Who’s depriving?

We’ve been puzzling over some apparently sweeping language of Martha Nussbaum’s, especially her claim that ‘the type of mutual respect that is required in a pluralistic society…requires (in the public sphere at least) not showing up the claims of religion as damaging, and not adopting a public conception of truth and objectivity according to which such claims are false.’ What does she mean by ‘not adopting a public conception’? Does she mean, narrowly, a public conception for purposes of political deliberation? Or does she mean, broadly, a public conception in the sense of any public statement or writing? It would be charitable to think she meant the former, but on the other hand, it seems to me, if she meant the former she should have used much more careful language.

But in fact she has a tendency to use tendentious language on this subject; surprisingly tendentious, I think. I was looking through Women and Human Development this morning and was taken aback by some of her wording.

She concludes an extended criticism of what she calls ‘secular humanist feminism’ by saying (p. 180):

To strike at religion is thus to risk eviscerating people’s moral, cultural, and artistic, as well as spiritual, lives. Even if substitute forms of expression and activity are available in and through the secular state, a state that deprives citizens of the option to pursue religion has done them a grave wrong…

To strike at religion? What does she mean ‘strike at’? And what does she mean ‘deprive’? Why does she equate ‘secular humanist feminism’ with a state that deprives citizens of the option to pursue religion? If you think she makes that clear in the book, forget it; she doesn’t. It looks like just pure rhetoric to me, and rather distasteful rhetoric at that, the all too familiar kind that translates disagreement as attack and forthright views as state power. And she goes on doing it.

When we tell people that they cannot define the ultimate meaning of life in their own way – even if we are sure we are right, and that their way is not a very good way – we do not show full respect for them as persons. In that sense, the secular humanist view is at bottom quite illiberal…[E]ven if a certain group of religious beliefs (or even all beliefs) were nothing more than retrograde superstition, we would not be respecting the autonomy of our fellow citizens if we did not allow them these avenues of inquiry and self-determination.

There it is again. What does she mean ‘allow’? Who is telling people ‘that they cannot define the ultimate meaning of life in their own way’? What is she talking about? She seems to be taking opinion and discussion to be exactly equivalent to state power and law – but what on earth is she doing that for? A philosopher of all people! Does she take every claim she offers as exactly equivalent to state power? That would be a tad megalomaniacal, surely.

I don’t like this stuff. I think it’s sinister, and stealthy, and illegitmate. It’s also a peculiar way of attempting to coerce people to shut up by pretending they are trying to coerce people by speaking. That’s a popular move, but I’m surprised to see Nussbaum resorting to it.

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