After the Kipnis fiasco several weeks ago, one in which, unfortunately, philosophers played a starring role, a law colleague asked me "Are all philosophers nuts?" Well, not all, but certainly plenty of them lack professional judgment, as we have had occasion to note before. Still, given the awful publicity for academic philosophy, one might hope that philosophers would think twice before providing further evidence to an unflattering narrative about the field. But, as Sartre said, one must live without hope.
Toronto's Joseph Heath wrote an insightful and sensible piece about the overblown rhetoric in the media about "political correctness," but then identified a more serious problem with one current of academic work:
Often when journalists talk about [political correctness], what they have in mind is old-fashioned language policing. Now I must admit, it is still possible to find this sort of thing in the nooks and crannies of academia. For example, one academic reviewer took exception to a line on the dust-jacket of my recent book: “Over the last twenty years, the political systems of the Western world have become increasingly divided—not between right and left, but between crazy and non-crazy,” condemning my use of the term “crazy.” Apparently it is “ableist.”
So yeah, this sort of thing still exists. What’s important is that it is no longer taken very seriously. This sort of verbal policing is the academic equivalent of a stupid pet trick – one that everyone knows how to do, and most people get over by end of undergraduate. In mixed company, using a term like “ableist” provokes a lot of eyeball-rolling, and is generally recognized as a good way of ensuring that no one outside your own very small circle will take you seriously.
There is, however, a deeper problem that has not gone away. This is the phenomenon that we refer to as “me” studies....
[S]ome people take the advice, to “follow your passion,” as an invitation to choose a thesis project that is essentially about themselves. For example, an old friend of mine in Montreal studying anthropology wrote her Master’s thesis on, I can’t remember the exact title, but it was something like, “Negotiations of difference in Quebecois-Jewish couples on the Montreal Plateau.” At the time, she was living with a Jewish guy on – you guessed it – the Plateau. So she basically wrote an MA thesis about issues in her own relationship. This is classic “me” studies....
Where “me” studies can easily become more problematic is when people decide to study, not their own lives per se, but rather their own oppression. Now of course oppression, in its various forms, is a perfectly legitimate topic of inquiry. Indeed, many of the forms of social inequality that we tried to eliminate, over the course of the 20th 1century, have proven remarkably recalcitrant in the face of our efforts....
[W]ho is best positioned to study these various forms of oppression. After all, we all live in the same world that we are studying. So who is best positioned – those who suffer from it, or those who do not? The inevitable conclusion is that neither are particularly well-positioned, since both will be biased in the direction of producing theories that are, at some level, self-serving, or self-exculpatory. Thus the best arrangement will be one in which lots of different people study these questions, then challenge one another to robust debate, which will tend to correct the various biases. This is, unfortunately, not how things usually play out. Instead, the field of study tends to attract, sometimes overwhelmingly, people who suffer from the relevant form of oppression – partly just for the obvious “me” studies reason, that the issue is greater interest to them, because it speaks to their personal ambitions and frustrations. But it can also set in motion a dynamic that can crowd out everyone who does not suffer from that particular form of oppression.
In terms of the quality of academic work, the results of this can be really disastrous. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met, who specialize in some form or another of “critical studies,” who are among the worst critical thinkers I’ve met. It’s because they lack the most important skill in critical thinking, which is self-criticism – the capacity to question one’s own view, and correct one’s own biases. And the reason that they’re so bad at it is that they have never had their views seriously challenged....
The problem is that, when you’re studying your own oppression, and you’re obviously a member of the oppressed group in question, people who are basically sympathetic to your situation, but who disagree with your specific claims, are going to be extremely hesitant to challenge you, because they don’t want to appear unsympathetic.....So you are only going to hear from two types of people – those who are sympathetic but want to take a more radical stance, and those who we might label, for convenience, “jerks,” which is to say, people who are both unsympathetic and who are, for one reason or another, immune to any consideration of what others think of them....
I don’t know how many talks I’ve been to where the question period goes this way. Someone presents a view that a solid majority of people in the room think is totally wrong-headed. But no one is willing to say things like: “I don’t think that what you are saying makes any sense” or “you have no evidence to support this contention” or “the policies you are promoting are excessively self-serving.” The questions that will be asked come in only two flavours: “I’m concerned that your analysis is unable to sustain a truly emancipatory social praxis” (i.e. “I don’t think you’re left-wing enough”), or else “you people are always whingeing about your problems” (i.e. “I’m a huge, insensitive jerk”).
Then of course, out in the hallway after the talk, people say what they really thought of the presentation – at this point, a whole bunch of entirely reasonable criticisms will get made, points that probably would have been really helpful to the presenter had they been communicated. The end result is a perfect example of what Timur Kuran refers to as belief falsification (not a great term, but Kuran’s work on this is very interesting). So basically, practitioners of “me” studies suffer from a huge handicap, when it comes to improving the quality of their work, which is that only people who are extremists of one sort or another are willing to give them honest feedback....
This dynamic may help to explain why the reaction that so many “me” studies practitioners have to criticism becomes so highly moralized. They begin to think that all criticism of their views arises from some morally suspect motive. This is what then gets referred to as “political correctness,” namely, the tendency to moralize all disagreement, so that, instead of engaging with intellectual criticism intellectually, they respond to it punitively.
At the FP blog, Jenny Saul (Sheffield) then called attention to a "great piece" by philosopher Audrey Yap (Victoria) responding to Heath; Saul singled out this passage in particular as evidence of the "greatness":
Western philosophy in general has too much in the way of “me” studies, namely straight, upper-middle-class, cis, heterosexual white men studying other straight, upper-middle-class, cis, heterosexual white men. This, as far as I can tell, has narrowed the discipline in general, much to its detriment.
This was such an obvious non-sequitur on Heath's argument, that I originally thought it had to be misquotation, but, alas, it was not. Apparently the author thinks that the philosophical systems of Descartes, Hume, and Kant are usefully explained as being about their own experience as "straight, upper-middle-class, cis, heterosexual white men." This kind of mindless identity politics is not the face that philosophy should put before the world.
UPDATE: Reader S. Wallerstein writes:
In fact, contrary to what Audrey Yap claims, traditional philosophy does not represent the point of view of heterosexual males, because so many famous philosophers were probably gay (if that term has any meaning before the mid 20th century) or did not marry (were they asexual or homosexual?). Philosophy begins with Plato, who seems not to have been heterosexual. The term "upper middle class" refers to mid 20th century and early 21th century social conditions and I doubt that anyone would call Plato "upper middle class" nor could they call Hume "upper middle class" nor Descartes nor Nietzsche nor Marx nor Engels nor Spinoza. Professor Yap should study some history and she would learn that "white, heterosexual upper-middle-class" is a category that only makes sense within the context of contemporary U.S. and Western European societies.
By the way, it's Foucault, whom I always thought was beloved by the "me studies" crowd, who points out that the term "gay" (and hence, the term "heterosexual") has no meaning before the late 19th century, that's there a history of sexuality, of how we categorize these things. I don't know if Foucault's research can always be relied on, but it's obvious that the Greeks had no idea of "heterosexuality" and "homosexuality" in our sense and it seems that in Shakespeare's time, in England at least, they didn't see things that way either.
ADDENDUM: Audrey Yap claims she doesn't understand the point of the preceding. I will help: the point was to call attention to mindless identity politics of a kind that philosophers should oppose. The point of posting Mr. Wallerstein's comment was that it made some nice points, and was funny. Prof. Yap thinks this is 'adversarial': well, yes, I was criticizing something I thought deeply misguided. Prof. Yap's reply is also "adversarial" and tries to score points.
Prof. Yap reports she believes that "everyone's social position affects their thinking." I believe that too; I think the class position of academics is, for example, quite important to understanding what they spend their time on; indeed, I think it's very helpful in understanding a lot of academic identity politics. (Even more important, with Nietzsche, I think one needs to understand the non-rational psychology of people [their cruelty, malice, envy, resentment, fearfulness etc.] to really understand the meaning of what they say and do, superficial appearances notwithstanding.) But Prof. Heath's original essay was not disputing this: indeed, he conceded that the social situation of those studying the oppressed will bias their approach, whether they are oppressor or oppressed. His point, as I read him, was that when the oppressed study themselves, they tend to do so extremely uncritically, moralizing their positions instead of defending them with evidence and arguments. Yap's reply was a non-sequitur with regard to Heath's article, though she now says she was being "sarcastic." Sarcasm only works, however, if it's responsive to what was being said.
At the FP blog (where there isn't even a link to this post!), a commenter "Susan" makes a nice point:
Audrey, I don’t think that you’re reading Leiter’s response to you correctly or charitably. Leiter called your response to the Heath piece a “non-sequitur,” and hence, he gave a philosophical reason for his implicit conclusion that your piece, whatever its independent merits, was not argumentatively relevant to the Heath piece that you took yourself to be responding to. Many top-notch articles and books in philosophy, as well as blog posts, personal conversations, etc. correctly and non-aggressively use a charge of “non-sequitur” to advance an argument. Thus, your claims that Leiter “wrote a dismissal” and that this dismissal was caused by a “preoccupation with adversariality” are simply false and unfounded, respectively. A dismissal, on the other hand, would not have provided a compelling reason for thinking that your piece was not argumentatively relevant to the Heath piece. In honesty, I agree with Leiter here that your piece does not engage with the claims made by Heath, changes the subject, and then declares a conclusion irrelevant to Heath’s to be probable or proven.
I can not resist noting, for the annals of the New Infantilism, that instead of linking to this post directly, Prof. Yap uses something called "do not link" to link to it. Yap and co-conspirators apparently believe that by doing this, they do not add to the google prominence of this blog. Alas, it's way too late for that.