May 8, 2007

Butler doubts societal progress in speech

A full house of students and faculty forewent Tuesday’s sunny weather to attend Judith Butler’s lecture at the Oriental Institute, filling the aisles to hear her talk, “Sexual Politics, Secular Time, the Politics of Freedom.”

Professor of philosophy in the departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley, Butler discussed some of the downsides of secularism, the separation of religion from politics, asking at one point if secularism contains an element of barbarity.

“[The] secular becomes a rubric under which the repression of minorities can be legitimized under democratic norms,” she said.

She expressed hopes that the intellectual intensity at the U of C would help her to refine her ideas. “I’ll probably get some responses that will be crucial,” she said.

Butler’s main focus dealt with how notions of progress, secularism, and modernity intertwine to produce unexpected results. She questioned the notion of progress, the idea that society improves itself over time. “We tend to assume that greater freedoms are being achieved over time,” Butler said.

She discussed how most Westerners see freedom and secularism as progress from religious dogmatism. This is not so, according to Butler, who said that many governments now use freedom and secularism as oppressive instruments. “A certain version and deployment of freedom can be used as an instrument of coercion,” she said.

Butler, who has locked horns with religious dogmatism in the past, argued that it is time to question the perception of “religion as the sole source of dogma” and “secularism as the sole source of critique.”

Pope Benedict XVI’s recent lecture that inflamed Islamic public opinion, the notion in France that gay parents produce psychotic children, the U.S. Army’s alleged use of torture, and a Dutch immigration exam that blocks entry of homophobic people from Islamic nations served as examples of Butler’s point that secularism contains “specters” of religious dogmatism.

According to Butler, in a Dutch “Civic Integration Examination,” an official shows would-be immigrants from the Middle East, Africa, and Turkey a picture of two men kissing. The exam asks if the individual minds living in a society that values gay relationships.

“The exam becomes the means for an assault on religious minorities,” Butler said, questioning whether the Dutch government is engaging in coercion by forcing immigrants to adopt views contrary to their personal beliefs in order to enter the country, especially since immigrants from the European Union and other non-Muslim areas don’t have to take the exam.

“We embody...freedom, and you do not; therefore we are free to coerce you.” This is the logic behind initiatives like the entry exam, Butler said.

Butler criticized the U.S. Army’s alleged use of torture, saying the government casts Iraqi Islamic culture as “pre-modern and unenlightened” because it does not share the West’s idea of secularism.

Butler concluded it is possible that modern secular culture is “no more enlightened or critical by virtue of its secularism than the worst form of...[religious] dogmatism.... If we see ideas of culture as secular, we may not have a sufficient vocabulary for understanding traditions from which these ideas are formed.”

Butler’s other work focuses on political theory, feminism, critical theory, and ethics. She is commonly assigned in the required Core Sosc classes at the U of C. Critical Inquiry, a U of C journal, arranged for Butler to appear.