Saturday, July 02, 2005

Some Criticisms And Some Thoughts About Criticism

The Virtua Stoa has linked to a piece in this fortnight's LRB, by Ed Harriman, which is an excellent, but not quite as shocking as perhaps it should be, account of the spectacular levels of graft going on in Iraq. Drawing on investigations by a variety of official bodies - the URLs of which are in the article - the piece catalogues corruption on a gigantic scale across a variety of Coalition activities in Iraq. Doubtless I'm stirring a hornet's nest here, but it seems to me that under the kind of sustained assault which Harriman provides the idea that democracy promotion - or indeed any serious concern with the welfare of Iraqis - motivates or guides the occupation forces simply collapses, is exposed as the fig-leaf it appears it always was. It could be put another way: when the question, [h]ow can one be neutral in a struggle which pits an alliance of Jihadist fanatics and Ba'athist dead-enders against the eight million Iraqis who braved the bombers to vote for a constitutional democracy? is asked, the proper, temperate, reply is - one that the philosophically-inclined may perhaps be too fond of - you are asking the wrong question. Alternatively, less temperately, the proper question is, how can one be neutral in a struggle which pits an alliance of crazed ideologues and profiteering warmongers against anyone who is not blind, stupid, borderline sociopathic, or some combination of the three (just in case you were wondering, Fafblog demonstrates the relevance of this question with its customary ease).

On the subject of temperate replies, Brian Leiter mounts a defence of his tendency to not suffer fools gladly. I think he is too disparaging of the possibilities of reasoned public discourse, and too comfortable with the idea of remaining in his enclave of scathing liberal superiority. I also think there is a rather strong anti-democratic strand in what he says - which he may not, being a Nietzsche scholar, and so both given to vitirol and contempt for democracy, be particularly concerned by, and, given those things, is perhaps not so surprising - because by denigrating reasoned public discourse, he undermines the idea that a people could come to some sort of reasoned consensus about the forms of coercion they live under. This is of course separate from the anti-democratic impulse implicit in the claim that it is unobjectionable to remain within the epistemological and moral elite which he feels he inhabits. Such a position might well have further philosophical consequences in terms of how one understands human freedom, for if, as he alleges, reasoned debate is not really possible in the public sphere, it becomes difficult to understand, especially if one holds, as Leiter seems to, that un-reason is a form of un-freedom, how people could be free.

The kind of problems with Leiter's position can, in a way, be seen in my response to the 'decent' left above: although for polemical purposes, the question I pose is useful, it is hardly the most accurate, perhaps more importantly, or the most publicly compelling way to pose the question of how to think about the occupation. To put it another way, if we believe that people are at least potentially reasonable agents, they are owed treatment in line with that status, which implies taking their statements at least initially at face value, because we assume they have reasons for their claims, and if they do not, are capable of grasping that they do not. It also, as I half-implied above, makes it more difficult - not necessarily impossible, but more difficult, I think - to explain what is wrong with the actions of those to whom Leiter objects: the question, pertitent to Foucault for example, of why we should care about the ideological distortions of power, if those distortions are endemic, becomes one Leiter really should have an answer to. This does not mean giving up on satire, or on polemics - it is an assumption of reasonableness, an assumption that can be shown to be false in individual cases - but it does mean that criticism should be conducted with a basic level of civility, a civility which is far from incompatible with ridicule, as Eliot Weinberger demonstrates in this LRB article, which is calm, collected and measured in tone, yet also like a stilleto sliding beneath the ribs of the Bush administration. Leiter himself, I think, also allows for the potentiality of public reason when he republishes pieces like this one, which begins its critique from a common standpoint - the importance of Christian teaching - and thus admits, at least partially, that some explanation which is comprehensible to those to whom it is addressed is owed.

To continue on the topic of public reason, Actually Existing responds to a hopefully provocative question, which I at least take to be about the boundaries of public reason, with a provocative essay, which I would recommend reading, because, amongst other virtues, it gets past the chosen/unchosen dichotomy which characterises far too much of the discussion of the issue it examines. The issue, I tend to think, and I think Phil also does, should basically be structured by the idea of public reason, a public life in which all can, in principle at least, potentially participate: just as racist discourses can, when used in certain ways, effectively debar some from participating in our common life, certain discourses about religion and secularism can do the same to those with particular sets of metaphysical beliefs, and that stands significantly in favour of restricting those discourses. As Phil points out, the legislation is currently far from satisfactory, because of both its failure to include that saving stipulation that the language used should be 'threatening, abusive or insulting', and its failure to offer the same protection to the non-religious, but it is at least an open question to me whether such discourses should be in some way restrained.


Phil said...

I think this
if we believe that people are at least potentially reasonable agents, they are owed treatment in line with that status, which implies taking their statements at least initially at face value, because we assume they have reasons for their claims, and if they do not, are capable of grasping that they do not
is quite a powerful formulation; it's very much what I was trying to get at with the (regrettably Habermas-ish) stuff about 'the conversation needs to be held'. I would add that taking other people's statements at face value, while it may entail civility, doesn't entail forbearance. "You say you believe X, does that mean you believe Y?" can be one of the toughest questions to answer - but it is a genuine (and civil) engagement with the X-believer's mental universe.

Incidentally I don't, myself, believe that secular discourses should be restrained, or that they necessarily have a chilling effect over people with religious beliefs (although I accept that this may sometimes be the case). My point (at least, the point I intended to make when I started typing) was that, while prejudice against particular groups of believers is a real & deplorable phenomenon, it's embedded in a field of debate & critique which is valid, potentially constructive and worthy of keeping open, in a way which isn't true of 'race'.

Rob Jubb said...


I suppose I tend to see legislation on all 'hate' speech as embodying, ideally at least, a requirement of civility. This is, of course, not the same thing as saying that all legislation on 'hate' speech does embody the enforcement of a requirement of civility: it's an empirical question, one which I'm not really qualified to answer. If you want, I can send you what I think is a rather good article by the Rawlsian Joshua Cohen on freedom of expression, the conclusions of which I would more or less totally endorse.

On a tangential note, what's regretable about being Habermasian?