Stanley Fish, CS Lewis and Might Makes Right
Stanley Fish, probably the most noted American literary theorist of our time, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times on March 12, 2012 called Two Cheers for Double Standards in which he demonstrated how deeply wed he and other members of the Left in this country are to the Orwell axiom from Animal Farm that some animals are more equal than others:
If we think about the Rush Limbaugh dust-up from the non-liberal — that is, non-formal — perspective, the similarity between what he did and what Schultz and Maher did disappears. Schultz and Maher are the good guys; they are on the side of truth and justice. Limbaugh is the bad guy; he is on the side of every nefarious force that threatens our democracy. Why should he get an even break?
There is no answer to that question once you step outside of the liberal calculus in which all persons, no matter what their moral status as you see it, are weighed in an equal balance. 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. “Fair” is a weak virtue; it is not even a virtue at all because it insists on a withdrawal from moral judgment.
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.
Go here to read the appalling rest. Well that is that, as they say. When the position of an opponent is that we can do what we want because we are wearing the white hats and you fools are wearing the black hats, there are many reactions that are called for and none of them involve rational discussion since the adversary has indicated that he is not interested in debate but rather in raw power. I can only hope that Fish will eventually reveal that this is in the nature of Swift’s A Modest Proposal, but I fear that such is not the case, and that bodes ill for the prospect of long-term domestic peace in this country.
CS Lewis In Mere Christianity dealt with the issue of fairness and judging people by the same standard:
Everyone has heard people quarrelling. Sometimes it sounds funny and sometimes it sounds merely unpleasant; but however it sounds, I believe we can learn something very important from listening to the kind of things they say. They say things like this: “How’d you like it if anyone did the same to you?”-”That’s my seat, I was there first”-”Leave him alone, he isn’t doing you any harm”- “Why should you shove in first?”-”Give me a bit of your orange, I gave you a bit of mine”-”Come on, you promised.” People say things like that every day, educated people as well as uneducated, and children as well as grown-ups. Now what interests me about all these remarks is that the man who makes them is not merely saying that the other man’s behaviour does not happen to please him. He is appealing to some kind of standard of behaviour which he expects the other man to know about. And the other man very seldom replies: “To hell with your standard.” Nearly always he tries to make out that what he has been doing does not really go against the standard, or that if it does there is some special excuse. He pretends there is some special reason in this particular case why the person who took the seat first should not keep it, or that things were quite different when he was given the bit of orange, or that something has turned up which lets him off keeping his promise. It looks, in fact, very much as if both parties had in mind some kind of Law or Rule of fair play or decent behaviour or morality or whatever you like to call it, about which they really agreed. And they have. If they had not, they might, of course, fight like animals, but they could not quarrel in the human sense of the word. Quarrelling means trying to show that the other man is in the wrong. And there would be no sense in trying to do that unless you and he had some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are; just as there would be no sense in saying that a footballer had committed a foul unless there was some agreement about the rules of football.
What Professor Fish has done is to say, in the words of Lewis, “To hell with your standard”. This is one of the more chilling statements on the divisions within American society that I have read in quite a while. Jeff Goldstein at Protein Wisdom in a superb post sums things up nicely:
To the progressive, your social and political worth — in fact, your very claim to morality — comes from your various identity politics alliances. That is, your morality is a function not so much of what you do, but rather of where you claim to stand, and with whom.
Professor Fish has merely put into words what many of us fear: that discussion in this country on major political and social issues is increasingly monologues of the deaf and that the very basis of any discussion, a shared standard of fairness, is vanishing. Professor Fish says that he can live with the non-standard that might makes right. If that is going to be how our political and social discourse is now to be carried out, I am very afraid that a great many Americans will eventually not be able to remain alive under such a rule of conduct.