Recently, David Johnson, Web Editor at the Boston Review, interviewed Martha Nussbaum and discussed her new publication, The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age. In this interview, Nussbaum discusses her views on fear as a narcissistic emotion, the importance of understanding world religions, the burqa, and feminism in a series of exchanges:
DJ: You argue that we should carefully distinguish between permitting something as a constitutional right and permitting people to criticize things that are constitutionally protected. To what extent should it be morally permissible to criticize wearing a burqa, as a practice that reflects a sexist, male-dominated culture? Should we refrain from such comments as violating the robust religious tolerance you espouse?
MN: I think that when we criticize intimate aspects of strangers’ lives, whether their marriages or their children or their religion, we should always ask whether we are being nosy. But here there’s a yet deeper issue: critics of the burqa typically look at the practices of others and find sexism and “objectification” of women there, while failing to look at the practices of the dominant culture, which are certainly suffused with sexism and objectification. I was one of the feminist philosophers who wrote about objectification as a fundamental problem, and what we were talking about was the portrayal of women as commodities for male use and control in violent pornography, in a great deal of our media culture, and in other cultural practices, such as plastic surgery. I would say that this type of objectification is not on the retreat but may even be growing. Go to a high school dance—even at a high-brow school such as the John Dewey Laboratory School on our campus [at the University of Chicago]—and you will see highly individual and intelligent teenage girls marketing themselves for male consumption in indistinguishable microskirts, prior to engaging in a form of group dancing that mimes sex, and effaces their individuality. (Boys wear regular and not particularly sexy clothing.) My sources for this observation are young men whom it distresses, since they have learned to see women as individuals. But culture is very powerful. So it seems to me quite ridiculous to gripe about the burqa, which some might actually see as a good antidote to the high school dance, and not to gripe about the high school dance. Of course it’s hard to change the dominant culture, and very easy to make the burqa illegal, since in France only about 150 women actually wear it.
To read the full interview, click here.