June 13th, 2016
Academia has undergone an astounding revolution in the last half century: Whole disciplines have replaced their original vocation, the quest for truth, with the diametric opposite – a prohibition on truth.
By Gadi Taub
(First Published in English in Haaretz, Dec. 20, 2015)
When all Narratives are Created Equal
A talented student of mine in a screenwriting workshop vented her frustration with her anthropology degree in a short screenplay she wrote. It was about a postmodern anthropology professor named Relativa Strauss (in Hebrew this actually sounds like a name) who sends a student, Dr. Blindman, on an expedition to the “Bibisi Islands” to study the pot-making ritual of a secluded indigenous tribe.
But it turns out the pots were bought at IKEA, the tribe was faked and the whole expedition was an elaborate experiment on the young anthropologist. The screenplay ends with Blindman, who has now seen the postmodern light, lecturing on the experiment conducted on himself.
Behind him, one can see his PowerPoint presentation, entitled “Anthropology as Subversion of Self: The Researcher as Object of Study, the Field as Metaphor, the Research as Redress.” The last line of the screenplay is the first line of Blindman’s lecture: “We are proud to present the self-alienation paradigm.”
If you want to understand U.S. President Barack Obama’s verbal gymnastics to avoid calling jihadi terrorism by name, or the rise of Jeremy Corbyn to the top of the British Labour Party, or the general reluctance of European leaders to admit there may be a problem with self-segregated Muslim communities in their countries, this screenplay isn’t a bad place to start.
We popularly call these tendencies political correctness and ascribe them to the West’s guilty conscience over colonialism, imperialism and oppressive treatment of Others and minorities (on racial, gender or sexual-preference grounds). That PC has more to do with tending to one’s guilt feelings than with stable moral principles is fairly obvious by now.
But if we needed a reminder, the National Women’s Studies Association in the United States gave us one. It recently voted to join the academic boycott of Israel on grounds of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. It didn’t occur to the association to boycott, say, Saudi Arabia, whose human-rights record is incomparably worse, not to mention its treatment of women. Of course, the Saudis are the Other, and Jews had the misfortune to be Others in the worst of times and to turn into Us at a time when that’s less and less fashionable.
But to fully understand the trend we have to look beyond politics to the intellectual foundations behind it, because the last half century has seen a revolution in academia nothing short of astounding. Whole disciplines have replaced their original vocation, the quest for truth, with the diametric opposite: an explicit prohibition on telling the truth.
This isn’t an institutional prohibition, of course. It grew out of a philosophical trend dedicated to the rejection of truth, reality and universal values like human rights. It’s called postmodernism, and its PR is good enough to conceal some of its more dire consequences.
The misleading way such views present themselves gives them a democratic aura. Once, we are told, we believed in objective truth. This justified us in imposing our views as absolutes on Others, and then in ruthlessly exploiting them. But now that we have matured and learned that there is no objective truth, only points of view, we have become more modest and tolerant.
Ironically all this was immensely magnified not by American doubts about American values but by America’s supreme confidence in them. Unable to imagine sincere antidemocratic beliefs, Americans especially found it persuasive that an attack on the universal aspirations of liberalism would make us more liberal, not less. We would simply extend equality from people to values, thus becoming sensitive not just to the political rights of Others and minorities but also to their cultures, self-esteem and moral views.
I’ll leave aside the glaring contradiction between equality among people and equality among values. Giving equal standing to the values of those who believe women are property does not promote equality. This should be obvious. Less obvious is that this ostensibly pluralistic worldview has been built on the imperative to deny what our eyes see.
Here’s an example of how this logic works, from a field I’ve already mentioned, women’s studies. It’s not enough, explains Joan Wallach Scott, a leading historian of gender, to write about women based on the categories of their time, say, as workers (or mothers or citizens), because this does not “effectively change established definitions of those categories.”
Thus the historian’s aim cannot be limited to “uncovering new information about women,” because this will only perpetuate past gender relations. Since “history’s representations of the past help construct gender for the present,” the historian’s task must change. He or she, it seems, must be faithful not to past facts but to future goals. Rather than describe the past, presumably, one must write narratives that consciously subvert it in the service of current agendas. Because the aim isn’t truth, it’s empowerment.
Foucault Said So
Views like these thrive, of course, under the assumption that there is no such thing as truth in the first place. But the result is that few students of gender get a reliable picture of the past, even of the history of feminism itself. Things that don’t promote empowerment are just dropped.
When I studied about gender at an American university – as it happens, I had the privilege of attending a class in Joan Scott’s seminar – I heard much about progressive pioneers of feminism such as Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who also opposed slavery. But I don’t recall any mention of the largest women’s organization at the end of the 19th century during the struggle for the 19th Amendment – the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
This was a reactionary, often racist, movement that wanted the vote for women so they could legislate sins like alcohol consumption out of existence. Since some of its leaders were content to see lynchings go on undisturbed in the South, mentioning the temperance union does not, of course, help the project of empowerment. So better to forget about it.
But if describing the world as it is is forbidden, because it presumably perpetuates its oppressive power relations, how must historians, sociologists, anthropologists or students of gender go about their work? Such postmodern academics rarely admit openly, as did Michel Foucault (when he was pushed), that what they recommend is the writing of useful fictions. Rather, they usually say that instead of describing the world, they have turned to analyzing how our discourse constructs it. We should avoid (the illusion of) reality and focus instead on “deconstructing” our means of perceiving it.
In this way the study of the Orient, for example, has turned into a virtual prohibition on studying it. We are told that Oriental studies have traditionally put West and East on two sides of a metaphorical microscope. The West has “constructed itself” as a “scientific subject” peering through the lenses of faux scientific objectivity at an indigenous “object” squirming helplessly – agencyless, as it were – on “our” glass slate. What we really should be doing is taking apart the microscope. In short, our own discourse, not the Other, is the proper subject of study.
Consider Edward Said. Said’s 1978 book “Orientalism” has nothing at all to say about the Arab and Muslim world, only about its descriptions by the West. Each assertion about the East is evaluated in relation not to the East but to the politics of the observer.
We shouldn’t ask “Is it true?” but rather what political interest lay behind saying it. Research is judged not against the world but against the researcher. We shouldn’t say the East brutalizes women, not because it isn’t true, but because it’s unflattering to the East and is therefore a suspected prelude to oppressing it.
Said was criticized by postmodernists more pedantic than himself. Homi Bhabha, for example, is even stricter in his prohibition on the truth (which does not exist). So in his view even Said’s depiction of depictions, i.e., Said’s account of Western texts about the Orient, is suspect because it duplicates, and so helps solidify, the very power relations it purports to resist.
Thus according to Bhabha we should insert more – how should one put it? – ambiguity into our descriptions. In simple English, we should depict the Orient in more flattering terms so as to change power relationships – apparently even retroactively, if need be.
Stripped of its obfuscating rhetoric about “radical epistemology” and the “deconstruction of categories,” the whole enterprise suddenly looks simple and crude. When I was a young journalist for Army Radio, I interviewed a prominent multicultural postmodern intellectual on a late-night talk show. Like many of his colleagues he said the Zionist establishment discriminated against Jews from Muslim countries, held racist views about them, and coercively replaced their identity with a Western-style national one. I don’t remember disagreeing about the fact of discrimination, though I think I said that despite it all, those immigrant groups were never against a Jewish national identity.
Deserting One’s Vocation
But this is not what stonewalled the discussion. That happened only when I asked if my interlocutor believed that Israel should have respected the patriarchal family structure that immigrants from Muslim countries brought with them. He called the question itself “racist.” To him, we are not to say such things regardless of their truth or falsehood because they do not portray an oppressed group in a good enough light.
This is how the study of the social world has morphed into the imperative to look away from it. Whole disciplines have become a continuous effort to purify their own discourse. They have turned inward.
This is what anthropologist Clifford Geertz called “epistemological hypochondria.” It is also a form of academic narcissism. Since there is no real world, only discourses about it, and since academics are the producers of discourse, they have elevated themselves to the status of Creators. And after ascribing such a sublime role to themselves, they grew worried and got stuck in the ritual of washing their hands lest the new reality they are to create will somehow be tinged by the old.
But what academics did is much less important than what they stopped doing. They have deserted their vocation. Their obsession with purifying their own conscience has pulled the rug out from under a serious study of society, which is the basis for any attempt at reforming it.
The price of this neglect is steep. Many of the current elites – politicians, journalists, jurists, authors and intellectuals – have been brought up in this stifling academic environment and believe it proper, even noble, to prefer their own sense of righteousness to actual responsibility for the lives of others. Neglect has been crowned as openness and tolerance.
For fear of Islamophobia we should not criticize the self-segregation of Muslim communities in the West. For fear of being labeled racist we should not consider restrictions on immigration. For fear of echoing something that might be construed as misogyny we should not discuss the abuse of domestic-violence complaints in divorce trials. For fear of damaging a student’s self-esteem we should not ask if he needs extracurricular help with mathematics. For fear of being suspected of supporting the settlements we should not mention the flagrant anti-Semitism of Palestinian schoolbooks.
Above all, we should never say that upholding Western values like universal human rights, even by force in some cases, is sometimes desperately needed by those many Others who suffer oppression, violence, terror and genocide.
Ask Nadia Murad Basee Taha, a Yazidi woman who recently testified before the UN Security Council about her unimaginably brutal treatment at the hands of the Islamic State. She pleaded with the council to intervene. I doubt that Taha would agree with gender theorist Judith Butler that jihadi movements like, say, Hamas, should be considered part of the “global left.”
Some observers – many in Israel – believe that now that terrorism has struck Paris and California, the West will wake up and realize that democratic values need active defense. But it’s doubtful whether such optimism is warranted. When the democracies’ immune systems are so slow to wake up from their beauty sleep, democracy’s enemies fill the vacuum. When the political left and center are so preoccupied with cleansing their own conscience, the extreme right rises in their stead.
This is true in the international arena, where reactionary powers like Russia and Iran are filling the void that the Obama administration has left in the Middle East. Meanwhile, in domestic politics, people like Marine Le Pen or Donald Trump are poised to reap the sour fruits of public fears.
Those who have been so careful not to criticize the Other because of their inflated fears of being labeled bigots have opened the door to real bigots. It’s doubtful whether they have rendered good services either to themselves or the Others they proclaim so loudly to care about.