Self-righteous professors have spawned self-righteous students and unleashed them into the public square”Russell Jacoby writing in the Tablet.
A provocative article that covers similar territory to that discussed a previous post A Marxist Take on Woke has just appeared appeared in Tablet Magazine. Though the author is not, to the best of my knowledge a Marxist, he reaches some similar conclusions to Swedish scholar Malcom Kyeyune.
Tablet Magazine focusses on Jewish affairs and is not part of my regular reading. However, it came to my attention when Jerry Coyne, who writes the blog Why Evolution is True, summarised the key points (here). To read the original article in Tablet Magazine click here or on the image below.
Russell Jacoby starts his story in the 1960s when his generation of intellectuals held sway in University humanities departments in US. He tells us that many of them were leftists, Marxists, Maoists and anarchists. They would shut down the campus protesting the Vietnam war, free speech or equality. Fortunately for wider society, they never really left the campus and became graduate students, assistant professors and professors. At the same time, faculties were enlarging and more students were enrolling, so the University sector could mop up this cadre of otherwise unemployable humanities graduates.
By the 1980’s, Russell tells us, these leftist academics could fill aeroplanes and conference suites. Where earlier intellectuals wrote for the public these intellectuals did not, they wrote for themselves and their public impact was limited by their obscure jargon and terrible writing. For example, Judith Butler won a bad-writing contest for the following paragraph- I have no idea why it means either.
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.
Do not think that this kind of nonsense is confined to the US. Take the case of Emma Renold who is Professor of Childhood Studies at Cardiff University. She is Judith Butler’s equal when when it comes to writing high-falutin gobbledygook. See here, here and here.
The problem came in the 1990s when expansion of the University sector, in the US at least, stopped and enrolment in humanities courses plummeted. To quote from the article, ‘the hordes who took courses in critical pedagogy, insurgent sociology, gender studies, radical anthropology, Marxist cinema theory, and postmodernism could no longer hope for university careers.’
At this point, the complacency of those of a more conservative (small c) disposition began to be exposed. They had thought it wasn’t a problem if radicals took over English literature, gender studies and sociology departments because the contagion would be quarantined, while they took care of the rest of the country. Instead, hordes of graduates from ‘studies’ departments had to find jobs outside academia. Some found jobs in sectors where they could do no harm, they became baristas, Amazon staffers or even joined the armed forces. The more intellectually ambitious, however, became writers for newspapers such as the NYT or the Guardian, worked for charities and NGOs and found their way into Human Resources departments. Into these roles they brought their social justice jargon, and talk of hegemony, misogyny, patriarchy, white privilege, fragility and microgressions went mainstream and poisoned discourse in important areas of public life.
The problem with this jargon, in the words of Russell Jacoby, is that it appears to ‘defend the defensible.’ After all, who wouldn’t be in favour of diversity. Except that in their vision of diversity each individual must epitomise the whole identity group and their idea of diversity only focusses on visible group markers such as sex and skin colour. Meanwhile, cognitive diversity or diversity of economic class are not considered important. Obviously, it is not diversity at all if all skin colours are represented according the their frequency in the population, but they all think the same way.
Similarly, with misogyny, who would defend that? But misogyny has come to mean something much wider than the definition most people carry in their heads. Many feminists deny that there can be any such thing as a good faith objection to any aspect of feminism and all opinions that conflict with orthodox liturgy are labelled misogynist. It has become a tool for shutting down dissenting viewpoints.
Meanwhile, by linguistic sleight of hand, the opposite charge of misandry can be negated. The ‘woke’ define racism as prejudice + power so that people of colour can not be racist against white people. In the same way, women can not be sexist or misandrist because they have redefined words. They define prejudice against men (misandry) as power + prejudice. They claim the power relation between men and women is uniformly one directional so women can not be misandrist. All adults of normal intelligence who have not been indoctrinated by Critical Social Justice know that is nonsense. However, in the UK activist barrister Charlotte Proudman and Jessica Ringrose have advanced exactly this kind self-serving of argument.
Another exhibit in Russell Jacoby’s attack self-righteous professors is Catherine MacKinnon who is an influential feminist Law Professor at the University of Michigan. She argues against the sort of free speech encapsulated in the American First Amendment because, according her, it is used to support dominant power groups. Who gets to decide who these dominant power groups are? People like Catherine Mackinnon of course. The problem with this argument is that it reduces society to the complexity of an AA battery with men always at the positive pole and women always on the negative pole. In truth, it is just another rhetorical device used to suppress dissenting opinions.
In some ways I think the article is an oversimplification. I am sure some people who would formerly have found jobs in academia have been forced out into the wider world where they have spread their poison. However, there are other forces at play. For example, journalism has become an occupation of university graduates whereas in former times over 50% of journalists had come up the hard way. Reporting on births, deaths and industrial accidents for provincial newspapers for years before ever writing for national daily newspapers, they new something about the world and didn’t need to regurgitate the viewpoint of tenured professors. Not only are journalists almost exclusively university graduates but they are drawn from a narrow range of intellectual disciplines. Look, for example, at the over representation of English Literature graduates (see posts Lit Crit Femsplainers and Diversity in the media.)
It was always the intention of some radical professors to produce activists rather than rounded and free thinking scholars. It was also their wish that these activists should go out into the world to ‘spread the word.’ So rather than fleeing an shrinking island of academic irrelevance these activists were going out into the world right the imagined wrongs of social justice ideology as they had been instructed to do.
Finally, it may be an oversimplification to place all the blame on university professors. Eric Kaufman in study published by Policy Exchange has shown that students may already be ‘woke’ before they ever reach University. Belief in power structures, structural racism and patriarchy may have been imparted by schoolteachers and the wider media before students ever get to higher education. For a flavour of this evidence the link for the Policy Exchange report is here.
So, overall a useful and provocative article, but something of an oversimplification perhaps. The rise of performative social justice posturing is likely to be multifactorial and that is why we have to fight it on many fronts.