jyllands-Posten, but he’s certainly not right about everyone who opposes the pressure to ‘respect’ religious zealots who make death threats, torch embassies and kill people over cartoons about a long-dead prophet. To some of us, the content of what is expressed and the content of the pressure not to express it are important.

The first tenet of the liberal religion is that everything (at least in the realm of expression and ideas) is to be permitted, but nothing is to be taken seriously…It is in the private sphere – the personal spaces of the heart, the home and the house of worship – that one’s religious views are allowed full sway and dictate behavior. But in the public sphere, the argument goes, one’s religious views must be put forward with diffidence and circumspection. You can still have them and express them – that’s what separates us from theocracies and tyrannies – but they should be worn lightly. Not only must there be no effort to make them into the laws of the land, but they should not be urged on others in ways that make them uncomfortable.

Has he been reading Stephen Carter? That sounds exactly like Carter’s claim that the separation of church and state ‘trivializes’ religion. And then why is he calling it a ‘religion’? Has he been reading Wieseltier? And why does he sound so disdainful throughout? Of course ‘in the public sphere…one’s religious views must be put forward with diffidence and circumspection’. You bet they must! The alternative is theocracy, in which laws are decided by revelation and authority via one holy book (which it is taboo to disagree with, much less make fun of). So what’s up with the disdain?

What religious beliefs are owed – and this is a word that appears again and again in the recent debate – is “respect”; nothing less, nothing more. The thing about respect is that it doesn’t cost you anything; its generosity is barely skin-deep and is in fact a form of condescension: I respect you; now don’t bother me. This was certainly the message conveyed by Rich Oppel, editor of The Austin (Tex.) American-Statesman, who explained his decision to reprint one of the cartoons thusly: “It is one thing to respect other people’s faith and religion, but it goes beyond where I would go to accept their taboos.” Clearly, Mr. Oppel would think himself pressured to “accept” the taboos of the Muslim religion were he asked to alter his behavior in any way, say by refraining from publishing cartoons depicting the Prophet. Were he to do that, he would be in danger of crossing the line between “respecting” a taboo and taking it seriously, and he is not about to do that.

Yes – and? What’s wrong with that? Again, what’s up with the disdain? We shouldn’t respect taboos. Taboos are irrational Forbidden Things, they’re often harmful, any benefits they may have can be obtained without the taboo (if they apply to poisonous foods, for instance, we can just point out that the foods are poisonous, rather than declaring them taboo); there’s no reason to respect them and plenty of reason to resist being ordered to respect them.

This is, increasingly, what happens to strongly held faiths in the liberal state. Such beliefs are equally and indifferently authorized as ideas people are perfectly free to believe, but they are equally and indifferently disallowed as ideas that might serve as a basis for action or public policy. Strongly held faiths are exhibits in liberalism’s museum; we appreciate them, and we congratulate ourselves for affording them a space, but should one of them ask of us more than we are prepared to give – ask for deference rather than mere respect – it will be met with the barrage of platitudinous arguments that for the last week have filled the pages of every newspaper in the country.

Yes, and? ‘Faiths’ can be strongly held and still be 1) dead wrong and 2) harmful, and because they are ‘faiths’ they are removed from rational criticism. That’s why they are disallowed as a basis for public policy. That is why we are not prepared to give them deference (or respect either, some of us). What else does Fish expect? Sheer abdication? Why would he expect that?

This is itself a morality – the morality of a withdrawal from morality in any strong, insistent form. It is certainly different from the morality of those for whom the Danish cartoons are blasphemy and monstrously evil. And the difference, I think, is to the credit of the Muslim protesters and to the discredit of the liberal editors.

Well what a revolting thing to think. Really. What with genocide in Darfur and schools incinerated in Afghanistan, people who think cartoons are the most important issue on the agenda are not my idea of morally admirable. Maybe Fish has been out in the sun too long.

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