Excessive tolerance?

Review by Russell Blackford, who finds Martha Nussbaum too reluctant to criticize in her new book, “The New Religious Intolerance”. This review appears in Issue 59 of The Philosophers’ Magazine. Please support TPM by subscribing.

Though Martha Nussbaum complains of a new religious intolerance, she actually identifies something much narrower: an intolerance of Islam. Her focus is on hostility toward Islam within Western societies, as evidenced by specific recent developments. These include the ongoing efforts in some European countries to ban public wearing of the burqa, the recent Swiss prohibition of building minarets, and the strident opposition to a proposal to construct what Nussbaum calls “an Islamic-initiated multifaith community center” in lower Manhattan.

There’s much to agree with here. Indeed, in my recent book Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, I also oppose bans on the burqa. I see no good basis for a law aimed specifically at prohibiting minarets, and the opposition to the lower Manhattan community centre strikes me as massively overblown. So far, we are in agreement. Nussbaum’s analysis of the last of these issues is especially commendable. She devotes a full chapter of over 50 pages to the pros and cons of the community centre, carefully distinguishing between constitutional issues and broader social or moral ones. She does not hesitate to criticise the centre’s proponents for what appear to be errors of judgement, failures of communication, and mutually conflicting visions. This is by far the most impressive discussion of the subject that I’ve encountered.

Thus, The New Religious Intolerance advances the debate about Islam and how Western societies ought to respond to it. Much of it draws heavily from the author’s earlier Liberty of Conscience (2008), but there is plenty of new material. The problem is that it is rather one-sided. Although Nussbaum is able to see difficulties with a particular project such as the community centre, she appears reluctant to concede that Islam, or any other religion, might actually have a dark side. This especially comes out in her discussion of the burqa and similar garments, in which she seems unwilling to find anything problematic at all about clothing that shrouds a woman’s entire body, including almost all of her face.

Nussbaum spends nearly 30 pages discussing the burqa. I believe that she is successful in refuting any argument for a comprehensive ban on wearing the burqa in public, but much less so in arguing that mere criticism of the burqa is somehow nosy, rude, and hypocritical. She offers various analogies in an attempt to show that the burqa is no worse than other things that are widely accepted, such as cosmetic surgery and high-heeled shoes, but let’s be careful here. For example, I have no difficulty imagining situations where the compelled wearing of high heels actually would be an abuse of familial or community power.

What if someone forced little girls to wear stiletto heels whenever they went out in public, thus preventing them from engaging in many ordinary activities? Would it be more tolerable if, as often seems to be the case with the burqa, this was required by parents and the local community only when the girl reached sixteen or so? Surely these practices would be considered abusive, and I wonder why requiring girls to wear a garment such as the burqa in public shouldn’t be regarded in the same way – which is not to dispute that the law should permit adults and mature minors to wear pretty much whatever they genuinely wish.

Again, Nussbaum plays down the degree to which covering a person’s face interferes with everyday affective communication, offering analogies with medical practitioners, (American) football players, and the like. But does she really think it would be fine for doctors to wear surgical masks while explaining test results to patients, or for football players to keep their helmets on at all times? While it might not merit interference from the law, any religious requirement to veil the face does impede ordinary communication, and that is a reason for regret and criticism.

The state is not well placed to make judgements about otherworldly matters, such as the truth or falsity of any particular religion. That also limits its ability to discover the “right” canons of conduct for us all to follow – perhaps in the interest of our spiritual salvation – and gives it a good reason to permit much diversity in our behaviour. Thus, the state ought to adopt a degree of epistemic modesty about religious issues, and many moral ones. However, there is no reason for individual citizens to do likewise. We are well within our rights to conclude, from within our respective understandings of the world and conceptions of the good, that a particular religion has its dark side, or that a moral norm favoured by some religion is preposterous and harmful.

Getting in individuals’ faces about it in everyday encounters would be uncivil, but public critique of religions and their associated moralities is a legitimate and important use of our freedom of speech. Nussbaum seems temperamentally opposed to this, but when she tries to back up her intuitive reactions her arguments are weak. This doesn’t entirely spoil her book, but it’s a reason to handle it with care.

The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age by Martha C Nussbaum (Harvard University Press), £19.95/$26.95.

Russell Blackford is a conjoint lecturer in philosophy and religious studies at the University of Newcastle, NSW. His new book is Freedom of Religion and the Secular State (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).

  1. Hmm I read the first paragraph and wondered whether to interpret the ‘intolerance of Islam’ as intolerance by Islam of other religions (hard coded into the strict faith) or intolerance OF Islam (which, considering it has the overt aim or world domination and the eradication of all other faiths as its explicit aim in the harder more radical areas) seems entirely justified.

    Should we have been intolerant of a Nazi Germany, or should we have essentially allowed a faith based on the stated superiority of one presumed genotype over another to succeed?

    Why on earth did we go to war to preserve Poland, from what was after all, only a people of faith expressing the tenets of their faith by invading other nations, converting them to the correct faith, and gassing anyone who didn’t fit in?

    Its the only right and proper thing to do to eradicate these infidel untermensch scum after all. Heil Hitler! And if you don’t agree you are an intolerant racist.

    So, where is the difference?
    I can’t see any.

    Perhaps intolerance of things the majority of a population really do not like, is actually the correct moral thing to do?

    I will leave that to the lesser moos* to chew over.

    Let’s be nice to lethal bacteria. After all, they deserve a life too, don’t they?

    *keepers of the sacred cows

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  3. You started off with an interesting comment there Leo, yet it seemed to degenerate into poor and irrelevant examples to justify dubious claims.

    I want to consider this talk about religions having a dark side, and that we should be free to discuss this. It sounds like a very generic judgement here being made of all religions. Can you start an unprejudiced discussion about something when you have already made this generic judgement of it? I don’t see why talking about dark-sides, making moral pre-judgements like this, is necessary to mount an effective criticism of many religious practices.

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