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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Friday, January 20, 2012

Another post about #MTRsues

This post at Black Dog asks where the money is coming from - how does Melinda Tankard Reist finance her activities, including getting an expensive lawyer to write to a critic and threaten her with legal proceedings? Who is backing her? What financial interests does she have in all this, beyond whatever she is paid for her books and articles?

These are pretty good questions. Unfortunately, with an issue like this some things get a bit murky. At one level, I don't care about Tankard Reist's theological views. As long as she puts purely secular arguments about alleged harms to women and children, it might even be said that she's doing the right thing. I.e., the electorate and the legislators can consider those arguments (and the counter arguments) on their merits, and, at one level, everyone is happy. The political system is operating on the basis of secular considerations, and all's right with the world.

In practice, of course, it gets murkier. Some of the arguments are only going to make sense on the basis of moral attitudes that are entangled with religion, we're going to find people who are swayed for religious reasons in any event, and as I said the other day high-profile activists like Tankard Reist do not merely put the secular arguments in a detached way - they appeal to emotion, attempt to cultivate a certain attractive public image, and so on. So inevitably, people are going to ask whether her viewpoint makes sense on a purely secular basis, whether she is actually biased by theological considerations, how sincere she is, whether her conclusions fit into some larger agenda, and on and on.

That's not really how I'd like it to operate in an ideal world. If Tankard Reist were merely writing books and academic articles, I wouldn't see much merit in probing beneath the surface of her alleged facts and the arguments that she uses. We don't all have to disclose a whole lot of personal background every time we put an intellectual argument.

But in the murky world in which we live, interrogating the ideological backgrounds and worldviews of outspoken, high-profile public figures is a fact of life, and is often necessary. I can even see how Tankard Reist might think that it's unfair, if she genuinely believes that she's been confining herself to secular arguments - I can't say how far she actually has done that, because I'm not very familiar with her work, and I certainly don't know what she subjectively thinks.

But what I do know is that she crossed an important line when she threatened to sue an opponent for speech that is pretty normal in public debate in the world that we actually live in. Even if - per impossibile - I agreed with her on everything else, I could not agree to that line being crossed. At this point, freedom of speech issues come into play.

If Tankard Reist is offended, or thinks she's being treated unfairly, because she thinks she's used nothing but secular arguments ... or whatever ... well, let her make her point and try to substantiate it. After all, she has no problem getting a public platform.

Admittedly, responding in that way to a relatively obscure blogger like Jennifer Wilson might have been counterproductive. But there you go - sometimes it's better to hold your peace if you're not really taking damage.

Tankard Reist now has the worst of both worlds - she's seen as an opponent of free speech, someone who is prepared to use the law to shut up a critic. At the same time, she's given the critic a much higher profile than she had to begin with (before this week, I for one hadn't heard of Jennifer Wilson). And she's drawn attention to the possibility that she might have strong biases, that her analyses might be distorted as a result, that there is now additional reason to scrutinise them, that they (and she) may suddenly look different when various dots are connected, and so on.

All in all, it wasn't a smart move. She should withdraw the threat to sue, and move on.


Anonymous said...

No, it was not a smart move because it adds to the sense of fear we are all feeling about expressing our thoughts, publicly. I'm too scared to say what I'd really like to say on this issue, becasuse, though it's as "perfectly true" as anyone else's, it's my observation , and one's observations end up in court. OR , almost as bad, frozen out of further public discussions.

I will address the point about her religious affiliations and whether she should or should not disclose them. I believe, well, not believe, I know, that it's possible to hold a supposedly conservative view on a touchy subject AND be Christian (or whichever) but that you'd hold the view regaredless. OR to be Catholic, and disagree with their views on abortion/ same sex relationships etc etc. Practising a religion , in temrs of its rituals/sacraments does not have anything to do with politics , like, globally. If I hold a conservative view (and their aint many, let me say) then it's pre existing conservatism and no different fro an atheist's pre-existing conserrvatism on points. It's simply not true. Unfortunately people align you that way, all the time. Look, I'm totally free choice for women on abortion and it'd be a ghastly tragedy should the government ever outlaw safe abortion. I also fear that speaking out as an anti- abortion lobbyist can fuel the crazy scenarios we see in the US, which means it's *crucial* that men and women address them constantly.
But somewhere in that middle ground, between MTR and Jennifer Wilson, is this- does it matter if MTR makes her comments from a religious perspective or a secular one? the net effect is the same. See, it's just that an atheist can hold the same view as MTR's , and argue along a secular moral line (afterall, we support that atheists are as capable of making moral decisions and *independent* ones at that, given they take god from the equation?) yet they don't need to say why they believe as they do, from a subjective pov. Even an atheist who argues words identical to MTR's--It's more along the lines "oh ,they're an atheist, therefore they don't get their every personal belief poured over" It might be they secretly want to dominate women's choices in several areas of life. Only we don't get to interrogate that because they get a free pass, comparatively, due to the fact we're not all that interested unkess they're the hot topic--religious (even though we don't agree with the substantivce arguments). In other words, while there is an undeniable case to be made for interrogating Tony Abbott as a potential PM, it's a spectrum, and, unless MTR is in the pockets of her church , or colluding with them to make such statements, does she not have the same right to opacity as an atheist holding the same views as her own? what do you think?
Thanks, mishy godard dunleavy

Bubblecar said...

Anonymous asked: "does it matter if MTR makes her comments from a religious perspective or a secular one?"

Well it certainly can, and most importantly, this can be relevant to the whole question of debating one's opponents, rather than ignoring them (as MTR had done with JW and others) or actively trying to silence them. For example, one question Jennifer raised: what does MTR consider to be an acceptable public expression of female sexuality, if anything? - is not the sort of question MTR seems at all interested in answering, but the answer may well enable people to tell if she's merely campaigning against arguably negative aspects of commercial pornography, or whether her position is a more extreme, religion-based rejection of anything expressive of female sexuality. Avoiding revealing the full spectrum of one's position on these things can be a way of promoting an agenda that's really no different from that of a Fred Nile or a Mary Whitehouse, but cloaked in a rhetoric designed to make it seem more reasonable, "secular" and "feminist".

Anonymous said...

Thanks for responding.
....and as for the atheist who argues on the same moral premises as MTR? ie"It's wrong, it's just wrong" (a moral position about the effects on wider society and perceived violations of rights) Do we interrogate their personal beliefs? In other words, Bubblecar, is it the net result, or how you arrive there?
The obverse being, for two people, one religious, one atheist, who agree on the issue of safe abortion. Whose opinion is more worthty, if either? Because, see, the net result is the same, but they've arrived at it differently. Thanks, Mishy Godard Dunleavy

Russell Blackford said...

Actually, I do think people pore over atheists' beliefs as well. And over people's specific moral philosophies. Peter Singer, for example, has faced this on a scale that Tankard Reist can't even imagine.

No one can really avoid these sorts of issues in public debate, and they do affect people's credibility. And unfortunately, public debate often means jockeying for being credible and likable. Tankard Reist herself uses all sorts of tricks like this - I said in the original post that I'm not super familiar with her work, but I'm familiar enough to know that much.

Public debate is much more robust than an academic seminar, for example, and though part of me wishes it weren't so I don't think we'd want to try to stop it being like that.

Tankard Reist's best argument is just to say, "Look, here's the secular basis for my views. They are in no way based on religious considerations. Then set out the secular argument, whatever it is." Of course, she might not be believed. Even if she takes that tack, she runs the risk that the secular basis she offers will prove to be flimsy.

But if she claims those are her arguments and that's all she wants to base her political proposals on ... well at least up to a point that's fine with me.

But the one thing she should not do is threaten to sue her opponents to shut them up.

Bubblecar said...

Anonymous, I think the important point you don't quite grasp is that Tankard Reist is a lobbyist, not a public intellectual whose views are open to challenges that she's willing to delve into and reply to. Her careful selection of a "feminist" rhetoric, for what is essentially a Fred Nile worldview, has enabled her to maintain a centre-stage lobbying position, whereas if she was more open about her religious motivations, she'd be a much more marginal voice. This appears to be why she seeks to silence critics rather than respond to their arguments.

Anonymous said...

Bubblecar, FYI- and just for future reference-I am not called 'anonymous'; the name's Mishy Godard Dunleavy, as posted at the end of my comments. Thanks (and because I don't like anonymity, for myself, on the net, so it feels important to clarify this)

Fair points, Russell.
"bubblecar" I do *grasp* the fact about MTR, just asking an abstract question, but Russell has answered that, cheers all, Mishy Godard Dunleavy