29 April 2013

Sometimes, the mask slips a little. Sometimes, it comes off.

The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.-Abraham Lincoln
Years ago,  aprominant feminist literary critic came to my university to give a presentation on the current state of Shakespeare studies.  I attended, as Shakespeare was part of my field, and also because she was one of the few feminists whose work I found interesting, and for whom I had some respect.

The respect, I am sorry to say, did not last the presentation.  She hadn't come prepared and gave a hodgepodge of meandering stream of consciousness, tied together with a theme that we are approaching a utopia wherein we will be tolerant of a multiplicity of critical practices, as long as those critical practices are tolerant of a multiplicity of critical practices in their turn.  It was time, she said, that we have a an "awareness of the political investment of our critical practices." 

I was the last one to ask her a question in the period that followed.  "What," I asked.  "Is the political investment in an awareness of political investment?"  The question is simple enough: if we should be aware of the political assumptions underpinning our readings and interpretations, let's begin with the assumptions underpinning that idea itself.  Why is it worthwhile to understand the underpinnings of our practices?  What is at stake?

She had no answer, and tried to fluff me off, first by explaining that "Utopia" meant both "no place" and "good place" (I told her I was familiar with Thomas More and his puns) and that she was only hoping that one day we could reach the good place that is nowhere.  I told her this was no answer, and pressed her.  It was around now that I realized people were glaring at me.  I kept on at her, and tried to get her to explain her other piont: why is it tolerance to tolerate the tolerant?  How is it tolerance to tolerate only those who share our own basic principals?  I gave her an example where I asked to explain what we, as educators, should do when confronted with a student who did not want a multiplicity of Shakespeares, but wanted only one, so they could write their essay, answer their exam questions and go home with their sheepskin.  I was interrupted by another student;  "That's their problem," she huffed.

The conference was ended at that point, and I never got my answer, nor was I allowed to answer that other student with my next question:  How tolerant are we if we dismiss those who disagree with us as having a "problem"? 

These were some of the isues I ran into constantly during my time at university, particularly in the post grad years.  Intolerant tolerance, and those who disagree with us have a problem.  My colleagues and I had a severe superiority complex, and thought that humanity needed our firm and wise hand to guide it forward.  It was for their own good, really, that we would help people learn to tolerate each other, and to work beyond their problems. 

I am sad to say that this attitude is still very much alive in academia today.  First, here's Steven Hawking.

“We’re in an era where we can control machines with our thoughts,” began the questioner, so besides Hawking’s motorized wheelchair, what else would he like to use that for?
“What I’d really like to control is not machines, but people,” the professor responded.

Now here's Mike Flynn discussing some Tenured professor from Duke who is all agog with his plans for post humanity.

The buzzword among cognoscenti is “post-person,” defined in a much-cited 2009 Philosophy and Public Affairs paper by tenured Duke professor Allen Buchanan, as those “who would have a higher moral status than that possessed by normal human beings” (emphasis original). Buchanan admits crafting chromosomal ├╝bermenschen “might be profoundly troubling from the perspective of the unenhanced (the mere persons) who would no longer enjoy the highest moral status, as they did when there were only persons and nonpersons (‘lower animals’).”
Academia has transformed itself into a form of the old heresy of gnosticism, the privelege of knowledge in the hands of some, who get to decide for the rest what they should be told, and what should be held back from them, and how much freedom they should have, and what decisions they are not empowered or priveleged to make.  And it is expanding, as academics continually come up with new reasons why the world needs their interventions.

Take this example: A few years ago, some clown came up with the term "heteronormativity"- or the act of heterosexuals making their way of life seem normal.  (How it is that a lifestyle that is common amongst 85% of the population is not normal is something that only an academic can truly understand.)  Heteronormativity is insidious.  It is everywhere.  It is in everything.  Those purveyors of heteronormativity don't even know they're doing it.  Or Do They? (cue sinister music)  At any rate, now that a new problem has been identified, obviously Something Must Be Done About It.  So now you have my music teacher, who has sung for various opera companies in the past, telling me the story of a director he met recently who believes that, as a gay man, it is his duty to put a gay slant on every work he directs, just balance all that heterowhatchmacallit, doncha know?  My teacher, who, as a man who has worked in the fine arts field for decades, and thus has years of experience working with gay individuals and who is very tolerant of them and their lifestyles, was outraged.  "What a slap in the face," he said.  "Imagine being a Puccini, or a Verdi, and writing an opera, and this guy decides it doesn't matter what you were trying to write, or what you were trying to say, because it is now a gay story with a gay message."

The academics I knew pointed at the old ways of times gone by, or the ways of some bugbear they invented and told us how bad they all were.  Those people were obsessed with power, we were told, and control.  We weren't going to be like that, except that we were exactly like that.  because we said they loved power, we loved it too, so that we might take it from them and use it.  For good, of course.  They were intolerant, but we would be tolerant of all- all who thought like us, and never anyone who thought like them.  We would be tolerant, or something, and we would help the world be a better place.  Whether the world wanted our vision of better or not.  There was an old saying:  Look out world, here we come!  Indeed.  Look out world.  They are coming. 

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