Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Queering the Public Sphere: Liberalism and the Rhetoric of Rights. (Review Essay)

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Queering the Public Sphere: Liberalism and the Rhetoric of Rights. (Review Essay)

Article excerpt

Liberalism and the rhetoric of rights have come under fire in recent decades as a range of feminist, queer, communitarian, and critical political theorists have questioned the kinds and quality of justice that an exclusive concern with rights can offer pluralistic democratic societies. Underlying this critique has been the wide-ranging question of incommensurability--in particular, the question of how public discourse in pluralistic democracies can take up, if not entirely resolve, disputes over value-laden moral conflicts. On the one hand, liberalist political philosophers such as Rawls (1971) make a strong case for prioritizing individual rights over conceptions of the moral good. Rawls argues that in a pluralistic democracy with a range of competing moral orders, justice must be arrived at independently of conceptions of the good. As Sandel (1996) describes this perspective, government should be neutral with respect to goods and values and shouldn't endorse any particular version of the good life. In his n otion of justice as fairness, Rawls (1971) describes two a priori principles of justice: that each person has equal rights to the most basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others, and that social and economic inequalities are arranged so that they are to everyone's advantage and open to all. Once these principles are in place, Rawlsian citizens are free to deliberate for their individual rational self-interests. On the other hand, communitarian theorists such as Michael Sandel (1996) describe liberalism as "too thin." For one thing, Sandel wants space for "civic republicanism"--public deliberation over community interests and moral values. For another, he questions the possibility of affirming certain freedoms and rights as fundamental without embracing some vision of the good life.

Critical political theorist Chantel Mouffe (1990) offers a way out of this impasse by arguing that what's wrong with Rawls' theory of justice is not his vision of the right over the good, but his rationalization of it. Equality and liberty, she claims, are political, not moral values. While Rawls is right to argue that a political conception of justice cannot be derived from one particular conception of the good life, he wrongly conflates moral and political values and fails to think of individual subjectivity as discursively constructed through practices and institutions. Because of this, Rawls "reduces politics to a rational process of negotiation among private citizens under the constraints of morality... To think politics in terms of moral language, as Rawls does, necessarily leads to neglect of the role played by conflict, power, and interest" (p. 225). Thus, Mouffe argues, Rawlsian public deliberation is superfluous, leaving no room for collective action and deliberation over the political common good. Like the communitarians, Mouffe argues that, "modem political philosophy should articulate political values" (p. 232). But unlike them she argues against conceptualizing political subjects and practices in moral terms. Further, like Rawls, she believes that political action and deliberation should be firmly grounded in the democratic priorities of liberty and equality. But unlike traditional liberalists, she sees in political liberalism the potential to "defend democracy by deepening and extending the range of democratic practices through the creation of new subject positions within a democratic matrix" (p. 233).

QUEERING THE DEMOCRATIC MATRIX

The case of public argument about sexual minorities brings these underlying tensions of democratic pluralism to the forefront: how do we address the moral values implicit in democratic deliberations about gay and lesbian civil rights? How does a just society respond to the rights claims made by "new subject positions" of despised sexual minorities? Three recent books trace the contours of this dilemma by examining the rhetorical practices and constraints surrounding contemporary public discourse about variant sexualities. …

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