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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Friday, March 12, 2010

Taner Edis should write a book

Consider this the promised Part III in a series.

Over at The Secular Outpost, Taner Edis has written several more pieces about the respective merits of secular liberalism of the familiar kind and a multicultural utopia (or, from both his perspective and mine, perhaps dystopia) of traditional communities within the framework of the state.

As he acknowledges, the latter would resemble the Ottoman millet system, updated to allow for secular people to have their own "community" with the kind of sexual and other freedoms (plenty of boozy parties, apparently) that we enjoy or aspire to. Still, it's an old-fashioned, as well as post-modern, multiculturalism in borrowing from quite ancient precedents. (Taner is probably well aware that it also resembles the utopia of utopias proposed by Robert Nozick at the end of Anarchy, State, and Utopia; not that that invalidates it - although I am not a political libertarian, but more a social democrat on economic issues, I find Nozick a very interesting and provocative thinker.)

I think that Taner needs to write a book about this - seriously. It's obviously on his mind, and he's clearly been thinking hard and reading a lot of political philosophy in an effort to imagine a political system that will be workable and stable, acceptable from many viewpoints, and bearable to people who share his own viewpoint (that of an atheist whose temperament runs towards individualism and away from involvement in tight communities). If he put all his thinking together in one place, at book length, it could be a very valuable contribution to contemporary debates on these subjects, and I don't think the fact that he's a physicist, rather than a political philosopher, should count against him. He has a wealth of relevant experience, and political philosophy is not so difficult that it needs to be reserved for the officially-recognised specialists.

However, let's step back for a moment and look at the overall argument. It began when I challenged a statement attributed in the media to Gary Bouma, who criticised secularists as divisive when we, supposedly, call for religious voices to be driven out of the public policy area.

Briefly, secularists do not say anything so crude. We do challenge the privileged position that is given to religious voices in the public policy area. Moreover, we argue that much of what those voices say is wrong. Often, we go on to add that what they say is (frequently) contrary to widely accepted principles of the political culture in Western countries, including freedom of speech, separation of church and state, the harm principle, and so on. Like other speech that goes against these principles, it deserves to be marginalised, not privileged. It certainly merits opposition, though not suppression.

There is no evidence at all that the speech of secularists who talk along these lines - as AC Grayling and I did in a gig at the Cinema Nova here in Melbourne last night - is causing social division in anything other than a trivial sense. I.e., we may be causing debate and controversy, but there is no evidence at all that we are "fuelling sectarian conflict". We are not dividing society in any bad sense. Thus, when Bouma attacks us as "divisive", this is simply wrong and unfair.

Yet, Taner Edis has said:

But I want to argue that here, Bouma is correct and Blackford is wrong. Secularism, particularly when it extends to public criticism of religion and policies that inconvenience religious communities, is a source of social division. Secularists keeping quiet is, in fact, in the interest of peace and public order in many present circumstances.

Even if everything else that Taner has written is correct, I don't see how he can reasonably maintain this. When we go back to what Bouma was actually quoted as saying, and what I said in reply, nothing that Taner has been arguing supports Bouma's claim. It is simply not the case that the sorts of things that Grayling and I said last night threaten peace and public order, or promote sectarian conflict, or do anything of the sort. I really think that it would be useful if Taner withdrew his support for this kind of claim. It's unhelpful, incorrect, and detracts from what he actually wants to discuss, which is the extent to which it's desirable to move to some kind of radical multicultural system of political organisation in which various communities are given a great deal of autonomy, apparently even being able to set their own internal laws (at least to some extent).

With all respect to Taner, I think he's using my (I still say justified) riposte to Bouma's quoted remarks as a springboard to launch into his own elaborate musings about the relationship between traditional community authority and the state.

The most that he can reasonably say is (1) that the sorts of views that Grayling and I were expressing last night would be out of place in the radical multicultural system that he envisages, and (2) that they are an obstacle to that system's creation.

However, (1) certainly does not equate to those views being "divisive" in the sense under discussion. We don't have the system that Taner is talking about, and within the context of the current system it is far from clear that Grayling and I, for example, are contributing to (the bad kind of) social division.

After all, Taner concedes that there are people who have much populist support whom he calls "theoconservatives". He says that theocracy is not the issue, but then admits that quasi-theocracy is a genuine issue. Okay, I agree that very few people in Western countries advocate literal theocracy. But surely it is clear that Grayling and I, and all the other people Bouma has smeared, don't think that literal theocracy is the issue. It is quasi-theocracy, or theoconservativism, or theocratic tendencies, that we attack, and we do spell out what sorts of things we are attacking. I continue to insist that this quasi-theocratic or theoconservative (or whatever we call it) viewpoint is genuinely worrying, merits rebuttal, and is divisive in a far more troublesome way than anything ever said by any atheist or secularist.

It's not old-fashioned, or jumping at shadows, or fighting the wars of the past, to see this quasi-theocratic or theoconservative thinking as a real and current danger. When we criticise it, it is very likely that, provided our words are heeded, we will actually end up reducing, rather than increasing, the bad kinds of social division. Of course, it's also possible that our efforts will have no effect at all, one way or another, but even that would not justify the claim that "Bouma is right and Blackford is wrong".

At the most, then, Taner Edis is left with (2) the claim that Grayling and I and our allies are standing in the way of the radical multicultural system that Taner himself sort of advocates. We may, therefore, be opposed to the system that (let us assume for the sake of argument) would be best in the long run for social peace. But even if all that is correct, which I certainly don't concede by any means, it's scarcely fair to say that Bouma is right to attack secularists as divisive. Bouma appears to have meant something quite strong, something about actually contributing to group antagonism in the community here and now. Grayling and I (and Richard Dawkins, and Ophelia Benson, and whoever) are simply not doing that.

And it is not useful language to accuse anyone who peacefully disagrees with you about what social system will promote social peace in the long run as being "divisive". That is a highly provocative and prejudicial slur which merits a sharp response.

Once again, it would be helpful if Taner withdrew his support for Bouma on this. Bouma is not correct and is not being fair. Bouma may (we don't know) support the kind of radical multicultural system that Taner is sort of defending and which he argues may have advantages in the long run. Well, so what? If Taner backed away from this point, he would then be free of having to defend Bouma's indefensible remarks and could concentrate on the substantive merits or otherwise of the radical multicultural system. As I said, he should write a book on this, since he has so much to say about it. Of course, that doesn't stop him continuing to write long blog posts about it, and nor does it stop us discussing the merits of the proposal.

As he does so, one thing that he needs to articulate more clearly is how he views this system as someone holding the values he actually holds, as distinct from someone who thinks that radical multiculturalism might, in some circumstances, be more realistic, and more likely to promote social harmony, than the kind of secular liberal democracy that has been implemented to a large extent (certainly not totally) in the West. In his posts, Taner seems to oppose the system he describes at the same time as he defends it. He says at times that he would resist it (but isn't that promoting social division, on Bouma's approach?) and at other times that it might be superior to what we currently have. The trouble is that he seems to want to judge it by two different systems of values.

Now that's not necessarily a problem. Ordinary secular liberals may also use two systems or sets of values. We may have one set of values for how we live our own lives, based on our comprehensive views of the world or theories of the good. And we may try to promote these values in public and in private (by speech, example, our associations with others, and so on). However, we don't advocate that the state should impose this set of values on other people. We accept the reality that different people do have different values, that these are often deeply held, that they are often contrary to our own values, that the state is not well placed to judge between us, and so on. So we ask the state to maintain a framework in which we are able to live as we wish but other people have a great deal of freedom to live in different ways.

We are still free to promote our values through speech, example, and association, but we don't think of the various arms of the state, operating by coercion, as a good way to promote our comprehensive values. We expect the state to concentrate on protecting people from fairly straightforward kinds of harms, providing an acceptable level of economic well-being, and so on.

Thus we may apply one set of values to our lives while expecting the state to impose only a much thinner set of values on ourselves and other people. Note, however, that we justify our view as to how the state should operate by argument about what the state can do best, the likely consequences if it attempts to impose our comprehensive values, and so on. (I'm sorry to keep saying "and so on", but getting all the details right really would require a book, and the exact details don't matter to my point.)

We justify the values that we want the state to act by from within the much more comprehensive values by which we live our own lives. We hope that people with a wide range of comprehensive systems of values for living their own lives can reach agreement that, for example, the state should concentrate on protecting things of this world rather than on facilitating spiritual salvation. And we realise, from within our own values, that some things that we value will not be obtained if the state tries to impose our comprehensive values on the unwilling (there will be resentment and resistance).

Taner keeps telling us that many people, traditional Muslims for example, do not share the comprehensive value systems of people who have comprehensive liberal views (based, perhaps, on science and secular philosophy). I agree.

I also agree that the values of people with comprehensive liberal views cannot be justified all the way down (as Nozick puts it in a different context). We cannot appeal to people who do not share those values by relying upon them. But we still need to work out what we want from within our own values. We have nowhere else to stand. What we want, ultimately, is what we want. So, if Taner expects us (people like me, AC Grayling, Ophelia Benson ...) to agree with the radical multicultural option, he is going to have to appeal to our values. If he is going to end up supporting it himself, it is going to have to be from within his own values. It's not to the point to say that those values may not be those of a traditional Muslim. In the first instance, the question is whether we can support it.

Of course, "we" may end up becoming such a social minority that Western governments will ride roughshod over us, even seeing us as enemies of the public order - as Locke thought atheists were. But it's not as if we'll be without allies. There are many features of the radical multicultural option that may make it unattractive, not just to us, but to other important players in the realpolitik of social life. For example, many Christians may be prepared to go along with a secular liberal model in which they cannot impose their own views of what is required to avoid sin and obtain spiritual salvation. They may not be so happy with a system that requires that they drastically constrain their ability to proselytise, or that they accept restrictions (even soft and informal ones involving a kind of conspiracy of political correctness) on freedom of religious speech. Many largely uncommitted people may also be appalled at aspects of the foreseeable operation of the radical multicultural option.

Radical multiculturalism may, itself, generate much understandable resentment and resistance.

Much of what Taner seems to be saying, when you boil it down, is that he has given up on attracting traditional Muslims to embrace a full-blooded secular liberal system. A radical multicultural system may be more acceptable to them, and they won't be talked out of this by arguments that rely on values that they don't share and that can't be justified all the way down.

That may be true. But it doesn't follow that comprehensive liberals, or the less fuzzy kinds of Christians, or largely-uncommitted people, or New Age folks, or anyone else should therefore embrace a model that may well operate in ways that are massively contrary to their (or our) actual values. All the concerns that are being raised by commenters on Taner's posts are quite legitimate.

Yes, we may not have "objective" values that traditional Muslims must accept on pain of being irrational. Thus, we may not be able to talk them out of a preference for the radical multicultural system. But it by no means follows that we are being irrational in opposing it or preferring a scheme of secular liberalism with robust freedom of speech, relatively little in the way of religious exemptions from general laws (though I, for one, do not argue that such exemptions are never justified), and few politically legitimate restrictions on individual freedom (in the sense that is commonly understood in the West).

I think that Taner needs to take this into account and get clear about what he really wants, all things considered. At the moment, there's a degree of schizophrenia in his posts. In the end, I look forward to his book, though I will probably disagree with much of it.


Ophelia Benson said...

The pulled-in-both-directions aspect is why I keep being incredulous - I can't see why he thinks his idea is both repellent and swell. Or to put it another way, I can't see why Taner can't see that he has reasons for his repulsion, reasons that are, potentially if not actually, universalizable. He seems to think it's 'just' temperament (in 50 Voices) or 'just' taste...and I don't get that. I can see making the point that it's more so than most secular liberals realize (than most anythings realize - that commitments are always partly temperament, taste, habit, etc) - but not that it's that and no more.

Jerusalem Frazer MacDonald said...

Actually, having followed this debate (though not contributed because you, Ophelia, Lisa Bauer and some other people covered most of what I needed to say), I don't care whether Taner writes a book

He's recommending a dystopia that he knows is a dystopia, that would cause real suffering to real people, with no compensating benefits except to communitarian bullies who want to be freed from the current limits of their power over others.

People seem to speak of Taner with respect, which must derive from his earlier contributions to other debates.

On the strength of his contribution to this one, which is all I know about him, the man's one of those people who:
(a) think atheists should just shut up;
(b) think that we should indulge policies that in practice and inevitably empower men who want to rule women and to persecute homosexuals, apostates and other perceived "deviants",
(c) think that the world is better if my life as an atheist is initially less free, but ultimately more dangerous; and
(d) think that calling "secular liberalism" "unfashionable" is quite as good as coming up with, like, an actual argument; and
(e) seem to be a bit incoherent altogether.

He simply doesn't seem worthy of respect. He was in the "50 Voices" book, so he must have friends who are trying to be nice about this. But to me, who doesn't know him, the man is writing like a buffoon and acting politically like a friend of, let's say, fascists and an enemy of their mostly likely victims. Which include me.

I'm not taking him seriously, on current form. Frankly, I'm surprised how polite people are being.

DEEN said...

"Secularists keeping quiet is, in fact, in the interest of peace and public order in many present circumstances."

But aren't secularists and non-secularists both saying things that are "divisive" to the other? What I don't understand is why the secularists are considered to be the ones that upset society, and why they are the ones that should back down.

I also don't understand on what basis he considers it wrong for religious voices to be muted, but thinks that muting secular voices is a proper response to it.

It almost seems that he is working from the implicit assumption that somehow, religious voices and ideas are more important than secular ones.

Greywizard said...

Given only the evidence of Taner's recent posts, I'd say he's having serious second thoughts about his initial commitment to some sort of liberalism in which religious entities are not privileged. In fact, I rather wonder whether he really is not, in fact, reverting to type, in a sense, and would favour (as Lisa Bauer has suggested) an Ottoman Millet system. That is a system, by the way, which was not only communalist, but actually favoured the largest "community", whose basic priorities were unquestioned by the larger system.

This position is so unacceptable and unattractive from the point of view of anyone who favours free institutions, where indeed, groups are not the primary 'agents' whose freedom is being protected - indeed, it is difficult to impossible to define groups in such a way as to identify them as legal agents in any sense other than having legal responsibilities not to act in such ways as to cause harm to individuals. But to think of groups as the entities to whose perpetuation and freedoms the laws are principally addressed is to give up entirely the whole idea of any idea of freedom that is relevant to the way Western democracies have developed. Now, this may be a matter of taste, in one sense, as Ophelia points out, but to suggest that individuals don't have an important stake in this, and should not oppose the increasingly communitarian structure of modern societies, as these are increasinly inflitrated by groups that, for their own internal long term goals, wish to preserve and enhance the scope of community authority (on the one side) and individual submission (on the other). Nor would it be too much to suggest, I suspect, that this will be seen in retrospect, as it is already seen by some in prospect, as the beginning move in a fairly well-thought out project, to make Islam the ruling community in erstwhile (as they will be then) liberal polities.

Does that seem far fetched and Islamophobic? Well, perhaps, but I have enough of a sense of Islam's long term goals not to be very concerned that this is actually a project that is being worked out, stage by stage, in Western democracies. Anyone who sees Islam as a potentially peaceful liberal community within a community of communities simply has not read enough history, in my view, and does not recognise the primary totalising nature of Islam, something that is written into its founding documents, and is expressed in thousands of mosques and other places of meeting throughout the world. This dystopia that Taner Edis is commending is something that will lead to precisely this hegemony of Islam -there simply is no other religion that can play this role. Christianity, as Tariq Ramadan does not tire of saying, has lost control of its culture. Islam is quite plainly in train to regain that lost control, and, for better or worse, Taner Edis is a voice in that long range project.

Bill Garthright said...

Taner Edis is certainly prolific enough to write a book about this, but the more I read of his posts, the less I understand him. As far as I'm concerned, he never addresses the real point, which is why individuals in those communities should not have the right to decide for themselves.

Yes, individuals in any society are always constrained by the rules of that society. But the question should always be whether a particular rule - a particular law, generally - is appropriate. How can a law be appropriate for some individuals but not for others? There might be a very good reason for it - we have laws like that - but without a clear, rational explanation, shouldn't we assume that it's unfair?

So why should individuals in one of these cultural subsets of a modern democracy have fewer rights than I do? Children have fewer rights than adults, but there seem to be valid reasons for that. But what reason can Edis give for restricting the rights of adult individuals in Muslim communities, for example?

Perhaps I'm missing the point. But that is my point, that Edis has not explained himself clearly enough to convince someone like me.

DEEN said...

"indeed, it is difficult to impossible to define groups in such a way as to identify them as legal agents in any sense other than having legal responsibilities not to act in such ways as to cause harm to individuals."

On the other hand, our current society does give special status to certain collectives. For instance, companies are recognized as legal entities (who apparently now even have a right to free speech in the US). In essence, however, a company is nothing more than a collective of individuals working together to make money for themselves. It's rather weird when you think about it.

"Does that seem far fetched and Islamophobic?"

Don't know. I do think that many people tend to focus on the Muslims too much, though. They tend to forget about all the very conservative Christian communities that are still around that are pretty darn restrictive. They can get away with a lot more than Muslims can. And they still have far greater influence, culturally and politically, than the conservative Muslims, and considerably more members too. I don't see that changing anytime soon.

Unknown said...


Greywizard said...

Well, I'm certainly relieved, Taner, that you intend to give this matter some more thought - a lot more thought, I should think, before you commit yourself so boldly to voice what seem to be conclusions, and yet are so terribly confused.

Deen, just a quick remark. I don't know of anyone in the secular web/atheist camp who is not prepared to rake Christianity over the coals. I don't see much reluctance to do this in the public media either. But I do see a great reluctance from a lot of quarters to criticise Islam. And there's a simple reason for that. Muslims will kill you if you do, and so a lot of people have learned to be very polite to Islam just at a time when Islam has become particularly dangerous. I think a lot more frankness in criticism would do. There's a lot to criticise.

DEEN said...

@GreyWizard: agreed.

Evrim Olgusu said...

>> As he acknowledges, the latter would resemble the Ottoman millet system, updated to allow for secular people to have their own "community" with the kind of sexual and other freedoms (plenty of boozy parties, apparently) that we enjoy or aspire to

So called Ottoman tolerance should be analyzed in its historical context. Ottoman monarchy granted local autonomy to (mostly christian) ethnic communities in order to minimize governance headaches. It was the most pragmatic way to dominate continents and collect tax. In the early days christians had to donate one of their sons (if they had more than one) to become a 'Yeniçeri' (high end mercenary). They had to be circumcised and converted to islam to start with. So lets not talk about 'tolerance' here without historical context Mr. Edis.

The main reason why homosexuality had been tolerated was due to islam's obsession with suppressing female sexuality. It had nothing to do with 'tolerance'. Homosexuality was common among Yeniçeri soldiers because they had no option of fulfilling their sexual desires with women.