There are a few things that I get that other people don’t. If this weren’t so I wouldn’t be of much use to them, now would I? So no, since it’s not hubris, no apology warranted, so none forthcoming.
And then there are a few things other people get but I don’t. For example, I don’t get homophobia. Never have. Many if not most non-homophobes are proud of their non-homophobia. I’m not. I’m a little embarrassed by it, because it’s not that the non-homophobe gets something the homophobe doesn’t. It’s that the non-homophobe doesn’t get something the homophobe does get.
And then there are things I get that everyone else gets too, but some of them only pretend not to get. For example, racism. Look, it’s not rocket science. The people I’ve always hung out with look a certain way, and I’ve come to know what to expect from them. These people don’t look like them, so I don’t know what to expect from them. Simple rule of survival: if you don’t know what to expect from something, stay away from it.
So notwithstanding I totally get racism, the degree to which I’m not a racist is because I have hung out with people who don’t look like the people I’ve always hung out with. And what I’ve discovered is that the theme song from Cheers is right. “People are all the same.” But I only know this because I’ve had the opportunity to know it. People who haven’t are just going with what they know.
So what’s unseemly about racism is not the racism itself, but the gratuitous hostility that sometimes accompanies it. If we feel ourselves entitled to be hostile to Moslems or blacks or First Nations or whomever, by parity of reasoning we should recognize their entitlement to be hostile to us. But we don’t. We think their hostility is unwarranted. Why? Because we know what to expect from ourselves, so why don’t they?
Here’s another example of pretending not to understand what one understands perfectly well. Suppose I told you I’m into sex with ants. My guess is you’re going to think I’m joking, because you can’t imagine what sex with an ant would be. And if I told you I’m serious, you’d just be befuddled. But if you say you don’t understand how anyone could be into sex with young children, you’re lying, because you’re not the least befuddled. You might disapprove. But if so you’d be disapproving in precisely the way it would be odd for you to say you disapprove of someone having sex with ants. Disapproval in the ant case seems out of place. But it’s not out of place in the pedophilia case precisely because you do understand it. That understanding doesn’t make you a pedophile. But it does mean that if you enter a discussion about pedophilia, you know what you’re talking about, which you quite literally wouldn’t if you truly didn’t understand it.
Change of subject, but you’ll see in a minute that it’s not. I had a lover once who wanted me to hit her, and I don’t mean a playful slap. I’m not a prude. I’m of the view that when it comes to sex, it’s whatever pleases one’s lover. But I couldn’t go there, and so I didn’t. Why? Because I knew something about how things like this tend to escalate. And that’s not the direction in which I wanted my sexuality to develop. What this shows, I submit, is that we know ourselves well enough not to trust ourselves.
What’s this got to do with the subject at hand? Just this. I have a colleague who’s a 9/11-Truther, for which I mock him mercilessly. He’s used to this, so he doesn’t get angry. But he’s invited me on innumerable occasions to do a little research before I beak off about something about which I readily confess I know absolutely nothing. I invariably decline, and for any number of reasons, each perfectly defensible. I don’t have the time, and even if I did I don’t think the truth about 9/11 really matters, any more than the truth about the Exodus or the Alamo matters. But the one reason I don’t share with him – or anyone else for that matter – is that I know myself well enough not to go there. What I know about myself is that I’m hardwired to follow the evidence wherever it takes me. And what if it takes me to where there be dragons? Then I’d be as much as a nut case as he is. And I have better things to do with my life than spend it being another nut case.
My 9/11-Truther, in turn, has a friend who’s a Holocaust denier. When she went public with this she went from being a highly respected and valued member of her community to a social pariah. She’s done a helluva lot of research into the Holocaust. I’ve done absolutely none. If I did I have no idea what I’d find. No, that’s not true. I do know what I’d find. I’d find that one question would lead to another, and in no time at all I’d be instantly pulled down into the quicksand of trying to reconstruct what did happen and what didn’t. But the very act of even looking at the evidence would get me immediately disinvited to every dinner party in town.
So as long as, and only so long as, I don’t look, I’m safe. I’m safe socially, and I’m safe morally. I’m safe morally because I have the same perfectly defensible reasons not to question the Holocaust as I do not to question 9/11. I don’t have the time, and even if I did I don’t think the truth about the Holocaust matters, any more than does the truth about the Exodus or the Alamo. But what makes me just a tad uncomfortable with myself is that if I didn’t have these perfectly defensible reasons not to look, I still wouldn’t look because I couldn’t trust myself not to find what I wouldn’t want to find.
To 9/11 and the Holocaust, let me add yet a third example. I know dick all about anthropogenic global warming (AGW). I don’t think my True Believer colleagues do either, but that’s another story. Because I’m so kneejerkedly averse to reaching conclusions about anything too hastily, I worry that, not unlike Buridan’s Ass, I’d be frozen in perpetual agnosticism. But agnosticism about AGW, not unlike agnosticism about the Holocaust, is taken as AGW denial. And AGW denial would get me disinvited to the same dinner parties to which Holocaust denial would get me disinvited.
So when my colleagues rant about AGW – and God help me they do – to delude myself into thinking I’m maintaining my integrity, I nod knowingly but remain silent. And the silence, I tell myself, is not hypocrisy because I do not hold a contrary opinion about which I’m holding my tongue. Look, I tell myself, I don’t watch hockey. When my bar buddies are prattling on about who’s going to win the Stanley Cup this year, by not joining in I’m hardly being a hypocrite. Why then am I a hypocrite by not making a display of my ignorance and indifference to AGW?
And yet like a hypocrite is exactly how I feel. Why? I think it’s because I subconsciously suspect that agnosticism about the Holocaust or AGW is a substantive third position, a position which can be defended, and so should be advanced, just as asserting or denying the Holocaust, or asserting or denying AGW, are substantive positions that should be advanced and defended. I think I think I’m a hypocrite because I hold a substantive position on these issues that I’m declining to advance because I’m afraid of being disinvited to dinner parties if I do.
The fact that agnosticism is not denialism is irrelevant. Even my colleagues who are supposed to know the difference between “It’s not the case that S believes that p” and “S believes that not-p”, just lose the distinction when p is their Precious. So I can at least console myself in citing their stupidity as necessitating my hypocrisy. Barry Goldwater once remarked that “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Well, neither is hypocrisy in the face of stupidity.
I wouldn’t be blogging about this if it weren’t a serious problem in my workplace. Less so for me. I’m tenured and near the end of my career. But I worry about our students. The abuse of academic authority is worse than that of the clergy diddling with our kids. Most of these kids, though not all, are not scarred for life. But our students are damaged for their entire careers. What they’re supposed to be learning is how to speak truth to power. Instead they’re learning how to be Uriah Heaps. When and only when they think it’s safe will they then strike a blow to recoup their dignity. But they’ll do so by striking out at their own students, perpetuating this pattern of abuse.
Here’s what I’d like to see. If a student – or anyone else for that matter – is yet to be convinced of your Precious, it’s not because she’s stupid. It’s because you’ve yet to make your case.
Except, of course, in the case at hand. It can’t be because I’ve yet to make my case, so it must be because my colleagues really are stupid.
Categories: Angst, Social and Political Philosophy
Yes, I’m late to the party, and I’m glad I finally found the invite.