The Presence of Justice

Ophelia Benson

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One of the pleasanter changes in morals and manners over the last few decades has been the marginalization of ugly talk about “the Xs”—the Jews, the Mexicans, the Chinese, the queers. Thoughtful people don’t talk like that anymore, and what a relief that is, grumbles about political correctness notwithstanding. The old style now reeks of paranoia and ignorance. “The Jews”— what did that even mean? What verb can possibly follow such a general noun? “The Jews” what? Nothing; the question is absurd. The intention behind the phrasing is revealed as malicious. It has come to sound stupid and sinister to make sweeping generalizations about groups.

But it appears that some people are nostalgic for the music of hostile generalization and delighted to have the opportunity to engage in it again. Respectable liberal intellectuals and academics—people who wouldn’t be caught dead growling “the blacks this” and “the Jews that”—can be found enthusiastically heaping opprobrium on the freshly minted outgroup called “the new atheists.” One such person is the philosopher Michael Ruse, who wrote on the Chronicle of Higher Education blog Brainstorm in March: “I think the New Atheists are a disaster, a danger to the well-being of America comparable to the Tea Party. It is not so much that their views are wrong—I am not going to fall into the trap of labeling those with whom I disagree immoral because of our disagreements—but because they won’t make any effort to think seriously about why they hold their positions about the conflict between science and religion.”

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