Not unlike the Indigenous Studies Department, Women and Gender Studies at the University of Lethbridge makes no bones about its commitment to social justice. But on its website it also promises that its students “will develop critical thinking skills”. By this I take it to mean the skill required to critique patriarchy. Fair enough. But does it also include the skill to critique that critique? I worry that it does not. And if it does not, then “critical thinking skills”, as used in its website, is a misnomer. What it really means is the ability to talk a particular talk.
The ability to talk a particular talk is not to be disparaged. TV evangelists have it. As do Rush Limbaugh, Ben Shapiro, and Vince Shlomi. Barack Obama has it too. So did Martin Luther King Jr. So if the objective is to equip the social justice warrior for battle, learning to talk the talk, not unlike learning to march in unison, is what boot camp pretty much has to be about.
But my worry is that the social justice warrior, who’s bereft of any real critical thinking skills, is going to be defeated in battle. Defeated not by her equally ill-trained interlocutor. That just results in cross-screeching, to which the rest of us eventually just tune out. Rather she’ll be defeated by the properly trained critic, the one who can call her out on her bluster without just blustering himself.
And the proof of my worry is that it’s happening. The pushback was inevitable. But it’s recruited some by no means shoddy minds. The #MeToo movement is rapidly approaching its best before date. The clash between feminists and trans-activists is embarrassing both lobbies. The difference between the good ol’ boy and the social scientist is that the good ol’ boy doesn’t care about the pay gap, whereas the social scientist will challenge its existence. And so on.
The idea that the social justice warrior-in-training just needs to learn how to parry each thrust won’t do. She needs to learn how to think. And that includes to think about what she’s being taught. She needs to think about the undefined concepts that are being deployed in her discipline, especially the concept of ‘justice’. She needs to think about the words, like ‘weaponized’, being used to dismiss the words of her critics. In short, she needs a degree in analytic philosophy. And she needs to earn that degree before she studies women and gender.
But analytic philosophy is precisely what some women and gender studies professors are convinced has itself been in the service of the oppression of women. If students were allowed, let alone encouraged, to study philosophy, they worry, they’d be blinded to their own oppression. And so there we have it. Two ships passing in the night, either ignoring each other entirely, or lobbing feckless salvos into the darkness.
I work around this by forewarning my True Believer students, be they from Indigenous Studies or Women’s Studies or wherever, that sacred cows won’t fare well here. This, I tell them, is an abattoir. Some students decide to stick it out. Then they don’t always fare so well back in the programs they came from. These departments don’t like that. I don’t blame them.
Hearts and minds. ‘Tis always thus. Hearts and minds. For an academic, what else could be worth fighting over?