THE UNIVERSITY SPEAKS WITH FORKED TONGUE

It’s good that I’ve recused myself from all hiring committees here at the University of Lethbridge, because if I hadn’t I’d worry I might succumb to overkill and vote against any candidate who wasn’t able-bodied, heterosexual, white, and male.

“Huh?!”

That’s right. And it’s because, unlike our administrators, I’m opposed to the kind of cosmetic-only diversity our administrators seem to want.

This is not to say a disabled black lesbian couldn’t make a contribution to the  diversity I think we should be looking for in the professoriate, a contribution equal to or greater than that of an able-bodied heterosexual white male. It’s just that, all other things being equal, she’s less likely to. And all other things must have been judged pretty close to equal or at least one of them wouldn’t have made the short list. Something might emerge from their on-campus visits, and then all other things might no longer be equal. But provided neither has bombed the on-campus visit, I argue that we can expect less from the disabled black lesbian than from the able-bodied heterosexual white male, at least in terms of the kind of diversity we should be looking for.

“On account of her disability, sexual orientation, race, or gender?”

Yes, on precisely those accounts. 

“What?! Okay, so putting your obvious bigotry aside, how is this possible?” 

It’s possible because we’re equivocating on our two concepts of diversity. To explain:

If two people were alike in every respect, then, by the Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles, they’d be the same person. And if they were in every respect dissimilar, then one of them couldn’t be a person. So now let’s play the Sesame Street game. Is an elephant more like a sunny day or a cloudy one? Clearly the latter if all we’re looking at is colour. So when we’re looking for diversity we need to specify diversity in what? And to specify that, we need to specify diversity to what end? A sunny day and an elephant are diverse in colour. But a sunny day and a cloudy one are diverse in weather. So are we interested in colour or weather? 

I’m going to argue for the latter. But in the meantime, let’s get two other considerata out of the way: 

I’ve argued elsewhere that where there’s been an affirmative action hiring policy among those institutions with which we’re competing for the best candidate, the smart money goes on free riding on their policies by hiring the white male they had to pass over. Why? Because were it not for that policy he’d have been snapped up by a university higher up the plum line and so unavailable to us. And as a bonus, we can plead complete innocence. “Unfortunately,” we can sigh, “all the disabled and/or black and/or lesbian candidates had been snapped up. So what else could we do?!”

Well, not quite, because not all the cosmetic candidates would have been snapped up. So we could take one of the leftovers, could we not? 

We could. But let’s remember that the angle of sub-optimality from the merit-only ranking to the cosmetic ranking increases as we move down the plum line. The top schools take hardly any hit at all. But by the time the University of Lethbridge gets to make its draft pick, we’re down to the dregs. So either we free ride – if our EDI monitors will let us – or else we settle. And settling is not the most promising way to head into a long-term marriage. 

But I also want to point out that candidates who are members of aggrieved groups are more likely – and understandably so – to be channelled in their teaching and research  interests by that grievance. This is unlikely to have as much of an impact in the natural sciences, because it’s hard to shake one’s fist at sub-electronic particles and recombinant DNA. But it can and does have a significant impact in the social sciences and humanities. Women are often drawn to feminist issues. Blacks to issues of racial justice. And so on. Hiring such people would be a good thing if we think these grievances are currently being under-examined. But a bad thing if, in the process, the canon is being lost. And by all accounts the canon is being lost, as scholars are being systemically replaced by activists.

There are now students in Philosophy departments, undergrad and grad, who’ve never read the Meditations or Leviathan or the Second Treatise or the Enquiry. Why not? Because their professors have never read the Meditations or Leviathan or the Second Treatise or the Enquiry. Because these students and their professors don’t know the canon, they can’t critique what they are reading. And because they can’t critique what they’re reading, they’re no more critically trained than their younger siblings who are still in grade school.

I say “by all accounts” here because those who advocate this replacement don’t deny the loss of the canon. They just think, “And good riddance to it!” The canon, they argue, has aided and abetted the very evils of white supremacy we should be trying to put behind us. So not unlike in Germany under the Nazis, Russia under the Soviets, or Cambodia under Pol Pot, they think our universities need to be turned into reeducation camps. And they’re hell bent on doing just that.

In saying “not unlike”, I don’t mean to suggest that the current SJW revolutionaries are necessarily wrongheaded. The analogy is not to content but to justification. The fact that the Nazis were wrong to think Jews were a cancer to be excised doesn’t mean the SJW is wrong to be suspicious of the canon. And to be fair, much of the canon is suspicious. For example, Mill’s On Liberty is widely touted as the signature manifesto for the right to speak one’s mind. Except, of course, for those Mill describes as “peoples in their nonage”. So, claims the SJW, On Liberty is a feint for the perpetuation of white privilege.

This is an old saw, old because appeals to freedom of expression are always a feint in the struggle for power. I’m old enough to remember when it was the left that was clamouring for freedom of speech and the right meeting that clamour with billy clubs. I’m also old enough to remember how those billy clubs backfired, in much the way a studio takes the banning of a movie all the way to the bank. The current cancel culture invites the same fate, a fate that’s already beginning to materialise. And so the SJW has had to redouble her efforts to silence even the questioning of her conception of social justice, questioning that can only be, in her mind, driven by a neo-colonialist white supremacist agenda.

It used to be that we read texts like On Liberty because they’re rich in both good arguments and bad ones. The task of the class was to separate the two. But now the entire text is being pre-vetted. Plato and Aristotle were misogynists. Hobbes and Locke and Hume were clearly racists. So let’s clear the board and start fresh from what’s been pre-decided. Trans-women are women. Check. So any argument that they’re not is transphobic. Indigenous peoples can’t be racist. Check. So any reference to the Creek Nation of eastern Oklahoma owning black slaves is racist. And so on.

It used to be we could teach our students the use/mention distinction. That is, I wouldn’t call a black student the n-word, but I did tell a student who’d recently immigrated what the n-word refers to, because, well, it seemed to me she had a right to know. But now Brandon University, among others, has made it clear that “the bigot’s language is couched in pretend innocence that is designed to convince the naïve and to provoke divisive reactions. We are not fooled.” 

Dammit! And here I thought that as long as I pretended to merely mention the word rather than use it no one would catch on. 

But I digress.

So the Battle of the Hiring Committee is a microcosm of that ubiquitous struggle  for power between those who want universities to pursue an increase in the intellectual dividends of civil society, and those who want universities to merely redistribute those dividends. Or as Jonathan Haidt puts it, the pursuit of truth versus the pursuit of social justice

And why are these two pursuits incompatible? Because the truth about the Creek Nation owning black slaves is taken as inimical to indigenous exceptionalism, and indigenous exceptionalism is indispensable to anti-racist rhetoric. And why is indigenous exceptionalism indispensable to anti-racist rhetoric? Because people really are that stupid! And the task of the rhetorician, remember, is to move people, to exploit that stupidity, not disabuse them of it. 

That said, there are at least two arguments for increase over redistribution. The first comes from Robert Nozick, who points out that redistribution incurs transaction costs. So universities that are currently facing crippling budget cuts are squandering what little resources they have on feckless EDI programs.  

But the more telling objection is that her conception of social justice is one the SJW takes to be a res judicata, whereas among the tasks of the social sciences and humanities is to adjudicate competing conceptions of social justice. So if, as in Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and Pol Pot Cambodia, the pursuit of an already-decided conception of social justice is given lexical priority over the pursuit of the truth about social justice, we’re as likely as not to be driving ourselves headlong into another dystopia. 

I tell my students our job as philosophers is to stand between the widow whose mite pays our salaries and a return to witch burning. Now let’s see if we can earn our keep. 

There are two ends we might have in mind in pursuing diversity, and as just noted they’re as often as not incompatible. We might think that there are certain people who, by virtue of their group membership, have been disadvantaged in the past. And so, either as compensation, or as an investment, or as both, we’ve decided to give them a leg up. Call this, if you will, the Redistribution Argument (or RA). 

Whether redistribution is just, and if so under what conditions, we can debate when we’re more at our leisure. Here suffice it to say that for those who deploy the RA there’s an implicit acknowledgment that providing this leg up is sub-optimal for stakeholders other than the candidate herself. Someone who’d otherwise have been given the job doesn’t get it. Students who’d have had a great teacher might have to settle for an okay one. And professors who’d have had a more engagement-worthy colleague might have to do with one who’s less so. But – or so the argument goes – justice and utility often conflict. What of it?! Or, as Mill has argued, sometimes justice maximises utility only in the very long run. Sometimes not until well beyond the foreseeable future.

I want to make it clear that I have no objection to the RA, provided its proponents are willing to acknowledge the price being paid for it. Or even if they have to pretend otherwise to mollify these other stakeholders, that they’re willing in the privacy of their own minds to acknowledge the price they’re imposing on the rest of us. 

I say I have no objection because issues of distributive justice are matters of moral balance. And on matters of moral balance reasonable people can and do disagree. And this includes, as I noted above, issues of investment. If significant portions of the population have been precluded from making a contribution because of their group membership, that preclusion is a loss for all of us. Maybe not now, but, as just noted, in the long run. Still, for the investment variant of the RA to work, the claim has got to be something like this: 

Over the course of (let’s say) a hundred years, of two (say) Philosophy Departments, one consisting of nothing but prep-schooled upper class Brits, the other of people of various races and backgrounds, the latter will perform equal to or greater than the former. And that strikes me as highly implausible. 

Why? Because philosophy thrives on combative camaraderie. (And I suspect that so does every other discipline.) People of the same social class have fewer interpersonal sensitivities, sensitivities that discourage this combative camaraderie. Moreover, if it’s true that the first generation of homogenous philosophers will outperform the first generation of its multi-ethnic competitors, that superiority will perpetuate itself. Which, come to think of it, is precisely what has happened, and is precisely what the SJW is complaining about. 

So what the SJW is going to have to say is that the same would hold for an all-black or all-indigenous Philosophy Department. Well yes, it would if what we’re talking about is African or indigenous philosophy. But neither African nor indigenous philosophy is what we mean by philosophy. 

By philosophy is not meant just whatever words of wisdom a culture might have produced. Rather by philosophy is meant a particular conversation, and a very particular conversation at that. A conversation that got started in Greece about two and half millennia ago, was continued primarily in Europe, and has been carried over to those parts of the world colonised by European thought. A conversation with its own vocabulary, syntax, and rules of inference. 

We can call Inuit throat-singing jazz if we like. But to what end? We can call indigenous philosophy philosophy if we like. But why would we?

So the SJW is right. An all-indigenous Indigenous Philosophy Department would outperform an all-prep-schooled upper class Brit Indigenous Philosophy Department, and that superiority would perpetuate itself. In fact if the SJW would like to see an Indigenous Philosophy Department established at the University of Lethbridge, and if I were on the hiring committee, I’d vote for nothing but indigenous candidates. The question is, can she make the case for the establishment of such a department? I have my doubts. But it’s no part of my argument here that she can’t. 

I’m responsible for what I say, not for what you’ve heard. So let me repeat that. It’s no part of my argument here that a case cannot be made for the establishment of an Indigenous Philosophy Department. But if the SJW wants it to replace the Philosophy Department we already have, then she has to make the case against the University continuing to carry it. After all, if the indigenous people of southern Alberta can carry on their conversation, surely neither they nor the SJW would begrudge the rest of us carrying on ours.

Unless, as I say, the case can be made that the vocabulary, syntax, and rules of inference of western philosophy are both wrongheaded, like phlogiston or astrology, and dangerously wrongheaded, like Nazi Science. But how would such a case be made without deploying the tools of western philosophy? She might be able to make it deploying the tools of indigenous philosophy. I’d have no way of knowing. But in that case we’re stuck with the proverbial bootstrapping problem. What’s a Jew? Anyone born of a Jewish mother. Well, wasn’t that helpful?! So as with defining a Jew or countless other things, with which philosophy we adjudicate what counts as philosophy is itself a purely political decision.

And how are political decisions ultimately made? Like this: Philosophy is what we say it is because if push came to shove we still have our cannons trained on their villages.

Well yes, but I think there’s a reason why our cannons have been trained on their villages rather than theirs on ours. There is no concept of superiority that’s ends-independent. Why does rock trump scissors? For the same reason cannons trump bows and arrows. By parity of reasoning, then, why is central heating superior to an open fire? Because be we white, black, yellow or red, the former dominates the free market. 

I take science to be whatever it is that offers us prediction and control. If a shaman can predict the weather with 100% accuracy, then I’m consulting him rather than any MIT-educated meteorologist. And if the shaman could compete in the marketplace of prediction and control, I’d tell him to knock himself out! So once again, let me be clear. It’s no part of my argument here that there’s no such thing as indigenous science. And what I’ve just said about an Indigenous Philosophy Department I’d say the same of indigenous science, indigenous anthropology, indigenous sociology … right down the line. And since I’ve arbitrarily chosen indigeneity in this argument, we can deploy the induction theorem to replace it with any other group – blacks, Chinese, Tristan da Cunha islanders – and generate the same result. As both Mill and Mao would say, let a thousand flowers grow, and let the marketplace sort the winners from the also-rans. So what’s the problem?

The problem is these various departments can’t be said to be competing with each other. Why not? Because they’ve declared themselves incommensurable. For if a claim about the Great Spirit could be translated into western theological categories, and vice versa, there’d be no need for separate departments. The indigenous theologian could express herself in Abrahamic categories, and vice versa. But this is precisely what the SJW rejects. To force the indigenous scholar to adopt the language of the coloniser is to make her complicit in her own colonisation. So the only solution is academic Apartheid. Only this time let’s make it separate but truly equal.

I predict this wouldn’t last a week. All the students from the one side of campus would drift over to the other side. But once again – and I cannot emphasise this strongly enough – it’s no part of my argument here which side would drift to which.

But it wouldn’t come to that because it couldn’t, because, much as we’d like to, we can’t afford an Indigenous Philosophy Department, let alone an African Philosophy Department, and so on. We can barely afford an Indigenous Studies Department at the University of Lethbridge. And the Indigenous Studies Department we do have doesn’t have even one indigenous faculty member let alone an all-indigenous faculty. So indigenous ‘philosophy’, whatever that might be, is being taught, if it’s taught at all, by a non-indigenous instructor in the Indigenous Studies Department. 

There’s a widespread suspicion that instructors of indigenous studies are just making shit up as they go. If so, making shit up as you go isn’t confined to any particular department. And it’s no part of my argument here to suggest that it is. But if indigenous philosophy is inserted into the Philosophy Department – which is what “indigenisation of the university” is demanding – does the SJW expect the indigenous philosophy instructor will be treated by her colleagues as a peer? In the Friday afternoon colloquia, will she have the faintest idea what her colleagues are talking about? And when it’s her turn does she expect her colleagues to care what she’s talking about?

People who don’t share a common vocabulary, syntax, and rules of inference don’t talk to each other because they can’t. That’s why the Tower of Babel never got built. But hey, at least the project manager met her diversity quotas.

So what kind of diversity do we want to see in the professoriate?

We have a six-member Philosophy Department, four of whom, myself included, are over sixty-five. These are tough times. All four of us would have to retire to get a single replacement. But let’s suppose the price of oil goes through the roof, and we’re back to halcyon days. I’m on the hiring committee. I’m a legal positivist. I’d love to have another positivist with whom to collaborate. But our students need a natural law theorist to hold my feet to the fire. A positivist and a natural law theorist share a common vocabulary, syntax, and rules of inference. I say we hire a natural law theorist.

But the Dean doesn’t know anything about positivism versus natural law theory. He only knows about colour. And he has the final word. So given a choice between a white natural law theorist with two books behind him, and an unpublished disabled black lesbian post-modernist trans-activist, he’ll hire the latter, because that earns him three checks from the EDI bean counters down the hall.

This is the kind of stupidity that kills a department. Duplicate it across three or four departments and it kills a university. It generates an ignorant generation of students who’ll then generate another ignorant generation of students. And so on. And in the meantime the Saudis and the Chinese will be snapping up those erstwhile unemployed prep-schooled upper class Brits, with the consequences we’ve seen before when the Brits colonised the world.

Speaking of rules of inference, it is part of my argument that academics “be judged [not] by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.” But apparently that makes me, along with Martin Luther King, a white supremacist.



Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask

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3 replies

  1. Your statement “Because they’ve already declared themselves incommensurable” is linked to the following article. Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization is not a Metaphor”, Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society Vol. 1, No. 1, 2012, pp. 1-40

    The journal “Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society” is affiliated with the University of Toronto. The following is an substantial excerpt from their “About” page:

    https://jps.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/des/about

    Focus and Scope

    Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society solicits any work purposefully engaged in the decolonization process, regardless of discipline or field, encouraging work that actively seeks undisciplinary connections that work both against and beyond the Western academy. We recognize that this is a wide net to cast but feel strongly that decolonization must happen at all levels, in all fields, and all locations; decolonization seeks to explore the relationships between knowledges and tears down the artificial disciplinary demarcations of dominant ways of knowing and being. Colonial power affects all areas of life and thought – this journal seeks to engage and confront that power at every level.

    While we view education as an important facet of decolonization, education is broadly conceived of within a web of social sciences and humanities, recognizing that education does not happen solely or even primarily in the classroom but is part and parcel of many other social interactions and relationships. Areas of interest include but are not limited to studies in: area studies such as African, Black, Asian and Latin American studies; art; anthropology; ecology; education; ethnic studies; history; Indigenous studies; literature; media studies; social work; and sociology. We are also accept submissions in different mediums such as video, audio, visual art, or poetry and will work with authors to find a way to best accomodate these pieces.

    As part of our commitment to centering the stories of the colonized and to displacing colonial forms of knowledge production, this journal is accepting submissions that center qualitative methods. We recognize the power of voice and ‘personal stories’ in the decolonization process and we feel that qualitative methods best reflect and represent these voices and stories in all of their complexities. We also welcome submissions that include or blend quantitative work together with qualitative sources, recognizing the value of the various styles working together to fulfill different roles. Submissions that rely solely or primarily on quantitative methods will be returned to the author(s).

    Decolonization also actively solicits artwork for the cover of each issue. If you have an appropriate image, please send it to editors@decolonization.org in a high-res image file, with an explanation of why you believe your image fits within our journal’s themes and goals.

    Peer Review

    Decolonization adheres to a rigorous scholarly peer-review process to maintain a high level of scholarship within each issue and also to promote this type of scholarship in the larger field. We believe that, while ‘peer-reviewed’ is an arbitrary designation of colonial gatekeeping, that we can still use it as a tool to subvert dominant knowledge, inserting and validating knowledge that is useful to our communities of decolonization.

    Each submission will pass through an initial review stage where it will be read by a minimum of two Editorial Board members. If successful, submissions will proceed to a blind peer-review by two members of our Editorial Review Board who are in the appropriate field of study.

    If there are no suitable candidates on the Editorial Review Board, outside referees will be sought out. We appreciate the wide ranging support we have given by insurgent and decolonial scholars and activists, those who have eagerly volunteered to be peer-reviewers for our articles.

    Decolonization does not accept submissions that are currently being considered elsewhere.

    Submissions are considered on the basis of their significance and impact on the field of decolonization, the originality of the work, their advancement of active decolonizing praxis, as well as their clarity of thought and style.

    Like

    • Hi Pam,
      Are you sure this journal is affiliated with the U of T? I’d be embarrassed for my alma mater if it was. It is merely indexed in the University’s library system … and attempting to search the web for decolonization.org leads only back to the library index. I can’t find any indication that the journal has any other connection with the University or its federated colleges.

      I tried reading the article that won a prize for “most thought-provoking article of the year” by Simpson. All I can say is, after struggling through this drivel, if this is the best their thinkers can do, I despair for the indigenous people caught up in this decolonization project.

      The journal seems to be defunct, not accepting submissions since 2017. So perhaps there is hope.

      Like

      • Hello Leslie,

        Yes, I’m sure.

        “New open access journal explores Indigenous knowledge”, Oct. 23,2012. https://www.oise.utoronto.ca/oise/News/indigenousknowledgejournal_20121024.html

        “Accessing the varied, and often ignored, world of Indigenous history, literature and culture is a main component of a new – and already celebrated – journal created by OISE academics and students.”

        “Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society’ is funded by OISE’s Centre for Integrative Anti-Racism Studies.”

        The following is from the journal’s library reference page. Ritskes (mentioned in the above article) was a PhD student at U of T OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education) at the journal’s inauguration in 2012. https://jps.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/des/about/contact

        Principal Contact (and support contact)
        Eric Ritskes
        Editor
        OISE/ University of Toronto
        eric.ritskes@decolonization.org

        However, the editorial team consists of: “Melanie K. Yazzie is a citizen of the Navajo Nation. She is Assistant Professor of Native American Studies at the University of New Mexico,” and “Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy is an Assistant Professor and Department Chair of Native American Studies at Humboldt State University.”
        https://jps.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/des/about/editorialTeam

        The last issue was published 2018-09-03.

        My suspicion is that Ritskes either completed his PhD or dropped out with no one else interested in keeping the journal afloat. If I discover anything on this matter I will let you know.

        In the meantime, you might want to do something to cover up that blush ;0).

        Like

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