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Is Critique Secular?

I’ve just read Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury and Free Speech by Talal Asad, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, and Saba Mahmood. Asad and Mahmood make some interesting observations, but the contributions by Brown and Butler consist largely of postmodern, Foucault-genuflecting pseudoradical posturing.

A couple of interesting points that stick with me after what was largely a waste of time:

  • Asad makes a good point that the standard liberal distinction between coercion and reasoned choice is not quite so clear. His example of something in between and ambiguous is seduction. “Thus in liberal democracies the individual as consumer and as voter is subjected to a variety of allurements through appeals to greed, vanity, envy, revenge, and so on. What in other circumstances may be identified and condemned as moral failings are here essential to the functioning of a particular kind of economy and polity.” (p. 31.) Secular liberals see no problem with seduction, ridicule and so forth, including in an antireligious context such as blasphemous cartoons. Others, for example many Muslims, deeply object not only to the insult but the attempted seduction away from the faith.
  • Saba Mahmood refers to a contradiction in liberal legal traditions others have also noticed: speech is supposed to be free and everyone is equal before the law, but the law is also concerned with maintaining public order. But public order must inevitably privilege the majority culture. So European courts, for example, much more readily penalize offenses against Christian sensibilities compared to blasphemy against Islam.
  • Judith Butler takes up the cause of Muslim immigrants offended by the Danish cartoons, suggesting that somehow the cartoons did violence to Muslims. But her moral indignation in favor of immigrant minorities touches very little on the specifics of Muslim communities or the actual political ideals of Muslim protestors. They stand in for some kind of generic innocence wronged by some equally generic liberal capitalism Butler is unhappy with—their overwhelming social conservatism and typically pro-capitalist attitudes vanishes out of sight.

I don’t know what I get out of all this, other than another confirmation that postmodern humanities-types are, in effect, apologists for cultural conservatism, as long as it’s somebody else’s culture.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16947798364523082547 Rich Griese

    Hey there, I don't see your twitter address anywhere on the site.

    Cheers! RichGriese.NET

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11532683087210250003 Gaius Sempronius Gracchus

    Why would anyone believe these claims?

    "But public order must inevitably privilege the majority culture. So European courts, for example, much more readily penalize offenses against Christian sensibilities compared to blasphemy against Islam."

    Fiddlesticks.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    I am very curious to know whom Assad has in mind when he asserts that liberals hold that anything that is not coercion is rational discussion. Obviously, there is propaganda, spin, subterfuge, fallacy, chicanery, sophistry, and all sorts of ways of manipulating people with language and images. Politicians, advertisers, pundits, and preachers are all adept at emotional appeals–appeals to your "inner idiot" as Charles P. Pierce calls them.

    I'm one of those liberals Assad seems to have in mind, and I just published a book last year detailing many of the tricks and ruses whereby people seduce with spin and befuddle with fallacies.

    The problem is this: How do you get rid of the bad, manipulative stuff without throwing the baby out with the bathwater? I think that many Muslims, and quite a few Christians too, would like to define as an abuse of free speech as whatever they find offensive. I heard that some preacher in Baltimore wants Christians to boycott the city's public transportation system because some buses will be carrying advertisements from an atheist group. This is as bad as pitching a tantrum when a Danish newspaper has a cartoon of The Prophet. The bottom line is that if certain groups are protected from being offended, then there simply cannot be freedom of speech.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Keith,

    I don't think Assad is alleging that liberals see nothing in between coercion and rational persuasion. He may, perhaps, be saying that liberals only draw the line—legally, for example—when it comes to coercion. The line could be drawn otherwise. In that case, we'd have a social order that would make you and I less happy, and many Muslims happier.


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