Appetite for understanding


After the corn chowder, pasta, salad, and cinnamon cake, the several dozen guests gathered for dinner in the Brent House living room were ready for the main course: a conversation with Martha Nussbaum.

Kicking off Brent House’s Dinner & Conversation series, Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund distinguished service professor of law and ethics, discussed her latest book, The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future. She wrote the study of India's Hindu-Muslim conflicts "as a public service, to inform the American public," but she noted ruefully that the book is selling better in India, where "it's No. 10 on the best-seller list."

Five years after communal violence erupted in the northwest state of Gujarat, India's Congress Party government is on a course of religious pluralism, Nussbaum said, but she voiced a concern that the nation's current pedagogical system, with "less emphasis on critical thinking and more on the force-feeding of useful skills" for economic growth, may make it harder to develop the sense of self that harmonious pluralism requires.

Maintaining pluralism, said Nussbaum, may also require returning to the principles of the nation's founding father: "Gandhi understood that you can't just have good institutions, but you also have to have a strong symbolic culture," with symbols that "move people to act" for a larger goal. "The Hindu right does this brilliantly," a lesson that the right's pluralist opponents should take to heart.

Next up on the Brent House dinner calendar: on November 13 Shali Wu, SM’05, PhD’07, of the University's psychology department, will discuss the results of a recent study on how the relative interdependence of a culture can affect one's ability to see another's point of view.


Photo: The Clash Within, Martha Nussbaum’s latest book, focuses on the 2002 Gujarat riots in which Hindu extremists, allied with elected officials, killed some 2,000 Muslims.

October 5, 2007