Saturday, March 14, 2015

Cliques Nix Politics

Tom Bartlett:

Ancient quarreling aside, the over­arching theme of the Bailey episode for Dreger was whether or not a scholar should be allowed to present evidence for a theory that some find profoundly threatening and deeply offensive. The critiques of Bailey often revolved around whether his book was "invalidating to transwomen" — which seemed like a separate question from whether the argument itself had any merit, a question that continues to be debated.

In her new book, Dreger also empathizes with Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer, authors of A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion (2001). They argue that rape is motivated at least in part by sexual attraction, a view that diverges from the widely held notion that it is solely about violence and control. Palmer and Thornhill see their work as contributing to an understanding of why rapists rape and therefore, ultimately, of help to victims. Their many irate detractors see them as rape apologists. What started as science devolved into name-calling and death threats.

..."I very much identify as a liberal feminist," she says. "That said, I get extremely impatient with liberals who want to rail about Republicans who won’t look at facts and then you get people who are making decisions based on identity and not on the facts. To me, that’s just a perversion of liberalism." That stance wins her fans among a crowd she’s not sure she wants on her side. "Believe me, it makes me uncomfortable that my last 20 Twitter followers are right-wingers," she says.

Yet she worries that partisan team-playing — making sure the progressive cool kids like you — is a hindrance to reasoned dialogue on tough topics. "I think we get lazy sometimes, and we let our politics rule what we’re doing, and as academics we can’t do that," she says. "There’s this whole branch of academe in which simply telling your story is taken as some sort of data beyond just telling your story. To me it’s just telling your story."

If I had the stature or the ability to write a Letters to a Young Foolosopher sort of book, I would center it around this simple advice: Be suspicious of narratives. Not reflexively contrarian — don't argue just for the sake of it. Automatically taking the opposite side of any given argument is just another way of letting other people set the terms of your thinking for you. Not nihilistically paranoid, either — don't assume that anyone speaking of "truth" and "objectivity" is just cynically concealing a lust for power and dominance. That sort of nihilism is a comforting meta-narrative itself, a way of shrugging off the burden of weighing, judging and measuring each new set of circumstances. Just be suspicious. For various reasons, from biological to social to individual, it's very easy for us to notice patterns and submit to their internal logic. Like jogging through the woods, it's natural to notice a clear trail and let that determine our direction. Narratives are both indispensable and unstable, and thus require constant vigilance.

When Michael Bérubé famously joked about people who "used to be a Democrat, but thanks to 9/11, (are) now outraged by Chappaquiddick", he was basically talking about the power of narratives, the need to fit this particular experience into a preexisting story. Pace Bérubé, though, I don't think you need Marxist theorists to make sense of the phenomenon; I think it can be explained by the cognitive phenomenon of chunking. It may seem paradoxical at first glance, but it's actually easier, given the way our brains work, to substitute one grand narrative for another, like switching railroad tracks, than it is to rethink individual principles piece by piece, which can be frustrating and time-consuming. In other words, confronted with a traumatic shock like 9/11, many liberals might have felt disoriented and confused over principles that they had formerly taken for granted. But rather than think slowly and methodically about whether their personal pacifism had been too reflexive, or whether liberalism as a whole had let multicultural dogma blind itself to a serious threat, they responded by wiping the intellectual slate clean (simplicity!) and replacing their former worldview with another one, fully-formed (more simplicity!). Crisis averted, and at minimal cognitive cost. They might be wrong about a whole bunch of different things now, but at least they feel comfortable again.

But that, right there at the crisis point when you're not sure what to think or who to believe, is where I would suggest you need to be suspicious and resist the urge to seek comfort among allies. Having emerged, blinking, into the sunlight, don't be so eager to turn right back into the shadows. Take your sweet time, don't be afraid to be left behind by those who have already made up their minds, and consider what makes this experience unique before deciding it's merely a reflection of something else. Many of the people who would laugh knowingly at Bérubé's witty formulation are the same ones who favor a different narrative, in which they are too sophisticated, rational and objective to ever fall prey to such groupthink, and the cycle begins again, to the delight of whichever trickster god gave us the gift of narrative to begin with.

There may not be any singular, objective truth about the world to be found. There may even be several, or many, irreducible truths, all in permanent conflict with each other. Still, using the general concept as a lodestar seems to be beneficial, especially when, as Dreger has experienced, up becomes down and ally becomes enemy. Concentrate on finding as much truth as you can, don't be in any hurry to assemble it into an overarching narrative, and don't be intimidated by those who use guilt, anger and shame to prevent you from inconveniencing their own narratives. Doing so may marginalize you in favor of those who are always ready to put politics ahead of truth-seeking, but I'd hope you find that a fair price to pay.