Nussbaum Reviews Collini's 'That's Offensive! Criticism, Identity, Respect'

American civil war
Martha C. Nussbaum
New Statesman
March 17, 2011

While I was working on a book on gay rights and law, I presented several chapters at a work- in-progress workshop at the University of Chicago Law School. As I've come to expect, my colleagues assailed me with criticisms of all sorts, tough and thoughtful, from all sides of the political spectrum. Unlike most other law schools, we have that rare thing - an open, undefensive yet rigorous intellectual community, and it is very precious.

Afterwards my most conservative colleague wrote me an email, saying that he hoped nothing in his trenchant challenges to my position had caused offence. Actually, his manner had been extremely civil, but since he is capable of intemperate and sarcastic utterance, and (like most of us) does not have perfect self-knowledge, I thought it was well-advised that he asked. He was showing the sort of care about personal civility that sustains our community and makes it so different from the ugly free-for-all that sadly characterises much of American political life.

This story illustrates both the great virtue of Stefan Collini's eloquent argument - its ringing defence of rigorous criticism - and its most glaring gap: its failure to appreciate the virtue of civility and the special demands it makes when a majority is discussing stigmatised groups.