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.