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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, January 20, 2012

More on Jennifer Wilson's substantive views

Wilson says this:
Tankard Reist is a Baptist. Their belief system includes the second coming of Christ, end times, evangelism, and the belief most relevant to this post and a central tenet of the Baptist faith: the Virgin Birth.

Tankard Reist believes that the woman chosen to bring the boy god Jesus into the world was a virgin. Mary did not conceive the baby Jesus through sexual intercourse. The boy god required a fresh, unsullied virgin to inhabit throughout his gestation.

Why? Because the followers of the doctrine of the virgin birth believe that sex filthies the human female, and renders her impure. The inherent impurity of female sexuality can be tempered by the sacrament of Christian marriage, wherein sex is a means of reproduction, and offers relief for the male. It is better to marry than to burn, advised St Paul, demonstrating how little he thought of female sexuality.

The boy god needed a pure vessel, unfilthied by sexual experience. In this sense Mary was the most famous objectified woman in the history of the world, for to dehumanize a woman to the extent that you perceive her sexuality as filthy is objectifying indeed.

The Virgin Mary was in fact co-opted as a dehumanized life support system for a foetus.

It is from this fundamental position that Melinda Tankard Reist advises women and girls on sexual matters.
Again, why not debate this rather than threatening to sue? If Tankard Reist is not a Baptist, then she can simply say so, perhaps with some plausible corroborating detail about where she does stand theologically. It doesn't have to be a lot of detail, just enough to deal with the general issue.

In my opinion, the issue of whether or not she is, specifically, a Baptist is something of a red herring. In my experience of Baptists (which is considerable), they vary quite a bit in their theological positions, and they don't actually put a huge emphasis on the doctrine of the Virgin Birth (though they do formally subscribe to it). It's more a Catholic thing to put a huge emphasis on the Virgin Birth, the importance of Mary as an iconic figure, and the great moral significance of chastity and purity.

That said, conservative Christianity in general does tend to be permeated by ancient ideas of the shamefulness of sex and the body. Those ideas can be found in the writings of St. Paul, Augustine (in particular), and (to a lesser extent) Aquinas, and they go very deep in Christian approaches to sexuality and gender roles. That's the point that Wilson really needed to make, and it is really, in essence, what she is relying on.

Tankard Reist's best reply is to explain at least something about her theological position, to assert clearly that her social and political views are not, in fact, influenced by theological ideas of the shamefulness of sex and the body, and to try to show how those views can be justified in entirely secular terms.

Of course, we might be sceptical about this, even if she said it - after all, her overall set of concerns and policy views is very typical of a theologically conservative Christian, and ideas of sex and the body being shameful can be picked up unconsciously. They are deeply embedded in our moral traditions and are continually reproduced in numerous ways.

But there are ways that Tankard Reist could debate all this without having to spell out the entirety of her theological position (I agree that this would be burdensome and unnecessary).

As I said in a comment just now, on another post, the one thing she should not be doing is threatening to sue opponents for defamation. At least, not over something like this.


Chrys Stevenson said...

I don't see why being honest is 'burdensome'. I've never found it so.

Of course privacy is a right. I wouldn't dream, for example, of quizzing a tradesman, or gardener about their religious beliefs before hiring them.

But MTR's position is different. She speaks and writes on a topic of particular importance to religious groups and she frequently engages with those groups. Whatever she says, her religious beliefs are a matter of public interest.

I'd say to MTR, if you want personal privacy, don't choose to stand on a public pedestal criticising others, making demands of businesses and seeking to curtail other peoples' rights.

When I made the choice to make public political comment (on a smaller scale than MTR) I made a conscious decision to make my life an open book. It seemed to me the only way I could approach the task ethically.

People can, and do, contact me to ask for clarification on things I have said an actions I've taken and I'm more than happy to provide answers. I'm so easily accessible it's ridiculous.

Privacy is a right. But you trade at least some of that right when you choose to have a public profile.

Russell Blackford said...

Nah, really, it's burdensome. E.g. I don't spell out all my substantive views on religion in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State. People write books all the time on political subjects without spelling out their comprehensive worldviews - it's not normally required, it's often a considerable burden, and it may not even be relevant. Many positions can be argued for from the perspective of numerous worldviews.

E.g. if someone who happens to be an atheist argues in public that abortion should be legal they don't have to spell out that they are an atheist or what kind of atheist (since you can be an atheist while taking many positions on other topics, such as metaethics, at one end of the scale, through to things like economics).

If MTR simply puts secular arguments about perceived harms to women, it's not incumbent on her to reveal her religion. In fact, in an ideal world people would only put secular arguments and would not mention their positions on otherworldly matters at all. Indeed, you can put arguments on many political issues without having first even to know what you think about more metaphysical issues - to some extent their is a slippage between them.

E.g., you can read a book like A Theory of Justice without knowing Rawls's substantive religious position, and it would be distracting to both the reader and the writer if he revealed it. I don't think it's a matter of public interest at all what substantive religious views had, as he did not rely on them but only on secular considerations.

This is more the rule than the exception, and indeed I've been involved in many controversies where my religious or irreligious views were not only not relevant but should have been kept out of it.

Revealing your substantive religious views can, indeed, give you a false gravitas from identifying yourself as being influenced by a prestigious belief system. This is something to be discouraged if anything.

And I strongly disagree with the "make your life an open book" thing. We do not have to do that at all. We are entitled to rely simply on the evidence and the arguments. There is nothing in the slightest unethical about that.

So I would not criticise Tankard Reist if she simply put purely secular arguments, based, say, on utilitarian considerations. I doubt that that's the case - she seems to be signalling to religious cronies explicitly and implicitly. As you say, she engages with religious groups. But we shouldn't be drawing much more sweeping conclusions about what people should reveal about themselves in what circumstances from what might seem to be the circumstances here.

The main point is, first, that we do live in a less pure world. People do jostle for credibility, etc., all the time. For the reasons I said in the original post, people's comprehensive worldviews may well be relevant in a whole range of cases, and certainly no one should be sued for connecting the dots in the way that Jennifer Wilson did.

Verbose Stoic said...

Well, the thing that really bothers me about all of the posts showing Wilson's substantive views is that they do not in any way reference anything that MTR actually said. She starts from "She's a Baptist" (which may or may not be true) and rides that to her conclusion about what MTR's views must be. That'd be like someone saying that I'm at least nominally Catholic and so my dualism must be driven by a need for a soul and life after death, despite the fact that I think that dualism about mind does not imply survival of the mind after death. For the most part, then, Wilson's argument strikes me as an ad hominem based on speculation, and the proper response would be "Go read what I've actually argued". Which, it seems, is mostly what MTR is saying, as per this quote from Wilson's article:

"In an interview with Jane Hutcheon for ABC TV’s One on One, Reist coyly states that she “tries to follow the teachings of Jesus” and then insists that her work must stand on its merits and her belief system is irrelevant."

So, does her work stand on its own merits or doesn't it? Saying that she treats with religious groups isn't sufficient, because anti-pornography feminists have always found common ground and allies with religious groups on that score. I'd like to see actual references to MTR's work, not references to her religion and then a long line of speculation to demonstrate somehow what MTR's "real" position must be.

MTR's belief system may impact her views, but does not impact whether or not she's right, and any substantive argument really should be aiming at whether or not she's right, and not just saying "Religion is involved, so we can ignore it". I don't think you're doing that, Russell, but I do think that Wilson is.

steve oberski said...

@Verbose Stoic - the proper response would be "Go read what I've actually argued". Which, it seems, is mostly what MTR is saying

No, what MTR is actually saying is contained in the letter that Wilson received from MTR's lawyer threatening legal action.

And there is nothing in that letter that says MTR's "work must stand on its merits and her belief system is irrelevant".

The whole point of threatening legal action over Wilson's remarks on MTR's religious affiliations is that MTR must consider her belief system to be totally relevant.

Verbose Stoic said...


I'm discussing the views and the debate, not the lawsuit. And the lawsuit does not imply what you think it implies about her views necessarily.

steve oberski said...

@Verbose Stoic

I'm discussing the whole kit and kaboodle so adjust your set accordingly.

According to Wilson:

The two statements I made that
offended Tankard Reist, according to her lawyer’s letter, are 1) I stated she is a Baptist, which he claims in the letter she is not, and 2) that I expressed my opinion that MTR is duplicitious and deceptive about her religion.

So MTR a launched lawsuit partially based on the fact that MTR considers the claim that she is a Baptist to be false.

I'm going to assume that MTR's lawyer has accurately represented her views in this letter and in fact MTR considers allegations about her religious affiliation to be important enough to pursue legal remedies.

It would be reasonable to assume that that her religion informs her views.

And I would find myself more concerned about why MTR believed something than what she actually believed.

If her views are informed by religious dogma then no amount of new evidence is going to change those views and it will not be possible to have an adult conversation where some sort of compromise could ever be reached.

Russell Blackford said...

I think the real issue in all this should be the chilling use of defamation law.

I do think that it's interesting and worthwhile to discuss other stuff around the edges, as in the original post in this case. But the chilling use of defamation law is and has been the pre-eminent issue in my mind (and this blog has always been at least as much a free speech blog as an atheist blog, an anti-religious blog or any such thing).

I do think that Wilson had reasons in this case to bring out that MTR is apparently a conservative Christian. MTR doesn't *just* put secular arguments - she also tries to cultivate a certain public image, for example. The way this happens with activists and lobbyists like MTR, as opposed to more academic-style public intellectuals, is one of the things that makes it all murky.

But in an ideal world without all that murkiness, I'm actually with Verbose Stoic on this. To the extent that we live in that world and our opponents are prepared to act as if they live in that world, we should concentrate on the publicly accessible arguments - e.g. do we have good reason to think that pornography actually produces more callous feelings about women on the part of men in a way that then cashes out in more rapes, sexual assaults, etc.? Do we think that the connection is sufficiently powerful and direct (or at least difficult to combat in relatively non-intrusive ways) to justify the use of the criminal law? Can we overcome other classical objections to the over-crimninalisation of human conduct in this case? (Arguably, James Fitzjames Stephen, an opponent of John Stuart Mill, set these out better than Mill himself, and you can find some brief discussion of this in ... ta da! ... FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.)

To the extent that someone merely makes claims like that, based on secular harms, etc., I don't think it's incumbent on her to reveal her comprehensive worldview. She is doing what, ideally, I want her to do, i.e. backing her policy recommendations with publicly accessible reasons.

And even if I thought that it was somehow incumbent on MTR, in all the circs, to reveal that she is motivated, in a general way, by a conservative Christian theological position, I stand by the claim that it would be burdensome for her to reveal all the detail of that position. I don't think any of us ever have to do that unless we actually want to (perhaps because we're trying to convert people to our positions themselves).

Now, people can form different views as to how far MTR merely engages in an exercise of public reason using publicly accessible arguments. As I said, I think in her case, from the relatively little I know about her, that she probably does more than that. E.g., she possibly seeks to obtain a certain, perhaps false, image with the public, she possibly attempts to maintain a certain image (a rather different one) with the church groups she addresses, and so on. I don't think logical rules such as the fallaciousness of ad hominem arguments are the be-all and end-all once we get into public debate with all the jostling over public images that goes on - and probably much else that we could identify as skewing things.

Russell Blackford said...

But I might be wrong about that in MTR's case. Jennifer Wilson might also be wrong about some things. Who knows?

Still, even if so, all of this is very contestable, etc. Even if, for the sake of argument, we conceded that MTR is exemplary in how she conducts herself in public debate on policy matters, that wouldn't justify her invoking defamation law to silence someone who disagrees. I do think we should stay focused on that as the key question in our larger debates.

Which is one reason that I was a bit critical of that petition a few posts back. It didn't leave a lot of room for someone to sign if they disagree with what Wilson has to say, yet defend to the death her right to say it. A petition defending free speech should not get into defending the correctness of the speech - that just limits the number of people who can sign it without qualification.

rubiginosa said...

Everywhere I go on the internets I see people characterising Wilson's 1300 word post in a similar fashion:

"Religion is involved, so we can ignore it".

Which is a misrepresentation.

Verbose Stoic said...

I was operating under the impression that this and the previous post were about the views independent of the lawsuit, but looking back that was never said, so maybe my limiting it to that was out of line.

Anyway, I don't know enough to make any judgement of how reasonable the lawsuit is. I do think, however, that if someone simply says something with no evidence that may have an impact on how a person is viewed, then we may well need legal options to deal with that, especially if it does go beyond one blogger. In this case, since I do think that Baptists are generally considered anti-feminist I do think that a feminist simply being accused of being one and having her views interpreted in that light instead of a feminist one is dangerous, to say the least. If Wilson won't give evidence for why she think MTR is a Baptist or why she thinks MTR's views are based on that sort of attitude instead of a more feminist one, maybe we do need a lawsuit to get her to do that, instead of making MTR prove baseless allegations wrong. Now, Wilson may well have already done that, and if she has then things are different.

Anyway, mostly that was my point: what I've seen here is that Wilson is, seemingly, making things up. MTR has no obligation to reply to any such accusations. So I'd like to see more substance, then, in Wilson's substantive views.