I have severe reservations about the literary criticism that made Stanley Fish famous, but I have to say I find his long-running series of essays in the New York Times to be provocative, insightful, and important.
In his 2012 “Christmas column” (“Religious Exemptions and the Liberal State”), Fish comes down to one of the central reasons that a liberal democracy can never breathe easy – and will likely never own the easy loyalty of the mass of mankind that all the systems we keep thinking we’ve vanquished do.
“Substance, then, is the chief danger to the liberal state.”
Tragic but true.
This conclusion is inevitable when you realize that liberal democracy exists because it is committed to individual liberty and the freedom of conscience – but that to protect everyone’s liberty and conscience, it cannot allow anyone’s beliefs to be expressed in ways that would change society. It doesn’t matter if it’s “Christ is Lord” or “A is A” or “evolution explains that” – a liberal democracy only cares that everyone gets to express themselves, and believe what they like, without rocking the boat.
It is committed to a process: a process which regards the truth value of any set of beliefs as irrelevant, and people who are too committed to the truth (which a liberal democracy would call “values” or “culture” or “lifestyle”) are dangerous. A truth can exist within a liberal democracy only so long as it does not make claims that impact the public’s right to be indifferent.
There are good reasons for this, and ultimately it is a vital and important advance in human governance. (Christians who want to overturn the separation of church and state fail to understand that this separation is what has kept Christians from killing each other in the modern era.)
But very few of us will ever be as passionate about a set of rules that refuse to take the substance of an argument into account as we will about the truths we discover in our own lives. We all learn things, discover things, at great personal cost, that have value and worth and importance. The idea that these things are no more important than candy commercials and Honey Boo Boo in the eyes of the law will never be acceptable to us.
And why should it? Why should we be happy that the lowest dross of culture is given equal preference with its towering heights? Why should the opinions of the ignorant be put on the same pedestal as wisdom? Given how much more difficult it is to be wise and profound, giving them no preference over ignorance and dross is chaining virtue to the ground. Why should we be happy with that?
We shouldn’t, except insofar as it helps the system we live under. A liberal democracy’s lack of interest in substance is the lubricant that keeps it running smoothly. Eventually – as we’re seeing now – the very idea of “substance,” of truth, of meaning, of profundity, is seen as a danger when it goes beyond the very narrow confines of an individual’s freedom of conscience. In a liberal democracy “The Truth Shall Set You Free” is not a truth but a brand, just like the MTV fall line-up.
Eventually, of course, that kind of limitation becomes a pathology all its own. It protects us from a variety of forms of totalitarianism, but eats away at the roots of our humanity.
And it will never, never, inspire the kind of passion that religious truth or political revelation or scientific exploration does. Instead it lures us into a kind of noncommittal appreciation of all the world has to offer. Life is a glorious buffet of stuff that other people believe and we can sample from.
We may very well be better off for this, but I think we are also better off that some people still struggle against these terms and conditions.