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Fr. 441

November 19, 2013

If, as the preceding fragment holds, we are to promote the cause of dialogue over monologue in political discussion and democratic society and allow religious discourse in the public sphere, this is not to suggest that Stout’s account amounts to a simple “anything goes”. On the contrary, there are reasons and arguments, religious or otherwise, that cannot be legitimately maintained in the public sphere. This does not alter the fact that these reasons must first be given before they can be rejected in turn for the right reasons.

Of what kind are these illegitimate reasons for Stout? To illustrate his point and contrast his own view with that of Rorty, Stout appeals to a hypothetical case in which two individuals (or perhaps even a single individual) plead their case for a certain public policy in providing argument from scripture. In one case, the individual provides a leftist interpretation of Psalm 72 as “an endorsement of redistributionist social legislation” and of the expansion of insurance to society’s needy (“Rorty on Religion and Politics”, p. 10). In the other, the individual makes an impassioned case concerning the transgression represented by same-sex marriage and unions in basing his arguments on the text to be found in Leviticus. Whereas, for Rorty, there is no problem with the utterance of the first, he does take issue with the second. Despite this, Rorty seems initially unable to formulate a general position capable of distinguishing between these two usages of scripture.

Certainly, as Stout contends, such a position is needed if Rorty is to avoid a merely “arbitrary expression of his own preferences” (ibid., p. 11). If Rorty is to provide some analysis of the requirements of public speech, there must be something deeper in his explanation, something beyond mere like or dislike. Nor can Rorty maintain that passages falling in with his liberal sympathies are to be admitted whereas those out of line with those same sympathies are not. For this would amount to making of Rorty “the arbiter of discursive legitimacy” (idem.). Finally, there is no general principle to which appeals to Psalm 72 here would prove an exception insofar as Rorty himself deems the search for such principles dubious.

Accordingly, if there can be no principle capable of distinguishing which uses are to be made of scripture, then Rorty’s attention must shift elsewhere and, in this case, it then becomes a question of the unacknowledged motives underlying uses of scripture. In considering the second case, that of the passage from Leviticus, Rorty seems to think that, while codified law should not prevent this individual from voicing this opinion, something at the level of custom or political habits should intervene and prevent the individual’s expressing these reasons. This owes to the cruel and violent nature of both the passages in question and the general disposition of the individual towards homosexuals (in short, homophobia). Expressing one’s opposition in this way, for Rorty, should bring little more than shame and should be considered as simply one more instance of hate speech.

As Stout summarizes Rorty’s position, “homophobia is not the sort of motive that anyone should either have in one’s heart or express in public, regardless of its entanglement with religion” (ibid., p. 12). Indeed, Rorty’s position goes further in that homophobia surpasses mere fear and becomes a form of hatred lending itself to expression in sadism and cruelty, much as is the case with racism or sexism. For his part, Stout is in agreement that expressions of hatred and the use of public policy to sadistic ends are to be avoided in democratic society.

Moreover, Stout recalls that “the question of what ought to count as hateful or cruel is one of the things citizens debate” and that public accusations of hatred necessarily “[call] into question either the sincerity or the self-understanding of that person” (idem.). With this mind, it is clear that such accusations bring with them their own risk as these accusations are sometimes hard to distinguish from the hateful statements that gave rise to them. Although it is from time to time important to question one another’s motives in this way, it can endanger the larger political goals of cooperation and consensus by instigating marked adversarial relationships between the groups concerned.

In the end, Rorty does not seek to extend his account much beyond the pointing out of this hatred, for, as Stout highlights, there is no general principle distinguishing uses of scripture that follows from Rorty’s ascribing hatred and cruelty to the individual of the second case, i.e. the individual opposed to same-sex marriage on the basis of Leviticus. Instead, Rorty closes his reasoning in remarking that these others should simply tailor their views to his and, presumably, that of the body politic at large.

Yet is this move to limit the number of viewpoints in a discussion truly in the best interest of a democratic society? Would it provide for the richest possible discussion canvassing the widest array of possible ways of life? Despite sharing Rorty’s misgivings on the whole concerning some individuals’ sadistic and homophobic motivations for citing Leviticus, Stout holds that this sadism and homophobia cannot account for one hundred percent of cases and that there must thus be some individuals who are sincere in including these passages from Leviticus amongst their reasons for opposing same-sex marriage. And it is precisely with and in virtue of these sincere believers that Stout thinks that discursive progress can be made.

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