One can still find journalists these days complaining about the problem of “political correctness” in universities, which always sounds old-fashioned and somewhat out-of-touch to me. I think of political correctness as something that reached its high-water mark sometime in the early 90’s and has been on the decline since then (at least among faculty – students are another issue). Part of the difference in perception may be due to a lack of precision in terminology. I find that people who are outside the academy tend to lump a lot of different stuff together under the heading of political correctness, whereas inside the universities we have different names for various different tendencies. So what I would like to discuss today is just one strand or tendency, that often gets described as political correctness, but that is more precisely known as the problem of “me” studies.
First though, just to explain what I mean by political correctness being on the decline: Often when journalists talk about this stuff, what they have in mind is old-fashioned language policing. Now I must admit, it is still possible to find this sort of thing in the nooks and crannies of academia. For example, one academic reviewer took exception to a line on the dust-jacket of my recent book: “Over the last twenty years, the political systems of the Western world have become increasingly divided—not between right and left, but between crazy and non-crazy,” condemning my use of the term “crazy.” Apparently it is “ableist.”
So yeah, this sort of thing still exists. What’s important is that it is no longer taken very seriously. This sort of verbal policing is the academic equivalent of a stupid pet trick – one that everyone knows how to do, and most people get over by end of undergraduate. 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.
There is, however, a deeper problem that has not gone away. This is the phenomenon that we refer to as “me” studies. We’re always telling graduate students that, in order to succeed in the long run, they have to choose a topic that they’re really passionate about, something that concerns them deeply. But of course, what could be more interesting, or an object of more passionate concern than… your very own self! Indeed, there is an overwhelming and perfectly understandable tendency among all persons to think that one’s own life is the most interesting thing happening on the planet right now – that’s because to you it is!
So some people take the advice, to “follow your passion,” as an invitation to choose a thesis project that is essentially about themselves. For example, an old friend of mine in Montreal studying anthropology wrote her Master’s thesis on, I can’t remember the exact title, but it was something like, “Negotiations of difference in Quebecois-Jewish couples on the Montreal Plateau.” At the time, she was living with a Jewish guy on – you guessed it – the Plateau. So she basically wrote an MA thesis about issues in her own relationship. This is classic “me” studies.
This example, however, is of a somewhat harmless variant. It is of course a bit perverse, since it basically subverts the broad intent of a humanistic education, which is to gain some understanding of the extraordinary variety of human experience, both historically and in other cultures – to drive home the idea that different people understand and evaluate the world in fundamentally different ways. So if you spend your time studying yourself, there’s a sense in which you’re not really getting a very good education. On the other hand, there’s no rule that says everyone has to have a good education.
Where “me” studies can easily become more problematic is when people decide to study, not their own lives per se, but rather their own oppression. Now of course oppression, in its various forms, is a perfectly legitimate topic of inquiry. Indeed, many of the forms of social inequality that we tried to eliminate, over the course of the 20th century, have proven remarkably recalcitrant in the face of our efforts. Just figuring out why they are so hard to get rid of can be a surprisingly challenging endeavour. (To take just one example, consider the “wage gap” between men and women. You don’t have to study the literature very long to realize that we still don’t really know what causes it, and that all the obvious theories have been tested and shown to account for no more than a fraction of it. So there is an important social-scientific question sitting there, waiting to be solved.)
There is, however, a somewhat ticklish question that arises, when one stops to consider who is best positioned to study these various forms of oppression. After all, we all live in the same world that we are studying. So who is best positioned – those who suffer from it, or those who do not? The inevitable conclusion is that neither are particularly well-positioned, since both will be biased in the direction of producing theories that are, at some level, self-serving, or self-exculpatory. Thus the best arrangement will be one in which lots of different people study these questions, then challenge one another to robust debate, which will tend to correct the various biases. This is, unfortunately, not how things usually play out. Instead, the field of study tends to attract, sometimes overwhelmingly, people who suffer from the relevant form of oppression – partly just for the obvious “me” studies reason, that the issue is greater interest to them, because it speaks to their personal ambitions and frustrations. But it can also set in motion a dynamic that can crowd out everyone who does not suffer from that particular form of oppression.
In terms of the quality of academic work, the results of this can be really disastrous. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met, who specialize in some form or another of “critical studies,” who are among the worst critical thinkers I’ve met. It’s because they lack the most important skill in critical thinking, which is self-criticism – the capacity to question one’s own view, and correct one’s own biases. And the reason that they’re so bad at it is that they have never had their views seriously challenged. (Just to be clear – no one starts out being good at criticizing themselves. You only get good at it by being challenged by others who disagree with you.)
The problem is that, when you’re studying your own oppression, and you’re obviously a member of the oppressed group in question, people who are basically sympathetic to your situation, but who disagree with your specific claims, are going to be extremely hesitant to challenge you, because they don’t want to appear unsympathetic. Even a lot of people who are actually unsympathetic will say nothing, because they still don’t want to appear unsympathetic. So you are only going to hear from two types of people – those who are sympathetic but want to take a more radical stance, and those who we might label, for convenience, “jerks,” which is to say, people who are both unsympathetic and who are, for one reason or another, immune to any consideration of what others think of them.
I have a mental picture in mind, that looks something like below. Imagine the population being partitioned first into two groups, those who think that the relevant form of oppression is bad, and those who don’t. Let’s be charitable to humanity and assume that, with most major dimensions of inequality, the former is a larger group. Now take those who are sympathetic, and consider attitudes that people might have towards the relevant form of oppression. Some will have very radical or extreme views (e.g. wanting to overturn the entire social order in order to remedy it), others more moderate, others rather conservative (e.g. thinking that there is not much that can be done about it, and that attempts to improve things might easily make things worse).
Now suppose you stake out a position somewhere between the moderate and the radical. And suppose you give a talk to present your views. Who is going to challenge you? Basically only the people to your left, who have more radical views, and the people to your very, very far right. The first will speak up because they are not in danger of sounding unsympathetic to your situation, the second because they are unsympathetic, and also don’t mind being perceived that way.
I don’t know how many talks I’ve been to where the question period goes this way. Someone presents a view that a solid majority of people in the room think is totally wrong-headed. But no one is willing to say things like: “I don’t think that what you are saying makes any sense” or “you have no evidence to support this contention” or “the policies you are promoting are excessively self-serving.” The questions that will be asked come in only two flavours: “I’m concerned that your analysis is unable to sustain a truly emancipatory social praxis” (i.e. “I don’t think you’re left-wing enough”), or else “you people are always whingeing about your problems” (i.e. “I’m a huge, insensitive jerk”).
Then of course, out in the hallway after the talk, people say what they really thought of the presentation – at this point, a whole bunch of entirely reasonable criticisms will get made, points that probably would have been really helpful to the presenter had they been communicated. The end result is a perfect example of what Timur Kuran refers to as belief falsification (not a great term, but Kuran’s work on this is very interesting). So basically, practitioners of “me” studies suffer from a huge handicap, when it comes to improving the quality of their work, which is that only people who are extremists of one sort or another are willing to give them honest feedback.
As if all this weren’t bad enough, repeat occurences of the scenario described above can lead to further distortion. Since the only people willing to speak up on the right-hand side, so to speak, of the presenter are people who have views that are morally offensive to the presenter, it can easily lead to the perception that anyone who disagrees with you is, for that very reason, morally suspect. In other words, over time the “me” studies practitioner notices a strong correlation between “people who disagree with me” and “people who have moral views that I find reprehensible.” As a result, it is easy to lose sight of the possibility of reasonable disagreement – in particular, the possibility that people might broadly speaking share your moral convictions, and yet disagree with you about what should be done about them, or what justice requires in terms of redress, or even just about some entirely empirical or pragmatic question.
This dynamic may help to explain why the reaction that so many “me” studies practitioners have to criticism becomes so highly moralized. They begin to think that all criticism of their views arises from some morally suspect motive. This is what then gets referred to as “political correctness,” namely, the tendency to moralize all disagreement, so that, instead of engaging with intellectual criticism intellectually, they respond to it punitively.
Of course, this all becomes a vicious circle, in that people who get morally outraged by any criticism of their views tend to further dissuade sympathetic critics from speaking, leaving only the jerks and the ultra-leftists willing to comment – which in turn reinforces the perceptions that generated the moralization of disagreement. At this point the situation becomes pretty much unsalvageable.
After three decades now in academia, I could give dozens of specific examples of this dynamic, of individuals who suffer from this problem, or of ridiculous ideas that get bounced around, but that nobody wants to go to bat against publicly. But of course all that getting specific would do is get all sorts of people pissed off at me. As someone who usually finds himself somewhere near the middle of that line above, I usually just keep my mouth shut. I figure if people want to know what I think, they’ll have to ask me. Which they never do.
Edit: The saga continues on Postscript to “me” studies