The problem of “me” studies

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


The problem of “me” studies — 20 Comments

  1. Political correctness was surely never the most precise term, and therefore never the most useful one, but the idea that the problems to which it refers somehow peaked in the 90s and are no longer taken seriously by anyone in academia is really bizarre at a time when stories like this are proliferating:

    And isn’t this whole phenomenon linked to the “me” phenomenon: one hears about “erasure” of “experience” having a “triggering” or “traumatizing” effect, which really just means “I don’t like what you have to say, so I should be able to ensure that I don’t have to hear it and that no one else has the opportunity to hear it either”.

    Anyway, I’m interested in the mentality of these people:

    “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”

    This is fascinating, because academics generally thrive on disagreement and are rewarded for expressing it (you frame your arguments against one part of the “literature”). A lot of academia involves making mountains out of molehills that way (I pretend that my relatively minor, super-specialized disagreement with you is actually an earth-shattering contribution). So if there is a circumstance in which people have more to lose by expressing criticism, that’s a total reversal of the normal academic incentive structure.

    Regardless, it seems to me like some academic niches are moralized from the outset, not as the unintentional result of a process. Consider the big gay rights study that was recently debunked (claiming that views on gay marriage could change after a short conversation with a gay person). It was written and debunked by people who are all equally sympathetic to gay rights because they all start their work with empirical, methodological commitments, so they can argue on that plane as well as on the ideological level. But in some sub-disciplines the methodologies are chosen as pure tools of ideology. So in that case you’re never going to get past moral disagreement to “mechanics” (questions like: is such-and-such being measured properly? would this-or-that be the most effective mechanism for addressing the problem? etc.). Political correctness is an inevitable part of that package.

    • Two clarifications: 1. this is a Canadian website, so I was talking about Canada, and 2. I was confining my remarks to faculty, not students.

    • as a compensation for closing off contradiction from sympathetic skeptics, me studies offers academics a menu of prospective complaints as long and diverse as the field of adjective combinations in the grammar. allied critics may provide meaningful support in talking past each other cordially as reputation witnesses against “the Man” and coexist in morality and in the literature, while rare direct address triggers snappy responses.

      @ Prof. Heath 2. I wish u would b more ambitious and consider the students as near-equal participants, as their “me” credentials r often as defensible as those of the pros, depending on the catchiness of their respective complaints

      1. nationalist trigger warning

  2. Fair enough that there are not so many stories such as the one I linked to in Canada. I suspect that’s because in Canada most schools are essentially “commuter schools” (even if the students live close by, they spend most of their time living, working, and playing outside of their university), so most students don’t have much of an investment in their school one way or another. But I’m pretty sure that is a source of regret for some of the faculty! (Though there have been speakers shut down or university clubs banned on Canadian campuses on “politically correct” grounds.)

    Anyway, my main point is just that you if you decide to study Butler, Foucault, or what have you, your moral commitments are already your over-riding interest; you choose the methodology only because you presume that it supports those commitments. Whereas an empirical political scientist, for instance, really has a commitment to the integrity of statistical methods independent of their perceived political utility, so “political correctness” will be less of a problem in that field (though quantitative political science is again, largely an American phenomenon, but there are more empirical disciplines in Canada also).

  3. I guess I don’t understand why the audience holds back? In my department, I never feel we do this, not on issue of “me” studies or any others. They are afraid they will come off as racist or sexist?
    I remember when Nussbaum criticized some feminist writers, she wasn’t afraid she’d come off as sexist. It seems like the problem is with cowardly professors, not people writing about race or gender. (The people who write on race and gender do, in fact, argue with each other all the time, of course. I’ve seen outsiders (and I’m one) not realize this, but it’s simply true, as easy to see as anything if you look for it.)

  4. This post is baffling in a number of ways.
    1. Heath dismisses claims of ableism with an eye roll, but then criticizes others for not being very good at self-criticism. Could it be that Heath does not understand the stigma of mental disease and that using a term like “crazy” stigmatizes people and normalizes our dismissal of others as not being sane?
    2. Somehow a white male philosopher study white male philosophy is not “me” studies (I suppose because white male is universal as in the traditional liberal philosophies of Kant, Mill, Rawls) whereas studying underrepresented groups is “me” studies.
    3. The reason underrepresented groups study underrepresented groups might just be because no one else studies them (all their white professors are busy not studying “me” groups but rather studying white philosophers instead).
    4. I’m unsure how Heath has understood the motives to all his colleagues doing “me” studies. Is he also able to derive the motives of someone working on aesthetics, epistemology, Plato, etc. as well or just “me” studies?
    5. I think it is easy to dismiss political correctness when you see it as language policing rather than as treating others who are traditionally oppressed with respect. Criticizing political correctness for language policing sounds a lot like someone enjoying their white male privilege to the point of being oblivious to the struggles of those without said privilege.
    6. To John Forrest, a trigger warning is to prevent people from having to relive a traumatic experience such as a violent attack or a sexual assault. If you have never been the victim of either (and I have of the former), than it might be difficult to understand why such traumas are serious. Why is it so bad to be sensitive to the plights of others?
    7. Lastly, isn’t the problem with Heath and others like him? If you don’t feel comfortable asking questions that means (a) you don’t feel you can respectfully ask a question, (b) you think that person will be offended by your question, or (c) you don’t know enough about the work to ask an informed question. Maybe there are other possibilities I’m leaving out, but if it is (b) then you are basically saying that underrepresented groups (let’s be clear who Heath means by “me” studies scholars) are somehow more sensitive than white people about their work and will therefore more quickly take offense. Think about that for a moment. I won’t call it racist since I can’t see Heath’s eye roll, but it is disrespectful and it means you don’t consider such people to be as mature and professional as other scholars.

    • Sin Nombre: ” if it is (b) then you are basically saying that underrepresented groups (let’s be clear who Heath means by “me” studies scholars) are somehow more sensitive than white people about their work and will therefore more quickly take offense. …it is disrespectful and it means you don’t consider such people to be as mature and professional as other scholars.”

      SN, it’s pretty clear from the essay that (b) is the correct characterisation of Heath’s position. I note that you seem unwilling to entertain the possibility that this view is, in fact, correct. Instead, you leap to denounce him. A clearer demonstration of his point would be difficult to imagine.

  5. I have it on good authority that the hand-wringing over at Daily Nous is being conducted exclusively by Americans! We Canadians know better…

    Incidentally, Sin Nombre’s comment to me above is a nice example of the ludicrous bad-faith that characterizes the academic position that I will continue to call politically correct. The suggestion that people who have not been sexually assaulted will find it difficult to understand why it would be serious or troubling is patently absurd; the idea that it’s bad to be sensitive to the plight of others is denied by no one. But you keep beating your dead straw horses there…

    • What’s so absurd about not being to understand another person’s trauma? Pain is a rather personal and subjective experience and being unable to communicate that pain is a widely noted phenomenon. Rather than just dismiss the idea of trigger warnings as “politically correct” why not give reasons for why trigger warnings are pointless or absurd or whatever. I think the potential to actually trigger psychological harm is enough to have trigger warnings.

  6. Sin Nombre… There seems to be a clear difference between studying race, ethnicity, culture, gender, etc. as a topic and studying some more general topic such as logic, metaphysics, epistemology, etc. that has been written by someone who belongs to a certain race, ethnicity, culture, gender, etc. Leibniz and Newton were white. Does that mean that I’m studying white people when I learn calculus? Is calculus only true within the confines of Europe? Granted, western philosophers need to do a lot better in dealing with what non-western philosophers have said on their topics of interest. But that doesn’t really have much of a bearing on Heath’s argument.

    On a more general note, I think the argument is a bit too simplistic. A large part of the problem, I suspect, is due to a combination of selection-effects, hyper-specialization, and obscurantist language. First, the people who get into the field are the ones who are heavily emotionally invested in the topic. Second, due to the specialization of the field, they largely tend to communicate only with other specialists who share their worldview. Third, when they do present something to a wider audience, that wider audience often becomes baffled by obscure terminology (e.g., “emancipatory praxis”). I think sympathy certainly has something to do with it, but it is really only one partial cause among the others I have listed, all of which work cumulatively to produce the radicalizing effect.

    • I do a better job of explaining this at DailyNous but also professor Yap points this out as well:

      The problem is that any study is the study of someone’s experience. Since the history of philosophy has been dominated by white males then the history of philosophy is very much a question of white male experiences. This is less obvious because those experiences have been treated as universal. As to the specific question of calculus, yes, I suppose you would be studying white people when you study calculus since mathematics is just another way of interpreting and measuring the world.I guess it depends on whether you think mathematicals are real or not. Now, you aren’t exclusively studying white men since other cultural views were part of the formation of calculus such as the concept of the zero which has its origins in Arab thought.

      I think my point about white men not recognizing that philosophy is largely been about the experiences of white men does have bearing because (a) it shows Heath’s own lack of ability at self-criticism and (b) it explodes the idea that “me” studies is something those other people are doing.

      As to your point about the obscurity of these specialized fields I would ask a few things: (a) aren’t all people who work on something from a scholarly point of view emotionally invested?; (b) don’t all specialized fields have their own obscure teminology?; (c) what’s the basis for the claim that “they largely tend to communicate only with other specialists who share their worldview”?

      • So if you think that the study of mathematics and physics is the study of people’s experience then you’re obviously some sort of phenomenalist. I’m not sure why you think that phenomenalism is so obvious that other people should just accept it. At any rate, if by studying anything you are automatically studying the people who previously thought about it, then your point is rather trivial, and I don’t really see how it has any bearing upon the sociology of the field in question. But you’re right in your last sentence. This is all speculation. It needs to be backed by cold hard empirical data. (Well, I guess you must not believe in empirical data, given that you’re a phenomenalist… but that’s a dispute for another day.)

  7. Regarding the issue of the word “crazy” and ableism (and eye-rolling). It seems to me that it doesn’t matter what the fact of the matter is (if there is one) about whether “crazy” is ableist. What matters is that the use of that term offends some people who suffer disadvantage and are subject systematically to micro-aggressions. Since the cost of saying, e.g. “wildly implausible” instead of “crazy” is virtually nothing and the benefit considerable–people are spared being hurt–then why insist on using the term “crazy”? It is hard not to conclude that one’s only motive in insisting is to antagonize.

    • In my experience (and speaking partly as one of the people being discussed), the people who claim that terms like “stupid” and “crazy” are ableist or otherwise offensive are practically never people who suffer from mental illness themselves. Most of the times I’ve heard people make that claim, it’s been someone who, as far as I can tell, is perfectly able except for being a lousy critical thinker, who’s just been called one of those things in the course of having a bad argument shot down. Curiously, they seldom show such exquisite concern for the plight of the mentally ill at any time *other* than in the middle of losing an argument on the Internet.

      In any case, I can assure you that in at least my own case and the great majority of the other ones I’m personally familiar with, their concern is misplaced. It’s useful, especially in this context, to have a term for “something so obviously false that, at least at first glance, mental illness is the only explanation for believing it in good faith”, “crazy” works well for this, and anyone who confuses that with my own moderately serious ADHD and situational bouts of depression is probably not smart enough to do me any real damage anyway.

  8. Given Heath’s main point in the post, Cindy Stark’s suggestion that “It is hard not to conclude that one’s only motive in insisting is to antagonize” struck me as an odd comment.

    I think Heath is wrong about the issue of ableism, and I agree that the fact that the term offends is probably reason enough to prefer another term. But set that aside for a minute: the interesting claim in Heath’s post is that, in certain areas of progressive academic discourse, there are some systemic factors at play that lower the quality of debate. In particular, the claim is that in those areas disagreement is too-easily interpreted as morally objectionable, and this discourages constructive debate. The suggestion that Heath *must* be motivated by a desire to antagonize looks an awfully lot like a textbook illustration of what he’s talking about.

    Maybe Heath is wrong about ableist language, but even if he is, maybe his thinking was just that that ‘crazy’ is a useful term, since he was writing for a popular audience and the term popularly refers to deficient thinking that goes beyond mere ignorance. That he chose the term is no evidence at all that he was aiming to antagonize. That is, he a) might be wrong, and b) might nonetheless not be maliciously motivated. Indeed, an important insight in the critical studies of oppression is that motives and intentions are often beside the point when thinking about the whether something is oppressive. So it should be perfectly possible to point out that he’s mistaken without concluding that he’s a jerk.

  9. There are certain groups who cannot be content to disagree with other viewpoints, they actively go on social media campaigns to prevent them from speaking. Perhaps faculty have gotten over it, but the children of PC are alive and terrifyingly effective at silencing others.

  10. I take Heath’s main argument to be the following
    1) If people from different epistemic backgrounds are uncomfortable engaging in some field more than other fields, then that field is at an epistemic disadvantage relative to the other fields.
    2) “me” studies is such that people from different epistemic backgrounds are more uncomfortable engaging in it than in other fields.
    3) So, “me” studies is at an epistemic disadvantage relative to other fields.
    [The argument is not strictly speaking valid, but I hope you can spare me some sloppiness]

    I would like to challenge 2. Heath’s justification is that people from epistemic backgrounds other than the one studying will be unwilling to participate. But this is only half of what is needed to justify 2. Heath also needs to argue that non-“me” studies fields don’t also suffer from this problem. But this is not clear. People from oppressed groups have frequently reported feeling unwelcome in discussions of “mainstream” fields. Often people will feel intimidated by the possibility of being told that, due to their epistemic background, the are unable to correctly evaluate a particular claim or inference.
    At any rate, more work needs to be done to justify 2 than merely pointing out a deficiency in “me” studies. If that deficiency is global, then we have no reason to conclude that “me” studies is at a particular disadvantage relative to other fields.

  11. I would like to respond to AnonGrad’s argument because it seems to show how Heath’s article can be interpreted away from his own contention. That would be the reason for so many other critical comments.

    Firstly, AnonGrad’s point (1) could have been written more clearly – but perhaps that is my own take and someone can point out the error.

    I would reword (1) like this:

    If people from different (== ‘various’ ??) epistemic backgrounds are uncomfortable engaging with fields in addition to their own particular field, then that particular field is at an epistemic disadvantage relative to the other fields.

    If we take (1) as our starting point (as I said, this is my view), then point (2) needs indeed to be challenged. If person A is a “me” person and that is reflected in their research, that does not necessarily mean that other people (who presumably are not all “me” persons) are now uncomfortable with the “me” person research in the context of this research’s epistemic nature.

    If, on the other hand, one of the others is in fact also a “me” person, then of course the same reason for discomfort would apply; it just comes from the other direction.

    I think the problem is also the meaning of the word ‘uncomfortable’. In Heath’s text the word is used to describe the originator of a “me” study who is uncomfortable engaging with other fields. But coming from the direction of the others who are faced with a “me” study (like Heath), those others are not similarly uncomfortable since they are happy with the wider context as such provided by the “me” study. Rather, they may be in disagreement or simply be annoyed (which in turn could make them uncomfortable, but that’s a another story).

    So essentially Heath’s point is that, while a “me” person lets their discomfort influence their research, for the rest the result is annoying because they themselves have no such compunction. Then for them a proper polemic would entail supplying a text in which the “me” content is only part of the whole to point out the former’s limitation.

    Even more essentially, the issue links to the role of observer either within a group or outside the group. There is an interesting article, “Observation of Online Communities: A Discussion of Online and Offline Observer Roles in Studying Development, Cooperation and Coordination in an Open Source Software Environment” (

    As all these comments show, in the end we are all biased to some extent – we know what we know and that’s it. We can mitigate the problem by learning as much as we can, but that is finite too. In Star Trek the fictitious Borg are absorbing the entire minds of their victims, and in the series they are depicted as monsters. Probably more for dramatic effect than anything else, since I don’t think knowing forever more makes you evil. Because if it does, shouldn’t we all be “me” people?