Stanley Fish: "Might Makes Right"
By David Henderson
I know the objections to what I have said here. It amounts to an apology for identity politics. It elevates tribal obligations over the universal obligations we owe to each other as citizens. It licenses differential and discriminatory treatment on the basis of contested points of view. It substitutes for the rule “don’t do it to them if you don’t want it done to you” the rule “be sure to do it to them first and more effectively.” It implies finally that might makes right. I can live with that.
This is the closing paragraph of a remarkable op/ed by noted literary critic Stanley Fish. The New York Times op/ed is titled “Two Cheers for Double Standards.” I know from long experience that editors of newspapers almost never use the titles that the op/ed writers want and so I have no reason to think that Fish wanted this title. The title is inaccurate, but not in the way you might think. A more-accurate title would have been “Three Cheers for Double Standards.”
In the piece, Fish weighs in on the current debate about whether it’s wrong to have a double standard. The issue came up because of Rush Limbaugh’s use of the word “slut” and “prostitute” to describe Sandra Fluke, a woman he disagreed with. Various people pointed out that Bill Maher had used the word “c**t” to describe Sarah Palin without receiving nearly the outrage that attended Limbaugh’s words and Ed Schultz was only mildly criticized for calling Laura Ingraham a “slut.” This does reek of a double standard.
Fish agrees–and says that that’s just fine. What’s his justification? He thinks he has found a weakness in the idea of applying the same standard. He writes:
These questions come naturally to those who have been schooled in the political philosophy of enlightenment liberalism. The key move in that philosophy is to shift the emphasis from substantive judgment — is what has been said good and true? — to a requirement of procedural reciprocity — you must treat speakers equally even if you can’t abide what some of them stand for.
Really? So is he saying that we should judge the statements by whether they’re “good and true?” He seems to be.
But he isn’t. How would you judge whether Sandra Fluke is a “slut” or a “prostitute?” You would have look at her behavior. I don’t know the lady, but my guess is that she is neither. How would you judge whether Laura Ingraham is a “slut?” Again, by looking at her behavior. And again, although I don’t know her, I bet she isn’t. Or, finally, how would you judge whether Sarah Palin is a “c**t?” That’s easy. No one person with complete body parts is just one of those parts. So that’s clearly false.
Professor Fish is clearly not judging whether those statements are “good and true.” So he must mean something else. What does he mean? He makes that clear. He writes:
Rather than relaxing or soft-pedaling your convictions about what is right and wrong, stay with them, and treat people you see as morally different differently. Condemn Limbaugh and say that Schultz and Maher may have gone a bit too far but that they’re basically O.K. If you do that you will not be displaying a double standard; you will be affirming a single standard, and moreover it will be a moral one because you will be going with what you think is good rather than what you think is fair.
In other words, Fish is not saying that you should judge the various speakers by whether their particular statements at hand are good and true. Rather, you should judge the speakers by whether what they say more generally is good and true. In other words, Fish sees Limbaugh’s use of the words “slut” and “prostitute” as excuses to bash Limbaugh when he, Fish, would have wanted to bash him anyway even if he hadn’t said those things. But because Fish would have no general desire to bash Schultz or Maher, he shouldn’t bash them for saying vile things.
I see why Fish ended the article with the final paragraph that I quoted at the top of this post. Those are exactly the consequences of his argument. Professor Fish may be able to “live with” the idea that “might makes right.” I would suggest to him, though, that throughout history the idea that might makes right has caused many people to die.