Philosophical Interventions: Book Reviews, 1986-2011

By Martha C. Nussbaum | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE
American Civil War

STEFAN COLLINI (2010), That’s Offensive! Criticism, Identity, Respect

While I was working on a book on gay rights and law, I presented several chapters at a work-in-progress workshop at the University of Chicago Law School. As I’ve come to expect, my colleagues assailed me with criticisms of all sorts, tough and thoughtful, from all sides of the political spectrum. For, unlike virtually all other law schools, we have that rare thing—an open, broad-spectrum, undefensive yet rigorous intellectual community, and it is very precious.

Afterwards my most conservative colleague wrote me an email, saying that he hoped nothing in his trenchant challenges to my position had caused offence. Actually, his manner had been extremely civil, but since he’s capable of intemperate and sarcastic utterance, and (like most of us) does not have perfect self-knowledge, I thought it was well-advised that he asked. He was showing the sort of care about personal civility that sustains our community and makes it so different from the ugly free-for-all that sadly characterizes much of American political life.

This story illustrates both the great virtue of Stefan Collini’s eloquent argument—its ringing defense of rigorous criticism—and its most glaring gap: its failure to appreciate the virtue of civility and the special demands it makes when a majority is discussing traditionally stigmatized groups. Collini values, as I do, the no-holds-barred give-and-take of argument, and he believes, as I do, that open debate of this sort is a valuable ingredient in the political life.

His brief manifesto says that we have entered an era in which people shrink from challenge and want to be surrounded only by the like-minded; or those who will not subject the cherished beliefs others hold to searching criticism.

Particularly when beliefs are bound up with a religious, ethnic, or other group identity, people expect to be able to shield them from criticism, and

-405-

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