18 Jul Nussbaum on MacKinnon and the International Criminalization of Violence Against Women
Martha Nussbaum favorably reviews Catharine MacKinnon’s Are Women Human?: And Other International Dialogues in the latest edition of The Nation. MacKinnon argues for the international criminalization of sex-related offenses against women (beyond such violence as occurs in the context of otherwise genocidal acts), a position with which Nussbaum strongly aligns herself as a theoretical matter. As for efforts on the ground, however, Nussbaum has
[a] serious worry about MacKinnon’s expressed preference for the international realm, in contrast to the state realm, as a place where women should focus their energies. It is certainly true that the abuses suffered by women are depressingly similar from one nation to another, and that the international women’s movement has therefore been able to identify similar problems in many nations and to jump-start the search for creative solutions. It is also true that when states are doing nothing, women can goad them into action by making a big noise internationally, and that this has happened, often helpfully. Finally, it is true that some specific problems require international solutions. Trafficking, for example, as MacKinnon points out, will not stop without international sanctions, because otherwise the traffickers will just keep moving on from states that have adopted strong laws to states that have weaker laws or that don’t enforce the ones they have. Much the same is true of labor accords, as she mentions: Here, too, a solution has to be transnational because piecemeal solutions just make the problem move elsewhere.
None of this, however, adds up to saying that the state is not a crucially important place for sex equality to be enacted and realized. MacKinnon sometimes comes quite close to saying that the modern state is a sexist relic that has had its day. Surely, however, the state is the largest unit we know of so far that is decently accountable to people’s voices, and thus it is bound to be of critical importance for women seeking to make their voices heard. I think there is also a moral argument for the state: It is a unit that expresses the human choice to live together under laws of one’s own choosing. Once again, it is the largest unit we yet know that expresses this fundamental human aspiration. A world state, should it exist, would either be too dictatorial, imposing on Indians and South Africans and Canadians alike a Constitution that each group might like to determine and fine-tune separately, or else it would be little more than a charade, as some international agreements are today.
This is an interesting concern, given Nussbaum’s advocacy of cosmopolitan values. Perhaps the stress there is on values, or education; but when it comes to how we live, she hews more closely to liberal nationalist traditions. The critique is disappointing, moreover, insofar as it trots out the strawman of world government (a standard liberal nationalist move, against which the nation-state can’t fail but look good), and seems closed to the possible evolution of global structures that actually might be more effective than the state in protecting rights. Today it is no doubt true that rights-protection is better undertaken by states, but out of the current landscape it seems possible to chart the emergence of something different.