Saturday, June 12, 2021

Jeffcotism (5)

Andrew Sullivan is able to help us out. It turns out that Woke isn't hypocrisy or piety or madness or Marxism. Woke, it turns out, is applied post-modernism

It seems that there are academic writers who think that everything in society is explicable in terms of those pesky power structures which bind us. How you define words; what you think is true about the world; and what politics and religion you agree with is determined by your position in the power structure. If you are powerful and privileged it is highly likely that what you define as "politically correct" or "good literature" or "fair laws" or "the right way of adapting Sandman" are the words, books, laws and Netflix boxsets that reflect and reinforce your privileged position. If you don't have power or privilege, your first move is necessarily going to be dismantling those definitions. This can fairly be called neo- or cultural- Marxism because it follows the classical Marxist view that social structures grow out of inequalities and tend to keep those equalities in place; it is "neo" because it is more interested in social inequalities rather than purely economic ones. Old Marxists thought that Church and Goverment and Media grew up in order to ensure that the rich man stayed in his castle and the poor man stayed at his gate and no-one asked why; Neo-Marxists think it is as much about ensuring that white people and straight people and especially men retain the upper hand. 

This is referred to throughout as "critical theory". It is unclear if there are a specific group of intellectuals who define themselves as critical theorists; or whether it is a neutral description of a tendency in academia; or whether this is merely a term which has been adopted by certain people to describe certain other people who they don't like. Very few critics actually call themselves Post Modernists, but post-modernism is a widely used term to describe certain actually existing trends in the arts and philosophy. Political Correctness, on the other hand, seems only ever to have been a hate-word adopted by people who didn't like it. 

Small and capital C conservatives often have a sense that Booklearned People don't like them. When I was in the Christian Union, we very frequently used the word Existentialist to refer to the general sense that clever folk mostly didn't believe in God and mostly thought life was pointless and Morality was whatever you said it was. The most important cultural figure of the 1980s, Adrian Mole, was a nihilistic existentialist. I don't know what would have happened if someone had told us about Kierkergaard. A bit later, about the same time as they discovered Political Correctness, the conservative newspaper columnists started talking about Deconstruction: apparently, universities and school teachers had discovered this theory that let them say that books meant exactly what they wanted them to mean. More recently, Post Modernist has become a popular word for talking about new things we don't agree with. I have heard evangelical Christians describing critical historical readings of the New Testement and anything which wasn't translated by King James as "post modern versions of the Bible." "New Age" did the same job for a while. 

Sullivan doesn't name any writers in particular -- he just points to a general enemy called Critical Theory. But I can see which tendencies in academic thought he is talking about -- Critical Theory is not a non-existant-thing, in the way I suspect Political Correctness always was. And some people on the Left certainly have read their post-structuralist text books. Comedy trade minister Liz Truss wasn't even completely wrong to say that some of the things she doesn't like in English education come ultimately from the ideas of Foucault. 

Sullivan's "critical theory" is clearly an exaggeration -- a parody -- of an actually existing set of ideas. 

"Truth is always and only a function of power. So, for example, science has no claim on objective truth, because science itself is a cultural construct, created out of power differentials, set up by white cis straight males."

It is possibly true that some left-wing thinkers think that all human endeavour comes with ideological baggage. The kinds of answers you get depend on the kinds of questions you ask and the kinds of data you pay attention to. Science is no more neutral than anything else, although it may try harder than some things. (A spade is a spade whether you are a feminist or a reactionary: but if you think that men are better than women you are likely to be more excited about digging up a sword than digging up a saucepan: so you can quite meaningfully talk about feminist archeology.) But it can't possibly be true to say that this new Critical thing says that there is no such thing as scientific truth. Or if it does, then it can't have the stranglehold on academia that the thinks it does: or of it does, then it can't be doing very much harm. The Woke controlled universities and businessmen who don't believe in scientific truth seem to be doing quite a good job of creating smart phones, sending probes to Venus and developing covid vaccines. And of course it isn't the Woke Left who are telling us that masks don't work, climate change is not a thing and vaccines are tied in with Bill Gates orbital mind control lasers. 

"There is no such thing as persuasion in this paradigm, because persuasion assumes an equal relationship between two people based on reason. And there is no reason and no equality. There is only power. This is the point of telling students, for example, to “check their privilege” before opening their mouths on campus. You have to measure the power dynamic between you and the other person first of all; you do this by quickly noting your interlocutor’s place in the system of oppression, and your own, before any dialogue can occur. And if your interlocutor is lower down in the matrix of identity, your job is to defer and to listen. That’s partly why diversity at the New York Times, say, has nothing to do with a diversity of ideas. Within critical theory, the very concept of a “diversity of ideas” is a function of oppression. What matters is a diversity of identities that can all express the same idea: that liberalism is a con-job. Which is why almost every NYT op-ed now and almost every left-leaning magazine reads exactly alike. "

It is true that the concept of privilege has become widely accepted. It is true that "check your privilege" has become a bit of a shibboleth or a slogan. But it is just not true that Critical Theory says that everything said by a less privileged person is right and everything said by a more privileged person is wrong; that men must always defer and listen to women; that anything a man says is automatically written off as mansplaining. 

In four years of studying English literature at school, I think I encountered two black characters. One suffocates his wife with a pillow. One is a comedy African sophisticate, who other characters in the book describe as a nigger. The characters who use the word are represented as upper crust fools, I concede, but at no point in the write-an-account-of-themes-and-effectiveness essays was the offensiveness of the word questioned. In my private reading I came across native porters and amusing gollywogs. Once in a blue moon there was something consciously Ethnic on the BBC; I remember a Jackanory story about a black boy and a cow. Lots of Cowboys and Indians of course. And, as so often, Stan Lee came to the rescue with the Black Panther, the Falcon, Robbie Robertson, Hero For Hire and Brother Voodoo. No, really. 

There is a perfectly good conversation to be had about why this was. If English Literature means "the study of literature written in England" then white writers are going to predominate: if it means "the study of literature written in English" then you would think that quite a lot of Africans, English speaking Asians and even one or two literate Americans would appear. If it is the case that if there is only a finite amount of time on the school curriculum, then saying "We are going to look at some English speaking African authors" means that some dead white men are going to drop off the list. If you are a dead white man, you might perceive this as harming you: there are suddenly less people like you on the list. Boris Johnson commissioned a report which literally framed "reading books by black people" as "banning white authors". 

Checking your privilige does not mean "as a white person I am always wrong". It does mean "perhaps there is some reason why I perceive that copy of Maya Angelou in the school library as a threat." 

Post Modern theory certainly exists; and it certainly contains beliefs and assumptions which are highly contestable. I think it is overwhelmingly unlikely that there is a single university in the country which hands students a copy of The Archeology of Knowledge and and says "this is the unarguable truth and we will test your catechism next week." One of the planks of the new Theory is that students ought to be encouraged to explore ideas for themselves and form their own conclusions: this was why Liz Truss thought Focualt was to blame for all that horrible permissive modern education. 

Sullivan doesn't come right out and say that Critical Theory is wrong . He thinks it is quite interesting and might have a good point. He doesn't give any particular examples of Critical Theory resulting in bad or wrong actions. He simply complains that it is hegemonic. No-one is allowed to think anything else. 

Considering the overwhelming whiteness of academia, the judiciary, the British and US government, bussiness, and the church, it seems overwhelmingly unlikely that there is a fixed party line that anything a black person says is automatically right and anything a white person says is automatically wrong. Presumably, the opposite has happened: black people have sometimes started to say that white people are not always right just because they are white, and that some white people don't like it. It's not that white people have been forced to sit at the back of the bus; it's just that black people are now sometimes allowed to sit at the front of it. If Critical Theory now controls absolutely everything, how is it that there are so many newspaper articles and blog posts denouncing Woke as a terrible thing? If the main problem with Woke is that it doesn't permiot dissent, why are there legislative moves to prohibit the teaching of race critical texts or race critical theories from schools and colleges? 

If one of my collegues saught special permission to leave work early on Fridays in the winter, I might be puzzled. Once I learned that was an Orthodox Jew, I would not need any further explanation: the Jewish day of rest begins when it gets dark on a Friday. Similarly, if a client refused point blank to sign his name on a form or claimed to be called John Smith despite it saying something different on his ID then knowing that he subscribes to the Freedom on the Land conspiracy theory makes his behaviour entirely explicable. If someone keeps discovering something called an Oedpus Complex in literary texts; or if they describe themselves as a Hufflepuff and one of their friends as a Ravenclaw then it helps to know that these words have special meanings in the writings of Freud and J.K Rowling, respectively. In each case, the person's beliefs required explanations and the special case helpfully clarified why they were doing what they were doing. 

If I see someone with the number 14/8 tatoo'd on his wrist, I would probably assume that it was his birthday, or maybe an army number or even the name of a pop group I haven't heard of. But I have been reliably told that 8 stands for the letter H, so 88 means H.H, as in "Heil Hitler." And a popular Klu Klux Klan slogan is often referred to by accolytes as "the 14 words". So it is at least possible that 14/8 has a meaning that is only apparent if you know the context. I used to have a nice teeshirt with a picture of a dial marked "Polarity flow +/-" and the initials WWTDD?. You either get it or you don't. 

But if someone thinks that "slavery was bad" and that "bad things should not be celebrated" then no further explanation is necessary. Slavery was bad and the celebration of bad things is bad: so obviously so that the burden of proof lies entirely on the side of the person who thinks that seventeenth century slave traders and confederate generals can and should be lauded as heroes. I do not say that the counter-case cannot be made. I do not say that "any memorial, once erected, must never be demolished" is an impossible brief. If the question was "memorials, even racist ones, should only be removed through due process of law, never through unilateral action and mass protest" then I would be prepared to speak either for or against the motion. I merely say that those of us who think that Colston was not the best and wisest male person ever born ion Bristol; and that the hero worship of man whose fame rests entirely on having run the company which owned the monopoly on buying and selling black people have a prima facie case. We don't need to say "this otherwise inexplicable view is explained once you discover they subscribe to a bizarre ideology called Woke". 

We don't even need to say "you may think they are pulling down a statue of a slaver, but to those in the know, pullling down racist statues has a scary, secret meaning, like 14/8". The pulling down of the statue represented the fact that white people buying and selling black people was a bad thing; this represented the fact that the oppression of black people by white people in the present day is also a bad thing. You may think that black people are not oppressed by white people; you may think that structural racism is not a thing; you may think that only studying books by white authors about white characters is fine; and that you are only a citizen of Bristol if you can prove that your mother lived in Bristol for the last three generation. These are arguable points. No light whatsoever is shone on the question by saying "Many of the people on the demo which removed the statue had a quality called Woke; Woke derives from something called critical race theory." An idea is not refuted by saying that it is the kind of idea which people who believe in ideas of that kind might believe. 

It is true, in that case, that everyone agrees that Colston had to go. The schools set up in his name agreed. The school that was indirectly related to one he personally founded agreed. The theatre agreed. Both the pubs agreed. The Merchant Venturers and the Dolphin Society who originally put up the bloody statue agreed. 

Everyone agrees that slavery was bad; everyone agrees that Colston was a slaver. So it follows that you are not allowed to think that it was and he wasn't. We will give it a silly name. And we will say, over and over again, until you are bored to death, that the real danger, the threat to the continuation of society, is not the statue. It is the fact that you are prohibited from not being in favour of removing it. 

Sullivan is, in fact, adopting the tactics we saw Graham promoting a week or so back. He has spotted a tendency he doesn't like. He has given it a name. Instead of telling us what he doesn't like about it, he has simply claimed that "they" have absolute power and that dissent has been forbidden. Don't say "white supremacy does not exist". Say "you are not allowed to say that white supremacy doesn't exist; and not being allowed to say that white supremacy doesn't exist is the really serious form of oppression." 

Critical Race theory may or may not be a thing. The Roots of Wokeness is sheer Jeffcotism.

[Unrevised final draft]


Mike Taylor said...

"a picture of a dial marked "Polarity flow +/-" and the initials WWTTD?"

Who is this Toctor person?

Andrew Rilstone said...

I hate you. :)