The Problem With Stanley Fish's Principles


Andrew Sullivan takes aim at the rambling Stanley Fish op-ed in The New York Times that Tim skewers below, in which the pomo eminence (author, aptly enough, of There's No Such Thing as Free Speech) bashes editors in the West who defend the publication of Mohammed cartoons for uncritical adherence to the "religion of liberalism" (in the broad, "liberal democracy" sense). Now, as Andrew points out, part of what's weird here is that Fish is complaining that the liberal conception of religious worldviews as equal competitors in the marketplace of ideas—which, obviously, is not how devout Muslims see things. But it's not as though Fish thinks Islam is anything more than another culturally constructed narrative; his beef is with liberals who don't recognize their own meta-doctrine or framework as just one more similarly contingent construct. In other words, he's kvetching about the relativism of western liberals, and simultaneously complaining they're not relativist enough. (Of course, on Fish's worldview, it's not clear that being internally contradictory is a defect, but it's hard to, you know, make a point if you're not implicitly excluding the negation of that point.)

What's more interesting here, though, is that while Fish is typically pegged as hailing from the left, his screed is in many ways a perfect fit for the likes of Little Green Footballs. As Princeton's Kwame Anthony Appiah has astutely pointed out, a hard relativist position in which there's no common language in which to proffer cross-cultural criticism doesn't yield some kind of fuzzy "whatever's right for you" tolerance, but rather forces the conclusion that members of different cultures have nothing to learn from each other—and that conflicts of value can't ultimately be resolved by reason, but only by force. To his credit, this is a point that Fish, unlike many of his fellow travelers, has always recognized—and a bullet upon which he eagerly chomps. Consider this line:

The argument from reciprocity—you do it to us, so how can you complain if we do it to you?—will have force only if the moral equivalence of "us" and "you" is presupposed. But the relativizing of ideologies and religions belongs to the liberal theology, and would hardly be persuasive to a Muslim.

He could as easily have put it: "There's just no arguing with these people." And of course, there are people with whom there's no arguing. But Fish is pretty clearly just flat wrong when he suggests that liberal terms of debate aren't cross-applicable for many in the Muslim world. Consider the decision by the Iranian newspaper Hamshahri to hold a contest soliciting cartoons about the Holocaust. Now, if you're like me, you found this a little befuddling initially: First we saw attacks on Danish embassies as a reaction against cartoons printed by a private Danish newspaper, and now the response extends to lampooning Jews? But it does make sense as a way of pointing up the hypocrisy of European governments that bluster about free speech in this case while making it a crime to publish Holocaust deniers. And that's precisely the kind of argument that Fish is suggesting Muslims are bound to reject—that is to say, an argument against double standards for speech depending on the target. More generally, as the French sociologist Olivier Roy has pointed out, Muslims in the West by and large do press their case using the liberal language of individual rights—objecting to France's ban on headscarves in public schools as an infringement on a general freedom of religion, for instance, rather than simply as offenses against the One True Faith. So fortunately, it appears to be empirically false that "there's just no arguing with those people," if "those people" means sincere practicing Muslims in general. But then, that's just, like, my narrative, man.