Interview with Martha Nussbaum: The New Religious Intolerance
by David V. Johnson
In her new book, The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age, Martha Nussbaum extends her distinguished body of work on liberalism, education, literature, and the emotions by turning to the growing anti-Muslim agitations in Europe and the United States. She spoke to Web Editor David V. Johnson by email from the University of Cologne, where she was lecturing on the themes of her book.
David Johnson: The idea for the book came from a column you wrote on burqa bans for “The Stone,” The New York Times’s “Opinionator” section dedicated to philosophy. Some academics and scholars shy away from such platforms for fear of dealing with public hostility and hyperbolic comments. Your column certainly garnered its share of both. Why do you think that, nevertheless, such outreach is worth your time?
Martha Nussbaum: Actually, I think few academics are more reluctant to write for blogs than I am. I have a standing policy never to read or write for blogs. I feel it will devour my time and distract from writing that I personally prefer. I made an exception in this case only because it was a series devoted to philosophy, and the media in the United States do not in general do a good job portraying philosophical debates. (Many other countries do much better.) Also, and even more important, they gave me space and time so that I could write a real article: about 10,000 words total including the initial blog and reply.
But in general I think my time is best spent writing books and articles, teaching my students, and interacting with my colleagues. Through my books I reach a broader audience than through The New York Times, in part because the audience for my books is international. Of course, I do not criticize others who like the blog medium. It is a matter of personal skill and taste.
DJ: In chapter two you analyze fear as the emotion principally responsible for religious intolerance. You label fear the “narcissistic emotion.” But why think that the logic of fear—erring on the side of caution (“better to be safe than sorry”)—is narcissism rather than just good common sense, especially in an era of global terrorism and instability?
MN: Biological and psychological research on fear shows that it is in some respects more primitive than other emotions, involving parts of the brain that do not deal in reflection and balancing. It also focuses narrowly on the person’s own survival, which is useful in evolutionary terms, but not so useful if one wants a good society. These tendencies to narrowness can be augmented, as I show in my book, through rhetorical manipulation. Fear is a major source of the denial of equal respect to others. Fear is sometimes appropriate, of course, and I give numerous examples of this. But its tendencies toward narrowness make it easily manipulable by false information and rhetorical hype.
DJ: In comparing fear and empathy, you say that empathy “has its own narcissism.” Do all emotions have their own forms of narcissism, and if so, why call fear “a narcissistic emotion”?
MN: What I meant by my remarks about empathy is that empathy typically functions within a small circle, and is activated by vivid narratives, as Daniel Batson’s wonderful research has shown. So it is uneven and partial. But it is not primarily self-focused, as fear is. As John Stuart Mill said, fear tells us what we need to protect against for ourselves, and empathy helps us extend that protection to others.
DJ: You argue that reading literature is a valuable way to engage the imagination, step outside of one’s point of view, and see things from others’ perspectives. What about teaching the Qur’an and other religious texts as literature? Do you think this should be a required part of education to enhance religious tolerance?
MN: I think it’s OK to teach religious texts as literature, but better to teach them as history and social reality as part of learning what other people in one’s society believe and take seriously. I urge that all young people should get a rich and non-stereotypical understanding of all the major world religions. In the process, of course, the teacher must be aware of the multiplicity of interpretations and sects within each religion. If one were to teach that all Christians and Jews believe in literal implementation of all of the prohibitions in the Bible, that would be grossly incorrect. And of course they don’t all even believe in the literal truth of scripture. Islam is similarly diverse. The fact that so many Americans associated the Sufis who wanted to set up an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan with the perpetrators of 9/11 shows gross ignorance of the history and variety of Islam.
DJ: Of the basic values of French liberalism—liberty, equality, and fraternity—the last, fraternity, always seems to get short shrift. Your book, by contrast, argues that religious tolerance and liberalism in general can only flourish if people cultivate active respect, civility, and civic friendship with their fellow citizens. If this is so crucial, why do traditional liberals fail to make it more central to their program? How do we achieve genuine civic friendship in a diverse society such as ours? Are there any countries that do this especially well?
MN: I think liberals associate the cultivation of public emotion with fascism and other illiberal ideologies. But if they study history more closely they will find many instances in which emotions are deliberately cultivated in the service of liberal ideals. My next book, Political Emotions, will study all of this in great detail. Any political principles that ask people to go beyond their own self-interest for the sake of justice requires the cultivation of emotion. In the history of philosophy this was well understood, and figures as diverse as [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau, [Johann Gottfried von] Herder, [Giuseppe] Mazzini, Auguste Comte, John Stuart Mill, and John Rawls had a lot to say about the issue. In Mill’s case, he set about solving the problem posed by the confluence of liberalism and emotion: how can a society that cultivates emotion to support its political principles also preserve enough space for dissent, critique, and experimentation? My own proposal in the forthcoming book follows the lead of Mill—and, in India, of Rabindranath Tagore—and tries to show how a public culture of emotions, supporting the stability of good political principles, can also be liberal and protective of dissent. Some of the historical figures I study in this regard are Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, and Nehru.
DJ: You argue that Catholic universities that restrict their presidencies to priests (i.e., males) should lose their tax-exempt status, because there is a compelling state interest to open such positions to both sexes. But isn’t that a slippery slope? Don’t most religions have objectionable views about sexual equality?
MN: I was making a specific point about the logic of the Bob Jones v. U.S. case, which dealt with that university’s policy banning interracial dating. The Supreme Court held that to withdraw the university’s tax exemption did indeed impose a “substantial burden” on the group’s free exercise of religion, but was justified by a “compelling state interest” in not cooperating with and strengthening racism. The government was in effect giving Bob Jones a massive gift of money. The same is true today of Catholic universities, all of which (excepting Georgetown, which now has a lay president) have statutory prohibitions against a female candidate for president. By giving them a large gift, the government is cooperating with sexism. I think that refusing to give someone a gift is quite different from making their activities illegal, and nobody was proposing to do that in either case. Moreover, these were not just tendencies or social facts—after all, lots people of all religions prefer to date only people of the same race, as many studies show— we are talking in both cases about mandatory rules, official university policies. I think it’s fine to refuse to give someone a huge gift when they have such mandatory policies, so what I was saying was that if a case parallel to Bob Jones were brought concerning the Catholic universities and their presidencies, it ought to come out the same way. Or rather, it ought to have come out the same say—since of course the legal standard under which we currently operate is a slightly different and weaker one than the one that prevailed when Bob Jones was decided, so we don’t know how either case would come out today.
DJ: You argue that we should carefully distinguish between permitting something as a constitutional right and permitting people to criticize things that are constitutionally protected. To what extent should it be morally permissible to criticize wearing a burqa, as a practice that reflects a sexist, male-dominated culture? Should we refrain from such comments as violating the robust religious tolerance you espouse?
MN: I think that when we criticize intimate aspects of strangers’ lives, whether their marriages or their children or their religion, we should always ask whether we are being nosy. But here there’s a yet deeper issue: critics of the burqa typically look at the practices of others and find sexism and “objectification” of women there, while failing to look at the practices of the dominant culture, which are certainly suffused with sexism and objectification. I was one of the feminist philosophers who wrote about objectification as a fundamental problem, and what we were talking about was the portrayal of women as commodities for male use and control in violent pornography, in a great deal of our media culture, and in other cultural practices, such as plastic surgery. I would say that this type of objectification is not on the retreat but may even be growing. Go to a high school dance—even at a high-brow school such as the John Dewey Laboratory School on our campus [at the University of Chicago]—and you will see highly individual and intelligent teenage girls marketing themselves for male consumption in indistinguishable microskirts, prior to engaging in a form of group dancing that mimes sex, and effaces their individuality. (Boys wear regular and not particularly sexy clothing.) My sources for this observation are young men whom it distresses, since they have learned to see women as individuals. But culture is very powerful. So it seems to me quite ridiculous to gripe about the burqa, which some might actually see as a good antidote to the high school dance, and not to gripe about the high school dance. Of course it’s hard to change the dominant culture, and very easy to make the burqa illegal, since in France only about 150 women actually wear it.
Now I personally do not think that any of these practices should be illegal. Lots of bad things are and will remain legal: unkindness, emotional blackmail, selfishness. And though I think the culture of pornographic objectification does great damage to personal relations, I don’t think that legal bans are the answer. I always had problems even with Catharine MacKinnon’s idea of civil-damage suits for violent pornography, although I think that she located the problem in the right place (rather than in the area of “sexual explicitness” all by itself, which is how obscenity law frames the problem, even now). I think that we should confront sexism by argument and persuasion, and that to render all practices that objectify women illegal would be both too difficult (who would judge?) and too tyrannical. But I also think that it’s absurd to go after the burqa and not to go after pornography and the high school dance. Since virtually no feminist, even, wants to ban pornography these days, I conclude that if we had a consistent and clear-headed public discussion, that treated all these cases together, there would be no support for a ban on the burqa.
DJ: You discuss [Gotthold Ephraim] Lessing’s play Nathan der Weise and note that it is compulsory reading in Germany and Austria for 14-year-old students. Is there a text or set of texts you would make compulsory for 14 year olds in America?
MN: Well, I think we can make progress by reading the works about the Jews that I mention in that chapter and then extending that reflection to other minorities whom we may fear. The reason I focused on the Jews was that in hindsight we can see how culpably obtuse much of the world was toward the Jews, and we can appreciate the contribution of these works that tried to open people’s eyes. We could also profit from reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which is one of the greatest works addressing the whole topic of the “inner eyes” and how they need cultivation so that they can see the reality of minorities whom people fear. But we do need works about Muslims too, and I am no expert on contemporary fiction about Muslims; most of what I know is by Indian authors, and that would not be as directly applicable to the American scene. And I have no knowledge at all of literature specifically aimed at teens on this question. So, in the book I mentioned a few names suggested to me by my colleague Aziz Huq, but I’d love more input from my readers. To stick to my favorites about India: I would recommend Forster’s A Passage to India, but only if the instructor is prepared to point out that his portrayal of Muslims is nuanced and rich, while his portrayal of Hindus is lamentably full of stereotypes. Far better are Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, both of which give a rich picture of Islamic culture—but they both have the disadvantage of being extremely long.
We should also turn to other arts. I have just come back from a wonderful exhibit in Cologne of 16th-17th century India paintings illustrating the classic epic Ramayana, many of which were commissioned by Muslim rulers and executed at Muslim courts, although it is a Hindu text. They present a wonderful picture of cultural pluralism and understanding. More down to earth would be Bollywood films: I especially love Lagaan, which would give American 14-year-olds a rich picture of the interaction of different religions and groups in India.
DJ: In your discussion of New York City’s Park51/Cordoba House controversy, you praise Sarah Palin and others for distinguishing the question whether the owners have a constitutional right to construct the project (they do) from the question whether they’re exercising good judgment in doing so (Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf’s more ambitious Cordoba House, you argue, does not show good judgment). But even if we accept the distinction, doesn’t taking the latter position generate problems for religious tolerance? If those who oppose the site succeed in stopping it, won’t that do damage to the constitutional right that we claim that the owners have? Why not think in cases of such heated controversies that it’s better to abstain from judging the owners’ decision or even to support their plans without qualification?
MN: Well, I actually side with Mayor Bloomberg, who holds more or less that view, and points out that showing respect for pluralism strengthens New York. But what I was saying was that the Palin reaction was a whole lot better than the standard reaction in Europe, which is that we should just ban things that we fear. It is really unbelievable, having just lectured on this topic here in Germany: my views, which are pretty mainstream in America, are found “extreme” and even “offensive” in Germany, and all sorts of quite refined people think that Islam poses a unique problem and that the law should be dragged in to protect the culture. One woman who purported to represent a human rights organization actually disrupted the question period after my lecture by making a long speech, culminating in an attempt to refute my critique of the “health argument” (“the burqa is unhealthy”) by pointing out that she has a burqa at home and when she tries it on she trips over things. Please. When I first wore a long evening skirt I tripped too, but should long evening dresses be illegal? If we apply that standard, there are some candidates for a ban that stand far above these: platform shoes, for example, which even shoe-lovers like me find very hard to walk in without turning one’s ankle. I myself have sprained my ankle twice wearing shoes with two-inch platforms. But I don’t want to ban them either, of course! The problem with these Europeans is that they don’t want to ban platform shoes or spike heels either; they just want to ban practices of others which they have never tried to understand.
A very impressive young graduate student at Cologne whose parents are from Syria talked to me after my lecture there about the complicated discussions his family had about veiling, and how his mother ultimately made a free choice to wear the hijab—her father protecting her free choice against a strict brother—and how she is, in turn, protecting his sister’s freedom of choice. (In a similar way, of course, many Jewish women make a free choice to join ultraorthodox groups.) But he told me that people here think that I am really extreme. I told him that when I talk about social and economic rights, I feel really at home in Europe and not so at home in the American political discussion. So it’s nice for a change to feel so American.
Originally published on the Boston Review of Books and published on TAM with permission of the author.