Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood

No, I don’t agree with Taner Edis, and I agree even less as he clarifies. This is all the odder in that he doesn’t even agree with himself – he prefers secular liberalism himself, but says he can’t defend it. Yes you can, Taner! Try harder! It can be done. It can’t be done absolutely, or permanently, or in such a way that no one anywhere will disagree – but it can still be done.


My political preference is very much the opposite. I would, personally, consider a multicultural regime a dystopia…My reasons for all of this, however, have almost everything to do with my particular interests and aspirations, and next to nothing to do with any claim that these are universal considerations applicable to all reasonable people.

Well you can fix that. Read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights again. Read Susan Moller Okin’s ‘Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?’ Read the first few articles in Martha Nussbaum’s Sex and Social Justice. Read some Amartya Sen. Re-read Mill.

How, then, would multicultural laws work? We do have proposals to this effect, and they come down to communities having a good deal of autonomy in regulating their own affairs…

But again, that treats ‘communities’ as if they were people. ‘Communities’ don’t have affairs; people do, one at a time. The affairs of one person may be different from those of another person, and it just isn’t safe to assume that ‘communities’ as such treat all their members equally. We know that some ‘communities’ don’t treat all their members equally, and that that’s why it’s dangerous to give communities certain kinds of autonomy.

[The state] leaves the internal affairs of communities alone. Particularly areas such as family law become the domain of quasi-autonomous communities. After all, if devout Muslims feel that the ability to communally follow sharia law is essential for them to live their religious commitments properly, well, why not? Why interfere?

Because ‘devout Muslims’ aren’t identical to one another, and because one cannot assume that putative ‘Muslim communities’ contain only ‘devout Muslims,’ and because even devout Muslims don’t necessarily agree about what it means to ‘communally follow sharia law.’ Isn’t this obvious? Consider a teenage daughter who wants to refuse a marriage for instance – the community’s autonomy to regulate its own affairs is not in her interest! Consider a married woman who wants to work or go to school; consider an adult daughter who is seeing a man from some other ‘community,’ against the wishes of her parents; consider any girl or woman who has had or is having non-marital sex; consider any girl or woman who doesn’t want to wear hijab; consider anyone at all who wants to leave Islam. Autonomy for their ‘community’ is slavery or death for them. Sorry but it’s just callous to say ‘why not?’ and ‘why interfere?’.

This is not theocracy—Christians, Buddhists, or even secularists can live according to their own law regulating their interactions within their own communities.

No they can’t. That must mean something much more limited than the actual words say, because the actual words are just wrong. There are a very few religious exceptions in US law, for instance (most of which should be repealed), but there’s certainly no blanket right for people to ‘live according to their own law’ even within their darling communities.

Groups are real, they shape and serve their members’ interests, and it is only practical to arrange state institutions to recognize this reality.

Sure, groups are real in some sense (though not in all senses – they are after all an abstraction in many senses), but they do not necessarily or automatically serve the interests of all their members. This is the thing that is absolutely crucial to remember about groups and communities and even families – they are made up of individuals and it is not safe or fair to assume that all those individuals have the same interests all the time. That is precisely why the state should not treat communities as homogeneous and putative community ‘leaders’ or ‘representatives’ as genuinely representing everyone in the notional community.

Now, there are all sorts of practical questions that arise. How, for example, do we propose to keep communities from oppressing some of their members lower in their internal hierarchies? To some extent, this will happen, and there might not be much to do except shrug and say some oxes are always gored under any political order. Still, especially since massive oppression itself can threaten the peace, we would need institutional arrangements to help ease such problems.

Oh, god, Taner – there you go right off the rails. That’s a horrible thing to say! Shrug? I’ll be god damned if I will! There’s plenty of that as it is, we don’t need more of it. And do you really mean to minimize the inherent badness of oppression itself, even if it doesn’t ‘threaten the peace’? If so, why on earth? Oppression is bad – humans treating other humans like crap is the curse of our species – it’s the nightmare from which we can’t awake, to adopt Joyce’s phrase – it’s our horrible dreadful heritage, from the Armenian genocide to the corpses in Jos to the misery of generations of children in Irish industrial schools to the tens of thousands of girls kept out of school in Afghanistan. It’s not something to shrug at.

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