The Problem With Stanley Fish's Principles

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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.

NEXT: Intoonfada: Fish Rots From the Head Down

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  1. Is this the Stanley Fish who used to drone on about Bartleby or some other guy named Fish? I see from the internet that he is the Fish of Duke.

    From Duke (best over-rated faculty money can buy) to Florida International, that’s quite a step down. I wonder who he pissed off.

  2. 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?

    Given the meme in the middle east that any criticism of Islam, etc. is part of a Jewish conspiracy it makes perfect sense for an Iranian newspaper to have such a contest. They are just, in their mind, going to the “source” of the “trouble.”

    …if “those people” means sincere practicing Muslims in general.

    The problem is that (a) there aren’t many of these folks in comparison to the whole Muslim population, and (b) many of those that do exist are so infested with the memes of Said that their sincerity is almost uniformily directed at blaming either the U.S. or Israel or both for all of the middle east’s problems.

  3. Maybe if the Danish cartoonists explained to the Muslim world that they weren’t insulting Mohammed per se, but rather deliberately stepping on the toes of Europe’s prurient anti-hate speech laws — in essence lampooning their own culture’s hypocrisy of preaching freedom but stifling speech — then everyone would take their basket of rocks and go home.

  4. Presumably it’s the same Stanley Fish who wrote Professor Sokal’s Bad Joke which closes with:

    “In a 1989 report published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, fraud is said to go“beyond error to erode the foundation of trust on which science is built.” That is Professor Sokal’s legacy, one likely to be longer lasting than the brief fame he now enjoys for having successfully pretended to be himself. ”

    That Fish is a loon. By skewering a flavor of pomo, Sokal harmed science? And he did it by “prentend[ing] to be himself”? In the other post, Tim rightly objects to “Hey man, your belief in free speech/natural selection/free market economics/the big bang is just a religion too!”, but that’s Fish. In attacking Sokal, he mentions faith a few times, but appears to be totally unfamiliar with Reason.

  5. Hak,

    I finally understand your problem with equating the term “racist” with religious bigotry.

  6. And of course, Allan Bloom anticipated this before Appiah. As Bloom wrote in Closing:

    Nietzsche was a cultural relativist, and he saw what that means — war, great cruelty rather than compassion. War is the fundamental phenomenon on which peace can sometimes be forced, but always in the most precarious way. Liberal democracies do not fight wars with one another because they see the same human nature and the same rights applicable everywhere and to everyone. Cultures fight wars with one another. They must do so because values can only be asserted or posited by overcoming others, not by reasoning with them. p. 202

  7. “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.”

    Using liberal language to achieve concrete goals does not automatically imply acceptance of the principles of liberalism. It may just be more realistic that way than to blow up bridges. You’ll perhaps recall Islamist parties in Turkey and Algeria threatening to have no use for elections once they won that first one. Or, for that matter, the reaction to the cartoons.

  8. BTW, I’m more attacking the intellectual understanding of Said than I am Said’s work. Which is another way of Said was not quite the trumpeter of “colonialism is the sole problem” that many who claim to follow his path are. That doesn’t mean that criticism of Said’s work isn’t unmerited, it does mean that he isn’t quite the caricature that his followers have mistakenly made him out to be.

  9. (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.)

    I have pretty shoes.

  10. Fish is just a knee jerk liberal weanie…….

  11. Let’s take the Mohammad cartoon writers and put them in jail with the Holocaust revisionist, Ernest Zundel. If Israel can get the U.N. to pass a law stating that Holocaust revisionism is a crime, then why can’t Muslims get the U.N. to pass a similar measure outlawing Mohammad cartoons? Both are just free speech.

  12. Sure, the cartoons were bigoted in their portrayal of Islam as a violent religion.
    To prove the cartoonists wrong, the muslem world erupted in violence, rioting, and death threats against anyone who’s ever been to Copenhagen, eaten a danish, or watched “The Little Mermaid”…
    Is it working?

  13. >were bigoted in their portrayal of Islam as a violent religion<<br /> A bigot is a prejudiced person who is intolerant of any opinions differing from his own.

    It would seem that Islam IS a violent religion, and underpins much intolerance; pointing this out is itself hardly itself demonstrative of intolerance or bigotry.

    The cartoons hinted strongly at this underpinning in 3 of the 12 cartoons, the one of the artist furtively drawing (a point ironically amply proven); the one of Mohammed in heaven pleading with heavenly born suicide bombers to ‘stop we?ve run out of virgins’ (Many suicide bombers are, at least in part, motivated by promise of heavenly reward of 72 virgins and ‘boys who are pretty like pearls’); and the 3rd which depicted Mohamed with a turban shaped like a bomb.

    I hardly see such caricatures as demonstrative of intolerance of differing opinions, rather a pointed jibe illustrating some home truths about the Ummah.

    Mind you, I think burning embassies, trade boycots, murder, lambasting uninvolved 3rd parties, threats to ‘behead those who insult Islam’ and such like, can fairly be described as demonstrative of intolerance.

    No I think we have a textbook case here of reverse culpability.

  14. >were bigoted in their portrayal of Islam as a violent religion<<br /> A bigot is a prejudiced person who is intolerant of any opinions differing from his own.

    It would seem that Islam IS a violent religion, and underpins much intolerance; pointing this out is itself hardly itself demonstrative of intolerance or bigotry.

    The cartoons hinted strongly at this underpinning in 3 of the 12 cartoons, the one of the artist furtively drawing (a point ironically amply proven); the one of Mohammed in heaven pleading with heavenly born suicide bombers to ‘stop we?ve run out of virgins’ (Many suicide bombers are, at least in part, motivated by promise of heavenly reward of 72 virgins and ‘boys who are pretty like pearls’); and the 3rd which depicted Mohamed with a turban shaped like a bomb.

    I hardly see such caricatures as demonstrative of intolerance of differing opinions, rather a pointed jibe illustrating some home truths about the Ummah.

    Mind you, I think burning embassies, trade boycots, murder, lambasting uninvolved 3rd parties, threats to ‘behead those who insult Islam’ and such like, can fairly be described as demonstrative of intolerance.

    No I think we have a textbook case here of reverse culpability.

  15. Every religion has its share of whack jobs, zealots, bloodthirsty savages, anti-liberal types, etc., the problem with Islam is that far more folks fit this bill within that religion than is true of say Christianity. It seems to me that the unyielding bigotry that comes with religion is the mainstream in Islam whereas in other religions that is less the case. Which is why Fish is at least partly right when he states (in a rather round about way) that these folks just aren’t amenable to profitable discourse.

    Maybe fifty or hundred years of Western influence will change this situation, but we’re fooling ourselves if we think there is a lot of common ground here.

  16. science,

    I reject it for the same reasons that I reject the comments of those who call V.S. Naipaul a racist when he argues that Arab colonization of the Muslim world is at the heart of Islam’s problem.

  17. Maybe if the Danish cartoonists explained to the Muslim world . . .

    Always good to start the day with a laugh.

  18. Hak,

    I think it has more to do with the wiggle room it gives you to classify the majority of Muslims as insincere in their faith without feeling you are making the same error as someone who classifies the majority of people of people with a certain skin color as having some other character flaw. You can rationalize away the parallels only if you maintain that the distinction is important. It is possible to discuss the issues/problems that plague a sector of the Islamic world without assuming that the extremists are supported by the majority. As large a minority as they might be, they are clearly a minority.

    By the way, didn’t you recently spend a bunch of energy arguing against the biological determinism that would support a phrase like “so infested with the memes.” ?

  19. science,

    First of all, use the nick that you generally go by instead of pretending to be me (if that is what you are doing).

    I think it has more to do with the wiggle room it gives you to classify the majority of Muslims as insincere in their faith…

    I never wrote that they are insincere in their faith. I did write that most sincere Muslims aren’t of the Western liberal mindset. And they clearly are not. BTW, it would be helpful for you to understand what someone writes before you issue a knee-jerk response.

    It is possible to discuss the issues/problems that plague a sector of the Islamic world without assuming that the extremists are supported by the majority.

    They plague the entire Islamic world. Look, even if there were no terrorist elements that existed inside the Islamic faith we’d still be having lots of problems with Muslims because terrorism by itself is a manifestation of a lot of pathologies within the Islamic faith. Those pathologies are mainstream, BTW. So sure, maybe only a small majority outright support terrorist activities (though this is not the case with regard to terrorism used against Israel), but its a poorly thought claim to simply state that is the length and breadth of the problem. The fact that a large majority of Pakistanis (for example) support the honor killing of women who are raped, the fact that in Nigeria dozens of people were killed over a beauty contest, the fact that Muslim were forced back into a burning building in Saudi Arabia because they weren’t wearing the proper dress, etc. points to some more deeply seated issues which terrorism just happens to be one manifestation of.

    …without feeling you are making the same error as someone who classifies the majority of people of people with a certain skin color as having some other character flaw.

    The problems associated with Islam are cultural, they aren’t biological. A person of any particular phenotype could practice the sort of cultural pathologies associated with Islam and I’d have a very real problem with it. Further, let me suggest that arguing that skin color has anything to do with it is exactly the sort problem I am talking about. So no, you still don’t get my argument and it seems that you never will.

    By the way, didn’t you recently spend a bunch of energy arguing against the biological determinism that would support a phrase like “so infested with the memes.” ?

    A meme isn’t biological. Its a particular type of cultural construct.

  20. science,

    BTW, just to give you a clue about how this works, if I were to state that numerous social and cultural pathologies existed within “white” Southern culture in the ante-bellum period would you react the same way you react to the very same statement about Muslims today? I doubt it. You want to specially favor and keep from criticism a class of persons based on faux-biological standards. This is exactly why conflating cultural issues with race leads to a barren intellectual environment.

  21. “You want to specially favor and keep from criticism a class of persons based on faux-biological standards. This is exactly why conflating cultural issues with race leads to a barren intellectual environment.”

    I don’t think that is at all what I said, or even what I implied (try reading and understanding what someone else writes before you give a knee-jerk response, I echo). I do think that the term “race” as commonly applied counts as “faux-biological standards” and as such is not much different in implicature or usage from “religion” or “culture.” You could improve your precisions by making points about particular beliefs and actions, rather groups that you assume adhere to those beliefs or support those actions. The error in reasoning I was suggestion you examine. It shows up in phrases like “The problem with Islam.” Not being knee-jerk here.

    As for “I never wrote … it would be helpful for you to understand what someone writes before you issue a knee-jerk response.”

    For one who wants others to be precise in their language, it certainly took a good deal of parsing for me to figure out that the referent to “these people” was not the most active referent in your discourse (“sincere practicing Muslims”), and actually one much earlier, written by another writer.

    Which leads us to… “A meme isn’t biological. Its a particular type of cultural construct.” No shit. That is why I brought it up. I guess you have forgotten your earlier rant about a process much like ‘memetic infestation'(i.e. semantic bleaching in word usage), and how belief in it is best described as biological determinism.

  22. science,

    You could improve your precisions by making points about particular beliefs and actions…

    After which you would come back with something like this:

    “Well, that’s not what all Muslims practice, blah blah blah…”

    Which is of course true, but it hardly details the sort of social pathologies associated with Islam. Again, its not that all Muslims are terrorists or that they support terrorism (which was the pigeon hole you were trying to jam me into) its that Muslim society as a whole has some fairly screwed up practices (I’ve already detailed three of them) and that those are fairly worthy of criticism. If every time I make a statement on the matter I have to pop up with some qualifier you are indeed leading to a rather sterile coversation; especially since you assume that any criticism of Islam is based on “racism.” Next time I’m slamming the various pathologies and irrationalities associated with Christianity I’m sure you’ll also call me a racist.

    It shows up in phrases like “The problem with Islam.”

    And there are indeed problems (pathologies) with Islam, no matter how ostrich-like you want to be about the subject.

    …it certainly took a good deal of parsing for me to figure out that the referent to “these people” was not the most active referent in your discourse (“sincere practicing Muslims”), and actually one much earlier, written by another writer.

    It doesn’t take much effort if you pay attention to the entirity of the conversation.

    That is why I brought it up.

    You’ve never brought up the topic of memes with me in any conversation that we’ve ever had.

    I guess you have forgotten your earlier rant about a process much like ‘memetic infestation'(i.e. semantic bleaching in word usage), and how belief in it is best described as biological determinism.

    Sorry, that wasn’t my rant; my earlier statement concerned your description of how the brain works, which was biologically deterministic.

  23. Hak,

    This gets it just exactly backwards (as usual, you miss the point).
    “After which you would come back with something like this:
    “Well, that’s not what all Muslims practice, blah blah blah…”

    See, that is not at all what I would do. Since sticking to a point about a particular practice would avoid the over-generalization inherent in terms like “Muslim society as a whole has some fairly screwed up practices.” A group of over 1 billion people has far more variation than unity. It is easier to avoid these errors in conceptualization if you discuss the particular practice rather than the heterogeneous group.

    “my earlier statement concerned your description of how the brain works, which was biologically deterministic.”

    Memes, word-meaning, racism, whatever, all require a biological brain to “infest” (your term). Cultures, religions, science, all exist in a biological medium, your brain. It has real characteristics, limits, and abilities. This is fact, not opinion. It is impossible to have a serious discussion of semantics without including the processes that allow for the interaction of brains. They are required if you are going to discuss how a meme “infests” a culture. Or even what a cultural construct is. Humans have a lot of choices in how they act and think, they do not have any choice in determining how their brains work. If that was the point you were refuting earlier, if it ain’t biology that determines how these things work, I’d like to know what the alternative is.

    VSN, by the way, innappropriately applied concepts from the Hindu caste system in the political realm. Some people see this as the same error that a racist makes, so they apply the term to him. It is the same error in thinking, so people find it a useful extension of the term.

  24. I think the problem with the cartoons is that Fleming Rose, the Danish editor, asked the cartoonist to depict MOHAMAD rather than , for example, a radical Mulah…. In doing so he disrespected the fact that there are many layers in Muslim society. The Islamists represent a very small slice.

    Most Muslims live in a highly censored, culturally controlled, theocractic/dictatorships For many, the Muslim religion is all that they have and know. They are NEVER exposed to criticism of the Prophet.

    The Muslims see Mohamad as peace loving, the same way Christians view Jesus Christ.
    How much rage would be generated in America if Jesus was depicted as gun toting warrier…? The Christian Fundamentalists would never get over it.

    Remember that days after 9/11, an Indian Seike who operated a gas station was shot and killed by an angry American male who thought he was a Muslim. Only one event, but same mentality of the Muslim rioters, the US gov. was bracing for more.

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