Postscript to “me” studies

An old friend writes to me:

Your recent analysis of political correctness was particularly good in diagnosing the dynamics of how academic discourse in the “critical theory” vein so often ends up getting us for away from anything like the ideal of deliberation. But one line in that post really stuck in my craw:

“In mixed company, using a term like “ableist” provokes a lot of eyeball-rolling, and is generally recognized as a good way of ensuring that no one outside your own very small circle will take you seriously.”

Clearly, the objection made to your use of the word “crazy” on the jacket cover for Enlightenment 2.0 was idiotic. There is nothing ablest about using that term derisively. But what you actually say in the passage quoted put you dangerously close to the “jerk” category. As you know, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time following and even participating in disability studies. In that context, I’m keenly aware of the dynamic you’re talking about. But I am also keenly aware that there are many practices and attitudes that are utterly outrageous, and for which there is no better term than ablest. Dismissing that term in the way you do in the blog post is uninformed and, in the most precise sense of the term, politically incorrect.

I’m happy to clarify the remark. Although this is just a blog, and so I often post things that are off-the-cuff, or not tightly argued, I am still a professional philosopher, and so my sentences are often constructed in a way that gives me lots of room to weasel out, should the need arise. Furthermore, my tone is usually more inflammatory than the actual content of what I say – if you look at it closely.

So first, let me just point out that I didn’t say that I roll my eyeballs when someone uses the term “ableist.” I was just observing a fact, which is that many people do. Also, I prefaced the remark by saying that this is something that happens “in mixed company” — what I meant by “mixed company” was “a group that includes more than just left-wing academics.”

Nor did I say that there is not such a thing as “ableism.” I was just talking about the effect that the use of the term has. In my first draft of the post, I included another example of a term that left-wing academics use that leads people who are not part of that club to stop taking them seriously – that is “neoliberalism.” As far as I’m concerned, there should be a complete moratorium on the use of this term, because it causes anyone who is not a left-wing academic to roll their eyes and stop listening. Why? Because no one uses the term in a morally neutral way, yet it is used in a way that presupposes a moral consensus that exists only among left-wing academics (i.e. capitalism is evil). So the message that it telegraphs is “I’m not interested in engaging with anyone outside my club.”

As far as “ableism” is concerned, probably the closest analogy to it is the term “classism.” Again, I have no doubt that “classism” exists, but it’s a term that also tends to alienate listeners. I have some thoughts about why this may be, although they’re just thoughts. What rubs many people the wrong way about the terms “ableism” and “classism” is that they are intended to function, rhetorically, just like the canonical terms “sexism” and “racism” — which is to say, as terms of pre-emptory moral condemnation (as in, they’re not intended to open up a conversation, but rather to close one down). The difference, however, is that with sexism and racism, there is very large range of cases in which everyone agrees that sex or race constitute irrelevant qualities of the person, and so differential treatment based on sex or race is clearly unacceptable. With ability, or class, on the other hand, one can imagine a number of circumstances in which it is an irrelevant quality of the person, but one can also imagine a great number of other circumstances in which it is a highly relevant quality of the person (particularly if “class” refers, not to class background, but to “how much money a person currently has”). And so whether a particular instance of differential treatment is acceptable or unacceptable usually hinges on the details of the case. As a result, whenever someone says “that’s classist!” or “that’s ableist!” it almost always provokes further questions, along the lines of “well what exactly do you mean by that?” In other words, a lot of people would need to hear more in order to make up their own minds about the case. And yet because this vocabulary implies categorical or pre-emptory condemnation, it seems to presuppose a moral consensus that, again, only exists among left-wing academics. I think that may be why people who are not part of that club react negatively to it.

Two other things that occur to me, reading through the various comments. Some people have been pulling out the old move “well you’re just doing ‘me’ studies too, because the curriculum is full of white men.” This is true, as far as it goes. If a white man did a humanities degree, in which he received no exposure to anything written by women, or anyone from another culture, or historical period, then he would also not be getting a very good education. But I wasn’t really complaining about people getting bad educations. My major point had to do with a specific dynamic that can arise, not when people study themselves, but when they study their own oppression. This isn’t really something that comes up with white men, since we’re not oppressed. So the tu quoque argument doesn’t apply.

Finally, just a note for American readers of the blog. Many people have been assuming that this has something to do with the Laura Kipnis dust-up at my alma mater. It actually didn’t have anything to do with that. It’s because the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences is going on right now in Canada, and the newspapers are all having a round of “let’s make fun of the politically-correct academics.” So Margaret Wente did the old paint-by-numbers column in the Globe and Mail, in which she went through the program, skimming through hundreds of paper titles, in order to find a few that she could make fun of. The right-wing National Post is running an even more uncomfortable series, called Oh the Humanities, where it’s really unclear whether they are taking their subjects seriously or making sport of them (here and here). So my post was actually aimed primarily at journalists (hence the way it’s framed at the opening), designed to suggest that there are some more complex dynamics at work in academia (i.e. we’re not all just left-wing fascists, which is what they are disposed to think), and to suggest that they stop using “political correctness” as a blanket term of condemnation.

It was, in other words, a sympathetic account of why some academics tend to moralize all disagreement, and to respond so punitively when challenged. So all you left-wing academics who got upset by the post, just remember, I’m the guy providing the sympathetic account of what’s going on in academia. The guy in the middle of the line, who usually just keeps his mouth shut.


Postscript to “me” studies — 12 Comments

  1. Hi Joseph,

    Thanks for the clarification. That one line was really jarring to me when I read it as well, and not an opinion I would have expected from you. This post clears a lot up.

    I do want to say, though, that it’s not just left-wing academics who use terms like classist and ablest. I have a humanities grad degree so I certainly learned these terms in school, but I hang around with a lot of artists who have no post-secondary education and they use the terms often and correctly. And lest you lump the majority of artists in my town as just part of my own small circle, I’ll also say that just last week at my company’s staff meeting, while figuring out some teleconference technology, some jokes were made about classism. Still probably all left leaning people, but certainly not all academics. The terms may be more common than you realize.


  2. “In my first draft of the post, I included another example of a term that left-wing academics use that leads people who are not part of that club to stop taking them seriously – that is “neoliberalism.” As far as I’m concerned, there should be a complete moratorium on the use of this term, because it causes anyone who is not a left-wing academic to roll their eyes and stop listening. Why? Because no one uses the term in a morally neutral way, yet it is used in a way that presupposes a moral consensus that exists only among left-wing academics (i.e. capitalism is evil). So the message that it telegraphs is “I’m not interested in engaging with anyone outside my club.”

    It’s probably good that this was left out of the final draft of the post, because it’s clearly off topic. Whatever one might say about the use of the term “neoliberalism”, it has nothing to do with “me” studies as you had until that point been defining the term.

    It also has the disadvantage of being a foolish position. The problem here is that your objection to “neoliberalism” applies to nearly any term relating to any topic that is remotely politically controversial. So for instance, the terms “global warming” or “climate change” are going to make anyone who doesn’t already believe in global warming roll their eyes and stop listening, the term “free markets” is going to make anyone who isn’t a right winger roll their eyes and stop listening, and so on and so forth. If there is more than one set of beliefs on a topic, and those sets fall into more or less discrete camps, then any term used by one of those camps to define a phenomenon is going to lead to dismissal by anyone from one of the other camps.
    It’s also unclear exactly what these academics, or other people, who use the term “neoliberal” should say instead. The word does have a meaning, referring to a reasonably well defined set of policies and justifications for them which is found as a package very frequently among commentators, policy makers and so on, and which left wing academics are going to want to talk about. So when people are talking about neoliberalism, what do you want them to do? Define a new term which would quickly take on the connotations of the old? Use clumsy circumlocutions? Spend a few paragraphs describing a political phenomenon in the middle of every article discussing or referring to some aspect of it?

    But the problem goes beyond language. Anyone who would roll their eyes and stop listening at the mention of the term “neoliberalism” would certainly not be appeased by the removal of the term. Have that person listen for a few moments to an analysis of an economic situation by the kind of person who uses the term “neoliberalism”, and it’s not like they wouldn’t be able to tell that it was at odds with their ideology even if it was shorn of all offending terms. They would very quickly roll their eyes and stop listening anyway. So your position impllies that nobody should ever discuss anything controversial if they have any beliefs about the controversial topic. That is, anyone with views that a sizable camp of people disagree with should just shut up.

    That’s not a view I can really respect, but it is at least a coherent view which might be defended. In your case, however, it’s actually rank hypocrisy, because you yourself make posts which are controversial and use controversial terms which operate in the same way as “neoliberalism”, such as “global warming” and “competitive consumption” just in your most recent post. So what your position comes down to is that controversial and didactic terms that relate to your particular interests are all right, but ones that do not should go away and the people interested in those uninteresting-to-you topics should shut up.

    As a side note, I think your paragraph there also is an example of a common error about how opinions get changed. People don’t usually change their opinions because someone with a fundamentally different opinion “engaged” them in a respectful way that pandered to their existing beliefs. For that matter, most people don’t change their opinions as a result of any kind of conscious decision that some belief they previously disagreed with must actually be correct. Rather, people tend to gradually absorb those ideas that are being presented confidently around them, particularly if they have some resonance with the situation. Very often after they change their opinion, they will be under the impression that it never really changed—that they always believed whatever they currently think.
    Exhibit A: The rise of the US radical right in the late twentieth century. These people were able to shift many beliefs, but it certainly wasn’t by being respectful or eschewing slogans that assumed moral consensus. To the contrary, they pushed opinion by being loud, confident, in your face, and repeating the use of what you would consider very “in group” terminology (feminazi, “socialist” used to mean any proponent of any social program, et cetera). Over time as they continued to say these things over and over in venues with large audiences and refused to back away when presented with counterarguments, people gradually absorbed their ideas.

    Thus, it would actually be foolish for left wing academics to back away from terms like “neoliberalism” or “Washington consensus” (or, less formally, “bankster” and similar) in hopes that temporizing language would avoid “preaching to the converted” and gain them more influence. The reality would be the reverse; they would project diffidence and uncertainty and have even less impact.

  3. Since terminology is up for discussion here, can someone help this layperson who is confused by the apparently interchangeable use of “neoliberalism” and “neoconservatism” to refer to the same political belief cluster, which seems to centre on unfettered corporate power, a shrinking public sector (except for the security apparatus), and celebration of income inequality. Did these terms originally mean different things, and then people got sloppy with language? I’m genuinely curious.

    • My understanding is that “neo-conservativism” tends to be used to describe a certain aggressive or imperialistic approach to foreign policy (e.g., many of George W. Bush’s main advisors, like Paul Wolfowitz, were “neocons”; the invasion of Iraq was a “neocon” policy), whereas “neo-liberalism” is used to describe a certain pro-market, anti-regulation approach to economic policy (e.g., Milton Friedman and his followers were/are “neo-liberals”; the Reagan-Thatcher era marks the rise of post-welfare state neo-liberalism). Neo-conservatives need not be neo-liberals, or vice versa, though they often go together (as in the cases of Reagan and Thatcher).

      I used to be critical of the term “neo-liberalism” for something like the reason that Joe mentions. But it doesn’t bother me much anymore, since I understand it to be a rough short-hand for describing a certain account and normative interpretation of contemporary capitalism. I don’t use the term myself (at least not in any academic work), but when someone else uses it, I know roughly what they mean by it, and I don’t automatically dismiss what they have to say. (But then I’m an egalitarian, so I’m not inclined to dismiss criticisms of contemporary capitalism out of hand.)

      • Pretty much agreed. Neoliberalism is generally taken as a term just describing the economic stuff, while neoconservatism is the economic stuff PLUS at least one of aggressive/militaristic foreign policy and reactionary Christianity. These often seem to go together but they don’t have to.

        Neoliberalism itself is far from equatable to “capitalism” tout court. For instance, Paul Krugman is certainly a capitalist, but not a neoliberal. Neoliberalism has strong overlap with terms such as “Chicago School” and “The Washington Consensus”; generally it involves the promotion of policies such as free trade; low taxes on the rich, investments and corporations; reduction or elimination of the welfare state; curtailment or elimination of trade unions, minimum wages and workers’ rights; regulatory changes typically referred to as “deregulation” but often including new regulations allowing corporations to, for instance, sue governments for restricting their potential future profits; and privatization of state assets.

        The ideological basis of neoliberalism involves acceptance of efficient market theories and Ricardo’s theory of “comparative advantage” in trade, the belief that jobs are created largely by private entrepreneurs, who must not be interfered with, the belief that governments are INefficient and generally incapable of creating or aiding economic growth, and generally on an informal level certain moral assumptions about what people deserve–roughly that those who merely do productive work are less deserving than those who take risks to make money and thereby presumably cause economic growth, create jobs for the workers and so on. Those who disagree with neoliberalism tend to feel that this ideological basis is not just flawed, but largely a facade, a convenient backing for policies really intended to create upward redistribution of wealth.

        Hence, even within capitalism, lots of people are not neoliberals: Keynesians are not neoliberals, anyone who favours the welfare state is not a neoliberal, anyone who believes that there are market failures (externalities, undersupply of public goods) which governments can alleviate is not a neoliberal, anyone who believes governments can deliver some services as efficiently or more so than the private sector is not a neoliberal, anyone who believes government investment can create growth is not a neoliberal, anyone who believes in protectionism or industrial policy is not a neoliberal. Up until relatively recently, in fact, the vast majority of capitalists were not neoliberal.

        • Thanks Blain & PLG, I appreciate these thoughtful responses! My day-job is in an applied science, not the humanities, so I encounter this lingo just as a citizen on the receiving end of media-filtered political rhetoric, not as part of a subject of study. So I learn a lot from reading this blog (thanks Joe!) & its discussions.

        • I don’t think “neoliberalism” has such a clear meaning as Purple Library Guy says. It doesn’t just mean Chicago-school libertarians. I always thought it was meant to include Clintonite Democrats, Blairite social democrats, or anyone who thinks basic microeconomic analysis should be taken into account in designing public policy. I never thought it meant opposition to Keynesian aggregate demand management (which even Alan Greenspan and Milton Friedman supported), environmental regulation or social insurance. It probably does imply thinking Attlee-style nationalization or protectionism are a mistake.

          That’s the problem. Centrist liberal/social democrats think they have big disagreements with Chicago-style libertarians, but “neoliberalism” lumps them together.

  4. Neoconservatism is a term with an actual genealogy that does not follow the mapped out in previous comments.

    Neoconservatives have never been strict free marketers. Irving Kristol (“the godfather of neoconservatism”) wrote a book titled “Two Cheers for Capitalism”. Other neoconservatives continued to describe themselves as socialists in economics (Daniel Bell). Also, for a long time neoconservatives had nearly nothing to say about foreign policy at all. When the term “neocon” became applied to foreign policy about ten years ago, it was mostly a vague epithet or euphemism for Jewish. It was also used primarily to refer to a group of people whose views were largely at odds with those of earlier neoconservatives (see Francis Fukuyama on this, in his book “America at the Crossroads”).

    So far as I can tell, the term neoliberal has no comparable genealogy and makes even less sense.

    • Hmmm, maybe. I’ve seen a certain amount of variation in the use of “neoconservative”, although I’ve certainly never ever seen it used to refer to Jewishness (sometimes to a certain subspecies of muscular Zionism with both right-wing Christian and Jewish adherents). Whatever it is, though, it doesn’t seem to be a strictly economic doctrine, and it’s generally either explicitly violent (PNAC etc) or socially . . . old-fashioned, shall we say.

      As to neoliberalism . . . I have read many, many, many articles which discuss neoliberalism, over quite a lot of years, and basically all of them seem to use it roughly the way I described it above. So I’m not sure what’s supposed to not make sense. In my experience it’s actually a more consistent term referring to a more cohesive, identifiable ideology than “neoconservative”, which may be one reason “neoconservative” seems to have gradually seen less use over time. I dunno what its genealogy might be though. That might be interesting to know, but the meaning of words is defined by usage.

      • I assume that the term “neo-liberalism” is European in origin, where “liberalism” still means something like what North Americans mean by “classical liberalism” (i.e., the form of liberalism espoused in the 19th century, descendants of which are now referred to as “libertarianism”). So the “neo” in “neo-liberalism” is meant to indicate a revamping of 19th century (“classical”) liberalism.

    • Foreign policy has been a feature of neo-conservativism since the 1970s. Neocons were strong opponents of detente with the Soviet Union (e.g. Jeane Kirkpatrick and Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson). So I don’t think use of the term during the Bush era was unwarranted. But I agree that neo-conservatism, when it first emerged in the 1960s, was concerned primarily with domestic cultural issues (opposing the counter-culture of the “New Left”).
      (As for “neocon” simply being a “vague epithet or euphemism for Jewish,” that’s news to me.)

    • Neoconservativism is very difficult to define because neoconservatives are deliberately deceptive about the contents of their beliefs and aims. Irving Kristol’s infamous line about “different truths for adults and children” summed up the real core view of the ideology: We are better than you and rule by right of that. We will tell you what we think you need to hear.

      The specific contents of it can vary a lot but the basic premise is that of Saruman. I rule because I am wise, and wear a cloak of shifting hue. Most neoconservatives even disavow the term in public.

      Neoliberalism shares some of that elitism, it is primarily the view of society’s masters of the universe, who do not expect to ever be hurt by the deregulation, trade deals and safety net cuts they espouse for others.