When US philosopher Martha Nussbaum discussed her new book, The New Religious Intolerance, with Rev Giles Fraser, she claimed that intolerance was inevitable among European patriots: their ”traditional conception of nationhood” was connected to “romanticism, which thinks religion and culture are ingredients of nationhood.” The victims of this toxic “romanticism” were traditionally the Jews — whose unfamiliar rituals and even clothing filled Europeans with fear, and then loathing. Nowadays, though, Muslims have taken the Jews’place as the new scapegoats of European intolerance. Their rituals, such as halal butchery, and their clothing, such as the veil, disturb the European (and, Nussbaum has argued elsewhere, American) psyche.
Nussbaum in her book emphasised the inconsistencies of Muslim-bashing.
Arguments were made about the burqa, she recently told The Diane Rehm Show (one of America’s most influential radio programmes) particularly in Europe, but also in the U.S., that they wouldn’t stand up for a minute if you turned and applied them to the majority religion. So I’ve already talked about covering, I mean, so we all are covered in various context and some of our most traditional trusted professionals like surgeons, dentists and so on are completely covered and we don’t think that’s a sign of bad intentions. But then the argument that this kind of dress objectifies women, turns women into mere objects and for male control. Now, as an old feminist, I wrote about objectification a long time ago. And what we were concerned about was the way women are treated as objects in pornography, in just many customs such as plastic surgery where women are forced by social norms to market themselves as a certain body type and therefore they go in for very dangerous and draconian surgeries. And so I think the problem is that if we really said, oh, let’s make illegal all practices in which women try to market themselves as objects for men, we would be banning a lot of modern society everywhere. But no one is proposing that. What they’re doing is they’re just saying, oh, this practice in this strange community, which I really don’t understand and I’m not going to bother to find out about, that is what’s objectifying women. But of course the plastic surgery that I see in my gym, the pornographic magazines that are all around and the pornography on the internet, no problem with that.
equal respect for conscience, the importance of self-critical vigilance, and the importance of a sympathetic imagination. The first of these, powerfully understood in the US constitution, enshrines legal protection of views that differ from those of the established majority. The state is obliged to adopt a position of neutrality with respect to matters of individual conscience. All human beings are to be afforded equal dignity – a dignity that extends to the ways in which individuals come to understand life’s ultimate purpose. Conscience and human dignity are inextricably conjoined.
But Nussbaum knows that good laws are not enough to promote tolerance. They fail to engage the emotional imagination; for this, “educational and cultural reinforcements” are necessary.
We need, then, to think harder about how rhetoric (as well as poetry, music, and art) can support pluralism and toleration. The leaders of the U.S. civil rights movement understood the need for this kind of support; the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. illustrate how rhetoric can help people imagine equality and see difference as a source of richness rather than fear. During the recent electoral campaign in India, leaders of the Congress Party, especially Sonia Gandhi, effectively conveyed the image of an inherently pluralistic India. (The words of India’s national anthem, written by pluralist poet Rabindranath Tagore, also celebrate India’s regional and ethnic differences.) The current U.S. administration has made useful statements about the importance of not demonizing Islam, but the rhetoric of certain key officials has also highlighted Christian religion in ways that undermine tolerance. Attorney General John Ashcroft, for example, regularly asks his staff to sing Christian songs. And while he was a sitting U.S. senator, Ashcroft characterized America as “a culture that has no king but Jesus.”
For centuries, liberal thinkers have focused on legal and constitutional avenues to tolerance, neglecting the public cultivation of emotion and imagination. But liberals ignore public rhetoric at their peril.