Tag Archives: Liberal political theory

The difference between being required to believe and respecting belief

I’m very happy to respect people’s right to hold cultural beliefs, to behave in a manner that is courteous and respectful, to adopt the behaviour of my hosts when I am at someone else’s place.

However I am not happy to be told that I must engage in particular cultural behaviours for my own safety.

The former asks me as a decent human being to behave in a respectful manner in the presence of someone else’s holy objects, or in their special place; the latter attempts to enforce a particular set of beliefs.

When Te Papa, the national museum of New Zealand, issued an invitation for regional museum staff to visit and see some of the work being done behind the scenes, it did the latter. Subsequently, it modified its stance to the former. I think the former is acceptable, and more than acceptable: it is desirable. It is something that gives people the space to choose their own way of life, their own set of values, their own beliefs. The latter is dangerous, all the more so when back by the power of the state.

Here’s what Te Papa said in the first instance when inviting regional museum managers and workers to its behind the scenes tour.

Wahine who are either hapü (pregnant) or mate wähine (menstruating) are welcome to visit at another time that is convenient for them.

There was no indication that this was an ‘advisory’: it was a straightforward instruction that women who were pregnant or menstruating were not welcome. To read it any other way is an egregious refusal to consider the ordinary use of language, and the history of such phrases. Try these sentences for size:

Black people are welcome to sit at the back of the bus.

Aboriginal people are welcome to come to the back door of the shop to get an icecream.

Women are welcome to purchase a drink in the lounge bar.

Catholics are welcome to apply for jobs elsewhere.

In other words, black people are not allowed on the front of the bus, Aboriginal people are not allowed to enter the icecream parlour, women aren’t allowed to go into the main bar, and Catholics are not allowed to apply for jobs here.

These are not just random things I have made up: each of these sentences resonates with particular episodes of discrimination.

When Te Papa says that women who are pregnant or menstruating are welcome to come back at another time, it looks very much as though it is engaging in discrimination.

Te Papa quickly issued an explanation. It wasn’t discrimination based on gender. All they were trying to do was to keep women safe.

Wellington’s Te Papa says it is advising pregnant or menstruating women against attending one of its tours, which includes sacred Maori objects, “for their own safety.”

She said there was a belief that each taonga had its own wairua, or spirit, inside it.

“Pregnant women are sacred and the policy is in place to protect women from these objects.”

In order for this policy to work, and remember, this is a policy for a national museum that is open to everyone, you have to believe that taonga have a spirit which can affect pregnant and menstruating women. Women are asked to stay away, not out of respect for the culture, but because the spirits really do exist.

At that point, the state institution has moved from asking people to respect a particular culture’s beliefs, to actually believing them. At that point, through Te Papa’s policy, the state is imposing a particular religious belief on people.

Now before I, or anyone else, starts shrieking, “Taliban! Taliban!” it’s worth remembering that there are absolutely no consequences to refusing to take on the belief about spirits in taonga, and very few consequences for failing to act in accordance with the belief. Requiring people to believe in the spirits is a long way removed from the way in which the Taliban has attempted to impose its beliefs on people. To be sure, it is a difference of degree, not kind, but it is a difference of degree so great that for most purposes, it is a difference of kind.

Nevertheless, Te Papa explained their instruction to pregnant and menstruating women not to come on the grounds that the women might be harmed by the spirits of the taonga. That explanation is the beginnings of the state imposing beliefs on its citizens.

There has been a long, long struggle in Western nations and other nations around the world to separate church and state. And there’s good reason for this: the history of Western nations and other nations is rife with the horrors caused by people trying to impose their beliefs on others. These days, we tend to think that the state has no role in imposing belief. Instead, it should try to create the conditions where each person, each group of people, can practise their own beliefs, without interference from others, and without fear that they will be discriminated against because of their beliefs. State institutions should not discriminate against people because of their beliefs, and they should not try to impose beliefs on other people.

By Wednesday, Te Papa had changed its story. By then, it was saying that as a matter of respect for Maori culture, it would be good if this particular tapu could be observed, even by those who did not believe in it. That was when it moved from imposing belief, to asking that belief should be respected. And that is something I have no problems with whatsoever.

More than having no problems with it whatsoever, I think it is a highly desirable thing to do. It is in fact the best way for modern liberal democracies to proceed. Why? Because it reinforces the idea that individual people and groups of people are free to choose their own beliefs, and it creates space for people to respect each others’ chosen ways of life, even if you would not take on that way of life or those beliefs yourself.

I think that it is a much more secure approach. If you rely on your beliefs to be respected because the state has those beliefs too, then you are vulnerable. You are vulnerable to the state finding that it no longer holds those beliefs, so it sees no reason to allow believers to continue to follow that particular way of life. I think that something of the sort has been going on with respect to Christianity, which has for many years been the de facto state religion in New Zealand, but it’s influence is declining. Even so, Christians have no reason to worry that they will not be permitted to practise their faith. No churches have been closed down, Christians have not been banned from exercising freedom of speech, they have not been forbidden to associate with each other. Their right to be Christian has not been affected at all. Of course, Christianity no longer enjoys the power it once had, but that’s a matter of changing social mores, not discrimination by the state.

I think the distinction between requiring people to believe, and respecting people’s right to belief, is very important. It creates the space in which people may choose their own way of life, and it creates the space in which other people may respect that way of life and those beliefs, without participating in them personally. So contrary to some, I think that Te Papa’s choice of words was very important.

Finally, I think today’s editorial in the Herald is a bit bloody rich. On Monday, they contacted me, looking for an Angry White Feminist to condemn Maori customs and beliefs. When I refused to do so, and instead focused on the distinction between imposing beliefs and respecting beliefs, they went with the Angry White Feminist line anyway. But today, suddenly, they are all about respecting beliefs. Whatever.


On a personal note, I’ve found it frustrating to be accused of being an unthinking white liberal feminist who has no idea about Maori culture and beliefs, who denigrates Maori culture, and who has no business telling Maori what to do. It has been frustrating because I have not made negative comments about Maori culture at all. I don’t even want to repeat the words that someone told me I had used to denigrate Maori culture, because not only are they words that I did not use at all, they are nasty words, and I don’t want to put them on my blog. I haven’t been telling Maori what to do: in the very first comments I made on the matter, I made it very clear that I did not think I should be involved in discussing what cultural practices Maori should engage it. I said, “It’s up to Maori to work out if and how and when cultural practices should change for Maori, within the traditional freedoms of liberal democracies.” In another place, I said that as a matter of fact I don’t like the ban on women speaking on some marae, but that what I thought about it was irrelevant, and it was a matter for Maori women and Maori men. And I made it clear that if I was on a marae, I would follow the customs of that marae. In another place, I’ve said that I’ve got some thoughts about what might be done with respect to working towards much greater respect for Maori as the first people in New Zealand, but that I didn’t want to put them out there, because it’s not my place to charge on in and tell Maori what to do.

I’m not expecting cookies for this. However it would be nice not to be criticised for things I have neither said nor done.

Mind you, I guess that this sense of frustration is all too familiar for many Maori, and probably far worse. I’m fairly confident that talk back radio and comments threads on some of the newspaper sites have been full of nastiness about Maori culture. Perhaps I should have spent some time on those threads myself, trying to knock back some of the nastiness.

No one has the right to live without being shocked

Philip Pullman has published a new book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (review by Rowan Williams).

Predictably, people are offended.  But in this clip, Pullman has a marvellous, measured response.*


Questioner: Mr Pullman, the title of the novel seems to an ordinary christian to be offensive. To call the son of god a scoundrel is an awful thing to say.

Philip Pullman: Yes, it was a shocking thing to say and I knew it was a shocking thing to say but no one has the right to live without being shocked. No one has the right to spend their lives without being offended. Nobody has to read this book. Nobody has to pick it up. Nobody has to open it, and if they open it and read it they don’t have to like it. And if you read it and you dislike it, you don’t have to remain silent about it. You can write to me. You can complain about it. You can write to the publisher. You can write to the papers. You can write your own book. You can do all those things. But there your rights stop. No one has the right to stop me writing this book. No one has the right to stop it being published, or sold, or bought or read. And that’s all I have to say on that subject.


*I was unable to embed the clip, possibly because it is on Philip Pullman’s publisher’s Youtube channel
*I typed up the transcript myself. I’m sorry if there are any mistakes in it.

On being vulnerable

NB: In this post, I’m using the words “liberal” and “republican,” both with lower case first letters. I am NOT referring to any political parties which use these terms in their names. I am using them in their original sense, as the names of particular modes of organising political life.

In a standard liberal account of freedom, freedom is construed as non-interference; you are free to the extent that no one interferes with you. At its most extreme, you end up with something like Hobbes’ account of freedom:

Fear and liberty are consistent: as when a man throweth his goods into the sea for fear the ship should sink, he doth it nevertheless very willingly, and may refuse to do it if he will; it is therefore the action of one that was free:

As long as you can choose to do something else, like say, die, then you are free. It’s a very thin account of freedom, and I find it unsatisfying. Of course, liberal theorists have other, thicker accounts of freedom, but they are still accounts of freedom as non-interference. I’m rather more taken with the account of freedom found in republican political theory, that is, the mode of governance of the Roman republican and the 16th century Italian city states, as well as for example, Australian and New Zealand, which are republics in all but name.

As I have written before, in republican political theory, freedom is freedom from domination.

Think about a slave with a kindly master. The slave gets to live where she likes, eat what she likes, do whatever work she likes, just because the master happens to be kindly. Under the standard liberal accounts of freedom, this slave would be free, because she was not subject to interference.

The master however, can at any time reassert his power. If he so wishes, he can tell the slave where to live, what to eat, what work to do. He is even able to physically assault the slave, and she has no recourse against him. So in order to keep him happy, to avoid incurring his displeasure and losing the chance to direct her own life, she must keep a weather eye out for him, ingratiate herself with him, make sure that she doesn’t offend him, kowtow, and doff her cap. Even though he does not interfere with her choices, he nevertheless dominates her, and she constrains her choices because of that domination. She cannot stand tall, and look him in the eye. Under the republican account of freedom, this slave is not free.

I find this account of freedom compelling, because it taps into a sense of standing. A free person is one with standing, one who can treat with the powerful, can act without fear of unjust retribution, can take her place in the community. It is a highly social sense of freedom – a free person is one who enjoys standing within social setting. It is the freedom of the hearth, not the freedom of the heath (Philip Pettit’s phrase, not mine). And it is an institutional sense of freedom. In the liberal account of freedom, the slave with the kindly master is free, but that is just a contingent state of affairs. It is just because the world happens to be that way, rather than because anything guarantees that the slave is free. However the republican account of freedom looks at the relationships between people, and the institutional structures that guarantee freedom. So a person is not accounted free just because of a happy coincidence; she is only free if the world is organised in such a way that she is necessarily free.

The republican account of freedom is an intensely social account of freedom. It’s not just about one person being free, or being dominated, but about groups of people being free, or being subject to domination. If one person is dominated, and thus is not free, then other people who are sufficiently similar to him or her, can similarly be dominated, and so not be free standing citizens.

For example, think about the case of rape. If a woman is raped, perhaps walking home in the evening, then other women who are walking through the same area, or out walking at the same time, may feel similarly threatened. They may choose not to walk home, or to go by a different route, or to walk at a different time. So their choices are constrained, and they change their behaviour, for fear of rape. Their freedom is reduced, in this area of their life at least. (Freedom is not an all or nothing game: you can be more free in some areas of your life than in others. For example, you may own your own home and have a lovely family, so your personal life is ‘free’, but have a bully boss, so your work life is less ‘free’.)

In technical terms, this can be referred to as a vulnerability group. A vulnerability group is a group where in virtue of the similarities between all the members of the group, each of the members can be dominated qua member of the group.

And that’s why Melissa McEwan’s post resonated with me. When I hear a sexist put-down of a woman, I see that woman being dominated in virtue of being a woman, and I know that as a woman, I am vulnerable to those types of put-downs too. That’s why I get the little sinking feeling in my stomach, the sense of unease, the worry that other put-downs will follow. Each little bit of misogyny reinforces my vulnerability to being dominated, whether the misogyny is directed straight at me, or at another woman. And if it happens to me once, then it can happen again, and again, and again.

As it turns out, I live in a good space, with a loving and thoughtful partner, and for the most part, I don’t have to deal with misogyny in my own life, and what there is has not come my way through my partner’s actions (of course we both make missteps from time to time, but we’re human beings, not saints). But the moment I step out of my house, I am confronted by it, and it seeps into our home via newspapers and TV and the irritating pop-up ads on websites and the like. It’s ever present, even with something as banal as the sausages and strippers banner I saw last year (it’s still there). When the environment I live in so unfailing reminds me that women are of little worth, it’s hard not to feel vulnerable, and hard not to feel a sense of unease.

More on subbies

This sub-editor, not that one.

Nick has been my IRL friend for over 25 years now (I was quite shocked when I did the maths on my fingers, Nick), and one of the many words I could use to describe him is “erudite.” So I am inclined to trust him when he says:

I’m not sure there’s much wrong with ‘public square.’ It works ok as a figure of speech. I suppose it’s more or less the same as saying that religious views should be heard in the ‘public arena’ or ‘public forum.’

If you google the phrase, it seems to have earned a toehold in the lexicon by what Scots law calls ‘consuetude’ (i.e. everyone’s been doing it).

(Who do you know who drops words like “consuetude” into conversation?)

Hmm…. I thought. So maybe it’s starting to get a particular religious connotation.

And then a reader, whom I shall call L, contacted me, off-blog, and said:

“Public Square” is religious jargon/code, a phrase currently gaining momentum from pulpits across the nation. … I suspect it’s being driven from America.

In the same way that you would say “across the country”, an evangelical Christian would say “across the nation”, and an evangelical listener would recognise the difference. It’s not dissimilar to the secret handshakes.

L suggested that I should try googling “Rick Warren” and “public square.”

The results are… interesting. It seems that “public square” is becoming common koine, in evangelical circles at least, and it denotes the discussion of religion and religious matters in the public sphere. I thought that it might be the subbie or the editorial writer sneaking some evangelical language in, but L was much more charitable, and I suspect much more plausible than men, suggesting that it wasn’t “proselytising by stealth” but just someone who had heard the language, perhaps at her or his church, and recognising the context of religion in the public sphere, substituting “public square” for “public sphere,” because from her or his point of view, those are the correct words to use in this context. It’s a special code, and not one that I was expected to hear.

And then L made a very interesting point, one that links rather nicely to the Vanity Fair piece on Sarah Palin.

To the rest of us she speaks incoherent babble, but she embodies “code”. McCain didn’t speak code. The listeners weren’t sure he was “one of us” but they know Sarah is. The fact that she may be a “sanguinary perverter of the truth” doesn’t diminish her “code”-status one bit. Then, in code, it’s just “liberal media” out to “persecute” her. If you are captive to that framing, it all makes logical sense. To be knowledgeable is to be “elitist”.

It’s certainly a language that I don’t speak, or even hear, and if I do hear it, why yes, I do look on in wonder and surprise, and with perhaps just a little bit of, well, contempt. Hmmm…. maybe not “contempt.” “Condescension” might be the better word: let those who want to play with such language do so; if they want to play their silly games, that’s fine by me, as long as I’m not disturbed.

But I was disturbed when I recognised that reaction in myself. I think it may be akin to the reaction elites had to Pauline Hanson in Australia – “she’s just an ill-educated hick from Queensland, and she’ll never amount to anything.” But she did, and she captured an astonishing amount of the vote, for a short time at least. I am disturbed that I haven’t heard an important nuance in society, and that I have simply assumed that no one could seriously buy into such nonsense (there’s that condescension again), and I am disturbed that I have simply dismissed the views and self-understandings of a presumably significant group of people in Australia, evangelical Christians.

On the other hand, I do, very seriously, think that belief in any god is a nonsense. If you want to go off and do whatever it is you do with your god, then that’s fine by me (you may recall that my version of feminism (scroll down) means that I am free to stuff up and make my very own mistakes, and I have a thorough going commitment to that freedom being available to everyone). But that freedom to go off and pray to your god, or play with the fairies at the bottom of the garden, or conduct devil-worship ceremonies complete with the ritual slaughter of cockroaches, or whatever, is entirely your own affair, and does not belong in the public sphere at all.

Which is why L’s final comment was possibly the most disturbing of all.

There are other codes as well – I don’t know it but the financial sector has its own vocabulary, for example. It’s just that “evangelical” is so ordinary (and nearly there – after all, what is the difference between Rudd being the PM of “the country” or “the nation”?).


Feck! Even the Pope uses “public square.” Here’s the relevant paragraph from his latest encyclical, issued on 29 June 2009.


The French version refers to “la vie publique,” and the Italian version to “dall’ambito pubblico come” (could some Italianate reader let me know if I have picked out the right phrase) but the Latin version is not on-line yet. My understanding is that the Latin version is the “true” one. Neither the French version nor the Italian version look like “public square” to me. I wonder if the Pope knows what he is saying?

Hating on teh fatties

Cross posted

Professor John Birkbeck has surfaced in New Zealand newspapers again, telling fat people that it’s all their own fault that they are fat. The New Zealand Herald devoted not just one article to him, but two – one a fairly standard profile of a retiring academic: The truth is – size matters, and another seizing the opportunity to berate fat people: Expert – it’s your fault if you’re a fatty. Some choice tidbits from the articles:

“While acknowledging that some may have a genetic propensity to obesity, he said: “You can’t get over-fat without eating more calories than you expend.”

Birkbeck even cited concentration camps to illustrate his point.

“You do not see fat people in concentration camps. Why? Because they get hardly anything to eat and they have to do a lot of work.”

“In a dictatorship, you say ‘everybody that comes back in a year’s time with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of more than 30 will be shot’ – and you’ll find hardly anyone has a BMI over 30.

“But you can’t do that in society, so what we have to do is find a way to cajole and coerce. And I don’t think they’ve done enough of that.”

“I think where we can make things uncomfortable for the seriously fat, we should do so with a clear conscience.”

Umm…. wow. Let’s put this into one sentence. We can rid society of the evil of obesity by putting people in concentration camps and starving them or by killing them if they don’t lose weight.

(The NZ Herald links it to women, of course. Take a look at the photos they use to illustrate their articles.)

Leaving aside the ghastly offensiveness of using Holocaust victims to make an unrelated point, that’s an awful lot of fat hatred going on there.
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