Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Sneering arrogance of the elites

There is a trend in western politics that is growing by the day. There appears to be this belief that because something - some topic, some issue - has been resolved by 'consensus', any questioning of it should be treated as wrong, unacceptable and incorrect. I witnessed this recently when a woman who had experienced adversity was mocked, sneered at and humiliated on television by the 'consensus' crowd for voicing an opinion (about her experience) that somehow made the consensus look bad. So now it's alright to demean someone who is already experiencing adversity because her experience, her loss makes your opinion look bad? It's remarkable that those who are so incredibly elitist as to demean everyday battlers on television are considered champions of the downtrodden. Words and gestures apparently matter more than your actual treatment of someone in adversity. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

How sexual rights are debated in Indian parliament

In India, when it comes to discussions on the rights of sexual minorities amongst politicians and political parties, there is a glaring double standard that comes into play. It’s one that may baffle western observers but fits perfectly with the binary construction underpinning how many Indians view gender and sexuality. What’s happened over the past couple of years is that while gay rights have taken a few giant leaps backwards, transgender rights have taken a few giant leaps forwards. There are two parallel phenomena at work here: increasing support across the political spectrum for special laws to protect the rights of transgender people, and continuing reluctance to decriminalise homosexuality by repealing the infamous Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code.

Sec 377 is a colonial-era statute that prohibits “sex against the order of nature”. As I explain later in this article, India has vacillated on Sec 377 in ways that have deeply disappointed those who had hoped for a more enlightened vision from modern India’s judiciary and parliament. Instead, what we’ve seen is a contradictory and inconsistent approach to the rights of sexual minorities. 

It could be argued that this contradictory approach fits perfectly with the conservative ethos of the country’s political class. Gay rights are considered a western import, whereas transgender rights tally with tradition – because the transgender community has existed since time immemorial and has a defined social role that’s rooted in antiquity.

However, other than the fact that Indian politicians’ double standards don’t stand on principle, there’s apparently little awareness of how Sec 377 affects transgender people as well.

Or, more accurately, there is some awareness of how doing better on transgender rights could actually put the government in an uncomfortable position in relation to gay rights.
This year the Indian parliament is grappling with legislation that seeks to end discrimination against transgender persons and enhance their access to jobs and education. 

The lower house of the Indian parliament, the Lok Sabha, is about to debate a private member’s bill on transgender rights that seeks to codify a special set of mechanisms for the welfare of the country’s marginalised transgender community. This is a much-needed step in the right direction. What is interesting, however, is that the government fears that legislating on transgender rights may (inadvertently) lead to legislative support for gay rights, which, as I’ve said, it unambiguously opposes.

When the bill was being voted on in the upper house of the federal legislature, the Rajya Sabha, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) argued that it did not agree with the modalities of the private member’s bill. Highlighting the need for political unanimity, it argued that the parliament “should not be divided” over the issue of transgender rights. The bill was ultimately passed by the Rajya Sabha and now awaits being tabled in the Lok Sabha. In the meantime, the BJP is attempting to draft its own legislation on transgender rights to replace the private member’s bill.

Sources within the BJP have recently revealed that this is because the government is uncomfortable with what it sees as the current bill’s troubling implications for gay rights and Sec 377. Officials fear that passing the bill could bolster support for scrapping Sec 377, which the party has both explicitly and implicitly indicated at various points in time that it is unwilling to do.

The party opposes the ‘loose language’ of the bill as encapsulated in its ‘guiding principles’, which highlight issues of discrimination, focus on health risks faced by the community and prioritise securing “respect for inherent dignity [and] individual autonomy, including freedom to make one’s own choices”.

There is disquiet amongst party officials and the broader political class that such principles could set a ‘disturbing’ legislative precedent. As “respect for inherent dignity”, “individual autonomy” and “freedom to make one’s own choices” could easily be used to bolster support for gay rights as well (and thus undermine Sec 377), there is pressure on the party to “swiftly finalise the official legislation that could replace the private member’s bill”. The said official legislation would, presumably, do away with the other bill’s ‘troubling’ aspects. Interestingly, when the member who sponsored the bill was called on to defend it in parliament he cited the growing acceptance internationally of the need for protecting transgender rights. The same could, of course, be said for gay rights as well.

These developments follow a series of judicial decisions delivered in the past two years that pretty much replicate the same logic. In December 2013, the Supreme Court of India (the country’s apex court) ‘re-criminalised’ homosexuality by overturning a 2009 Delhi High Court order that had ‘read down’ or nullified relevant clauses in Sec 377. In April 2014, the Supreme Court delivered another judgment in which it recognised that the country’s marginalised transgender community faces discrimination at various levels in society and ordered the federal government and state governments to come up with special mechanisms to end discrimination and enhance the community’s welfare.

Even as rights activists in India celebrated the much-needed recognition for the transgender community afforded by the court’s April 2014 judgment, there was widespread regret that the previous case on Sec 377 went the way it did. (Each case was decided by a panel of two judges.)

As things stand, India is poised to continue on the same path: there is little political will to mend the judiciary’s and parliament’s contradictory and inconsistent approach to sexual rights. What this effectively means is that, on the one hand, while the transgender community may benefit from ongoing legislative efforts, on the other, it will continue to suffer under the yoke of Sec 377. Of course it also means that the broader LGBTQI community will also continue to have their rights violated and their self-respect and dignity vitiated by Sec 377. There are so many examples of how Sec 377 has been used to blackmail, harass, intimidate and even imprison people.

Opponents of gay rights in India, like in other parts of the world, love to disparage efforts to safeguard the rights of sexual minorities by damning homosexuality as a ‘western import’. They constantly overlook history and ignore the efforts of local activists to highlight how their nonsensical condemnations are making life a constant battle for millions of their fellow citizens.

On the positive side, those who are fighting for justice and equity in India are still optimistic that change will ultimately come. Perhaps the ruling BJP should heed what leading media outlets have been saying for a while now:

"On the political plane, legislating equality for the LGBT community would earn enormous goodwill for BJP. It makes up 5-10% of the country’s population and would become a captive vote bank for at least a generation, helping BJP win elections. Such a move would also position BJP on the side of modernity and youth. India now aspires to lead the world in many respects, we should not lead from behind. Repeal Section 377, decriminalise homosexuality and permit gays to marry. Digital India, which seeks to make India competitive in information technology, is well and good. But if we are to succeed in the 21st century our mental software requires a big upgrade as well."

(Another version of this article was published in Overland magazine.) 

Monday, August 24, 2015

How does Stephen McDonell do it?

Time after time, ABC reporter Stephen McDonell produces the most intrepid reports from China. He speaks perfect Chinese. He seeks out interviewees who are confident, persuasive and often daring. Some are environmental activists, some are journalists, some are anti-corruption crusaders, and a vast number of them are ordinary citizens who have grievances against the state. He films anti-eviction demonstrations, protests against police violence and even protests by separatists. How does he do it? While many of the people he encounters are reluctant to speak on camera, an impressive number are openly critical and speak with startling confidence. The most impressive was an elderly lady at an anti-land grab and anti-eviction demonstration who, when told by a policeman to keep quiet ("You are making us lose face in front of the foreigner"), started reciting her name, address and phone number. She declared her contact details in front of the bevy of policemen who surrounded her. She then turned to the camera and said, "Because I have spoken to you, they will now throw me in jail. But I'm not afraid." Every single time McDonell finds himself in such a tense situation, he is sought out by police officials and 'propaganda' officials who tell the cameraman to stop filming and demand to see his permit. Instead of complying straight away, McDonell confidently and calmly demands in turn to see the official's ID. When he is satisfied, he pulls out his permit, which shows that he does indeed have the right to conduct interviews in China. The confrontation ends. And he continues reporting from China, year after year. There's something really unique going on here. Evidently, he enjoys a degree of freedom that is truly remarkable. In report after report, he offers critical commentary on the Party, including on its senior-most leader. Yet he remains in China and continues to report freely. Just how McDonell does it is a mystery. A good one. 

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Trump and Sanders, the populist outsiders

Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have taken the US presidential primaries by storm. Let's reflect on some aspects of their emergence onto the American political stage and the 'establishment's' responses to this. 
By all reports, Sanders appeals to the young, liberal and college-educated demographic, and it is this group that is vocally supporting him on social media and at his enormously well-attended rallies at various towns across 'liberal' America, particularly those with liberal arts colleges. Sanders' appeal is based on his recognition of the economic challenges that young Americans face today, and their declining faith in both the state and the market. They are often in precarious jobs or are under-employed, while being burdened with huge education debts. They are often steeped in discourses about social inequality and economic inequality, and the two are seen as being inextricably interlinked. Essentially, Sanders' comments on education and the welfare state offer hope to many of these young people who are deeply suspicious of the market - where sky-rocketing compensation for those in the upper tiers of the economy stands in stark contrast to virtual wage stagnation (if not decline) and increasing casualisation of work in the lower tiers of the economy. They say voters vote out of self-interest, and why would young people who face increasing uncertainty in the job market not vote for a candidate that offers the dream, however improbable may be its realisation, of free education and social welfare in America. Therefore, the establishment's response (although it must be said that many new media outlets have offered positive coverage of Sanders), of calling him a 'socialist', or of deriding the intent of the campaign, or indeed his supporters' concerns, is not going to address the core issues that have propelled Sanders' popularity.

The mainstream media have not taken kindly to Donald Trump's surging popularity in the polls. While there's plenty of information on Trump's continuing rise in the polls, there is also a great deal of heavy editorialising and persistent criticism of Trump, focusing on his various self-evident flaws. It may be inferred by a reasonable observer that while the likes of Fox News and Forbes are anxious because Trump poses a threat to their favoured GOP candidates, the likes of NYT and Washington Post (which cannot otherwise be clubbed together as belonging to the same end of the political spectrum), and the vast gamut of progressive online media outlets, are anxious because Trump is proving to be a catalyst for a backlash against political propriety. It's quite contradictory to call Trump anti-elite, but sentiment against elite control over politics - in cultural terms and in financial terms - is exactly what he's channeling. Trump's support, which is growing across several demographics and in several places, rests in large part on his bombastic disruption of the orthodoxies of modern political discourse and the entrenched power of the donor-politician-bureaucrat nexus. According to interviews with Trump supporters, people don't necessarily support him because they believe that his policy positions are viable; rather, they believe that political thought has congealed into a top-down monolith, and that Trump, with his incorrigible bombast and his seemingly indomitable spirit, represents an antidote to the prevailing system. So what does the establishment GOP, which essentially symbolises one half of the 'system' that people are reacting against, do about this challenge? They come up with a conspiracy amongst the other candidates - all favourites of a variety of big PACs or donors - to jointly attack his campaign in a series of ads planned for the coming month(s). If the establishment's response is going to be to discredit Trump and consequently appear to undermine the political engagement of his supporters, the result is not going to be increased legitimacy and support for the other establishment candidates. It will look like just another day in the world of elite politics where professional politicians and their big donors get to tell people who they should vote for while simultaneously ignoring the issues that they've raised. So, it will look like just another day in the world of Top Down Politics (TDP). It must be hard fighting off Trump's growing popularity but as a strategy, it's hard to see this paying dividends. And, ultimately, if it comes to a three-way contest, the establishment will regret alienating those who want a change from TDP. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

Vlad the Impala and other thoughts on originality

The other day this jokey name just popped into my head - Vlad the Impala. I thought to myself, if I ever found myself in the company of an impala and had the opportunity to name it (for conversational purposes of course), I would call it Vlad the Impala. (Yeah, I know.) So I was amused and wondered what else would become of our fictional impala character - maybe an impala who is a fearsome, dark, mysterious and frightening character who goes around doing unspeakable things to the other animals in this imaginary sketch; maybe an impala who transforms into a carnivorous beast at night and wreaks unimaginable havoc amongst his impala friends... Something nice and pleasant like that.

So I was amused at myself and my brain's capacity to come up with ridiculous things like that in moments of dullness or during (weird) flights of fancy. Is it weird to think random thoughts like this once in a while? Perhaps not. I must confess that I often have what can only be described as random thoughts (thoughts which are never more than a momentary distraction, a source of amusement, no matter how absurd). And I must also confess that I often (initially) feel like I should share these funny, (ostensibly) original thoughts with others, just so that the thoughts are not wasted solely on myself, and that they at least find their way into the ephemeral world of whatsapp chats or suchlike. Facebook used to be a space for the sharing of random thoughts but sometime ago I decided I would cut out the randomness and sporadic expressions of eccentricity from my Facebook profile/persona. I would turn FB into a more 'respectable' (and naturally more bland) space. Sometime ago I also decided that I would de-politicise my FB (whatever that means), but that is a topic for a very different post or conversation. Anyhow, the gist of the matter is, I could no longer use FB to share my random, weird thoughts because I didn't want to appear eccentric anymore. (I should clarify that I have enormous respect for people who have the confidence to carry on being funny, eccentric and wildly unpredictable on their FB. Ditto for those who continue to post political stuff without let or hindrance. Like.)

But the point of this post is this - actually, how original are our random thoughts and ideas? When you think of something random, weird, arcane or seemingly implausible, are you the only one to have had that thought? Are you?? Well, as is often the case, a simple Google search can disabuse you of that notion. For instance, Vlad the Impala already exists! Someone had the hilarious idea of printing a number-plate for their Impala (car) with that name. It's a hoot! So, yeah, of course I wasn't the only one to have thought of Vlad the Impala. And this is great. It's great that even people's randomness-es can intersect in completely unconnected ways, transcending time and place and whatnot. Of course Vlad the Impala is bloody obvious - and I'm not making the case that it's very original or anything like that - but there are times when you have totally bizarre, ridiculous, fanciful, random thoughts that appear (momentarily) original and unlikely to have been thought up by anyone else (because everyone else obviously doesn't have the time to think such silly things)... However, the truth is, someone else, in the present or in the distant past, has thought the same bizarre, ridiculous, fanciful thoughts. And it's like your two randomness-es are intersecting in time and space. It's good. Even our original flights of fancy (and they are original in the sense that they're sui generis, to use a technical term) are not entirely original.

Friday, August 7, 2015

On kindness and social media shaming

On Kindness, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor’s new book, delves into that most fundamental of human attributes – kindness – and raises some important questions about how we understand and embody kindness today.

Charting the centrality of kindness in human history, literature and social thought, Phillips and Taylor ask why kindness has become a sign of weakness in our modern times, a cause for anxiety in an age preoccupied with success.

Kindness, or the lack of it, occupies a complex place in our lives today. “There is nothing we feel more consistently deprived of than kindness,” they say. They argue that “the unkindness of others has become our contemporary complaint” and “nothing outrages us more than people being unkind to us”. And yet, we “are never as kind as we want to be”.

Phillips and Taylor make the case that while we are often afraid of “living according to our sympathies” (“kindness is the saboteur of the successful life”), the kind life – “the life lived in instinctive sympathetic identification with the vulnerabilities and attractions of others” – is the life “we are more inclined to live”. In fact, we often find ourselves living the kind life without “the language to express it, or cultural support for it”.

In addition to the historical and literary content of their work, their message to the reader is a pragmatic and timely one – kindness is an indispensable part of our human heritage and condition: “In giving up on kindness – and especially our own acts of kindness – we deprive ourselves of a pleasure that is fundamental to our sense of well-being.”

In her review of Phillips and Taylor’s book, popular blogger and curator Maria Popova writes: “…at some point in recent history, kindness became little more than an abstract aspiration, its concrete practical applications a hazardous and vulnerable-making behavior to be avoided — we need only look to the internet’s ‘outrage culture’ for evidence…”

Popova’s observation strikes me as being especially apposite to recent discussions of the place of ‘outrage culture’ in our contemporary milieu. I believe her interlinking of a perceptible general decline in kindness and outrage culture – our decade’s constantly accreting zeitgeist – is worth exploring further.

Defined by our digital engagements and disengagements, life in 2015 comprises multiple daily negotiations between “hazardous and vulnerable-making behaviour[s]” that can be exposed and those that cannot be exposed; between vulnerabilities that can and cannot be shared.

Social media have made it possible to break down and transcend earlier barriers. More often than not, our communications with the world – with those we know and those we do not know – now occur not through carefully-constructed lenses and filters but rather the permeable prism of instant and spontaneous access and exposure. Phillips and Taylor write: “If there is no invulnerability anywhere, suddenly there is too much vulnerability everywhere.”

But the profusion of vulnerabilities has engendered not only an accompanying increase in our capacity to symphathise, emphathise and identify with others (which it arguably has), but also growing impatience with others’ ‘flaws’ and ‘mistakes’. Along with constant ‘liking’ and ‘favouriting’, instantaneous condemnations and disavowals have become an inalienable part of the ritual of daily encounters with the vulnerabilities of others.

This is where journalist Jon Ronson’s new book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed comes in. Ronson’s research is a timely contribution to our understanding of how the internet is continually shaping our behaviour and, as Popova’s provocation puts it, our capacity to practice and embody kindness.

In his book Ronson chronicles recent cases of social media ‘shaming’ and the impact it had on the lives of the people who were shamed. Ronson interviews notable figures and everyday folks – like Justine Stacco, Lindsey Stone, Hank and Alex and several others – whose online or real-world faux pas led to an avalanche of hate from offended social media users and eventually, after much rallying, to their being fired form their jobs. They found themselves isolated and unable to cope with the emotional (and financial) fallout of what they thought was at worst a stupid mistake.

The book highlights the devastating cost of public shaming that one never sees once the furore has passed and the offenders – “the real human beings who [are] the virtual targets of these campaigns” – have been punished.

Ronson writes that in the early days of social media outrage “the collective fury felt righteous, powerful and effective”. It was as if “hierarchies were being dismantled, as if justice were being democratized”. However, as time went on, he “watched these shame campaigns multiply, to the point that they targeted not just powerful institutions and public figures but really anyone perceived to have done something offensive”.

Now, he says, one is frequently confronted with a “disconnect between the severity of the crime and the gleeful savagery of the punishment”. He argues that “ideological crusade[s] against perceived bigotry” have also become “a form of idle entertainment”. We take as much pleasure in having our opinions validated by the shaming of those we perceive to be ‘wrong’ and ‘flawed’ as we do in witnessing the (real-time) spectacle of their downfall.

Here, I am specifically interested in how Ronson’s chronicle of social media shaming intersects with the place that kindness occupies in our social world and habits.

“We were soldiers making war on other people’s flaws,” Ronson writes. Others’ flaws and vulnerabilities have become opportunities for us to engage in corrective action and forms of what sociologist/criminologist John Braithwaite calls “stigmatic shaming”, which is designed to “set the offender apart as an outcast”.

Phillips and Taylor write: “Bearing other people’s vulnerability — which means sharing in it imaginatively and practically without needing to get rid of it, to yank people out of it — entails being able to bear one’s own.” “Vulnerability,” they say, “is our shared biological inheritance”. To be able to bear witness to others’ perceived flaws and vulnerabilities – without instantly excoriating, censuring, censoring or ostracising them – one needs to work from a place of empathy. More fundamentally, it entails adopting kindness, rather than suspicion, anger and hostility, as the default starting point in our engagement with others’ vulnerabilities. In practical terms, it entails assuming that flawed humour, for instance, which lies at the centre of Ronson’s book (for having been the cause of most of his informants’ downfall), as also at the centre of several more recent cases of social media shaming, is, after all, an instance of someone’s flawed sensibilities – not a manifestation of their inherent desire to cause or incite harm.

More than this, however, there is also the always-elided issue of the deliberate quashing of ideas that are seen as problematic or as offensive. Jezebel founder Anna Holmes offers her perspective on this:

Jezebel contributed to what I now call ‘outrage culture,’ but outrage culture has no sense of humor – we had a hell of a sense of humor. That’s where it splits off… The fact that people who are incredibly intelligent and have interesting things to say aren’t given the room to work out their arguments or thoughts because someone will take offense is depressing to me.”

Ronson argues in his book that we are “creating a world where the smartest way to survive is to be bland”. Perhaps, as Popova tantalisingly suggests and then sets aside in her take on Phillips and Taylor’s On Kindness, shifts in our capacity for kindness, empathy and acceptance ought to lie at the core of our understanding of recent trends in the world of ideas and social media.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

‘Shut up!’: bad reviews and unfair critics are hurting the social sciences

A bad habit

Once I have finished reading an interesting, moving, insightful or informative book, I often search for conversations, reviews or commentary on the work. This happens almost involuntarily, without my intending to do so, and is a bad habit that refuses to die. Unfortunately for me, what I often find, especially if the book happens to touch on a politically sensitive topic (or, actually, not even so, as you will see shortly), is hypermodern intellectual nihilism of the kind that makes you despair of the future of writing and thinking. 

Unfair critics

In Act 2 of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the listless protagonists Vladimir and Estragon decide to kill time by hurling insults at one another. The jokey tirade continues for a while with the two men hurling the choicest abuses at each other until they reach climax with the biggest insult they can muster: “critic!”

This article is about recent encounters with frustratingly bad reviews of books and unfair critics. It is also about what our approach to ideas portends for culture. 

I only recently embarked on a voyage of the works of Jared Diamond, the acclaimed bio-geographer who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs and Steel (1997). Guns is a magnum opus that meticulously reviews and re-charts the history of the world with the aim of explaining the conditions and circumstances that led to some societies developing farming, writing, technology, and political advancement and expansion, while others maintained their hunter-gatherer lifestyles. Simply put, it was an eye-opening and magnificent read. Then I read Collapse (2005) and The World Until Yesterday (2012). Now I’m waiting to continue onto The Third Chimpanzee (1992), an earlier work.

As I said earlier, I have the unfortunate habit of reading reviews and commentary, sometimes simultaneously with the text. That’s what I did with The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?. And, man, was I disappointed.

Diamond is not an anthropologist but some anthropologists really seem to have it in for him. Wade Davis’ review of The World Until Yesterday in the Guardian and James C Scott’s review in the London Review of Books are two prime examples of this. This blog post by ‘Dennis Junk’ is an excellent riposte to the two aforementioned reviews and I make similar arguments here as I agree with him completely.    

Davis tells us that Diamonds’ charting of civilisation and implicit adoption of a “hierarchy of progress” (not Diamond’s words) is bad practice; that these are, in fact, outmoded concepts and scholars who engage in such scientific piddling as the tracking of particular evolutionary models missed the memo that established “radical” “cultural relativism” as the “ethnographic orientation” in “modern anthropology”. Cultural relativism is, he tells us, as radical as “Einstein’s theory of relativity in the field of physics”. Understanding how a culture evolved in a scientific way (through climatic, ecological and historic models) apparently replicates “19th century thinking”. Instead, cultures must only be understood as “unique sets of intellectual and spiritual choices” made by ancestors thousands of years ago, requiring no outside explanation and no explanation whatsoever of how these choices came to be made. This is the only way you can evade the charge of colonialism (implied by “19th century thinking”).

Diamond must have to deal with straw-man fallacies such as Davis’ a lot, which is why he’s had to explicitly state the obvious: “My motive for investigating these geographic differences in human societies is not to celebrate one type of society over another but simply to understand what happened in history.” (p. 18)

James Scott’s review is a long commentary (masquerading as a refutation of Diamond’s ideas) on how states are violent and how tribal societies are not preserved relics of past hunter-gatherer societies. He pulls Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) into the discussion to talk about how scholars are minimising state violence and exaggerating the violence of hunter-gatherer societies.

Firstly, Diamond explicitly clarifies at the very start of the book what he means by the terms “traditional” and “small-scale” societies (p. 6). Nowhere does he say that he considers tribal societies replicas of past hunter-gatherer societies. In fact, he clearly points out that all such societies have been “at least partly modified by contact, and could alternatively be described as ‘transitional’ rather than ‘traditional’ societies”. Instead, his argument is that demographic and ecological factors may help illuminate how pre-agrarian societies lived. Secondly, he talks at length about cultivation in such traditional societies, thereby giving the lie to his critics’ misleading use of the term “hunter-gatherer”. Thirdly, Diamond discusses state-led violence at great length (more so in other books). In this book, he compares traditional societies to contemporary states, not early agrarian states (which is what Scott goes on and on about in his review). Finally, Scott argues that archaeological, historical and ecological evidence do not tell us anything about the past, and concludes with this churlish anti-intellectual statement:

“We have virtually no credible evidence about the world until yesterday and, until we do, the only defensible intellectual position is to shut up.” (emphasis mine)

Incidentally, both Davis and Scott find the ‘what we can learn from traditional societies’ part of Diamond’s book unremarkable. Evidently nothing other than radical or never-heard-before suggestions on this front would have satisfied them.

In addition to these two reviews, we also have a review by activist Stephen Corry whose headline screams that “Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday is completely wrong” and whose premise is that Diamond (and Pinker) are guilty of “pushing the advancement of human rights for tribal peoples back decades”. Like Scott, he gives the impression that Diamond sanitises state intervention in the lives of tribal peoples by only speaking of the state as a guarantor of law and order. And like Scott, he totally disregards Diamonds’ analysis of state-led violence.

Other than some factual misrepresentations, Scott also indulges in a whole lot of – “Are they ‘backward,’ from ‘yesterday’; are they more ‘savage,’ more violent, than we are?” – all of which, including the use of single quotes, you will know is pure tosh if you’ve read even one page of any of Diamond’s books. Diamond, who published his first book at 54 after years of study and who has spent more time with communities in New Guinea than most of his critics would have spent outside their home societies in a lifetime, is the complete opposite of what is suggested here – he has possibly done more to teach us about the ingenuity of tribal societies’ (and of all societies’) adaptations to their environments than anybody else. 

Who’s killing the humanities now?

Selective (mis)reading and ideological haranguing might indeed provide fodder for charged exchanges in esoteric seminars and for damning commentary in click-bait outlets but the unintended consequences of this particular approach to intellectual discourse, taken to its logical conclusion, may well frighten its purveyors.

By promoting (faux) outrage, rancour and belligerence as the go-to modes of critique in the world of ideas, many academics and journalists are complicit in the deadening of the humanities - not only the dumbing down of the humanities but its gradual ossification and disintegration.

Reviews inveigh against ideas that do not comport with their worldview. Critics distort and misrepresent specific ideas within texts, and use straw-men arguments to ‘demolish’ the entire edifice that is the work in its totality. Presenting one specific aspect of the whole as a ‘fatal’ or ‘fundamental’ flaw, the overreaching critic often concludes (and sometimes even starts) his/her ‘devastating’ review by categorically ‘rejecting’ the author’s contribution. The author’s stand on the subject is deemed irrecoverable and all conversations are declared closed. 

Instead of criticising specific ‘flaws’ in the text and leaving it at that, and humbly accepting that other methods, views and conclusions can exist, the go-to option appears to be to ‘shut down’ the conversation.

One wonders how reviewers who adopt this approach see it as being even remotely conducive to academic growth and vitality? 

The (very self-evident) problem with this approach to criticism is it damages learning. It forecloses the possibility of developing a body of knowledge that is inclusive rather than fragmented; that is receptive to ideas rather than jealous and hostile in guarding its territory.

When even the most sophisticated, rigorous and popular thinkers in the field are approached with such belligerence, one can only imagine the treatment that is routinely meted out to ‘unpopular ones’.

Or, on the other hand, perhaps it might be more accurate to say that people like Diamond and Pinker are now being critiqued in invidious ways precisely because they are so prominent and popular. After all, both are immensely engaging and thoughtful writers, and Pinker has been very critical of the abstruse and moribund style that is conventional academic writing’s defining characteristic.

The mode and register of academic ‘journal paper’-type writing favours narrowly delimited claims and never-ending caveats and endless hedging. Arguments are sapped of life and vigour and presented in the most unobtrusive ways possible. It is best to say as a little as possible with as much corroboration as you can muster.

But the kind of scholarship that Diamond and Pinker represent (scholarship in its more traditional sense) differs in fundamental ways from the conformist, cabalistic and formula-driven scholarship that defines academia today. The former prioritises ‘big picture’ analysis over punditry. It does not shy away from making generalisations on the basis of scientific criteria instead of dwelling endlessly on particularities.

More often than not, it is marked by its lucidity and accessibility, expansiveness, seamlessness, and above all, its desire to engage, move, provoke and convince. It is, at its core, a very public kind of scholarship, more invested in engaging a wide readership and expanding the frontiers of knowledge than in fulfilling professional duties (by mass producing formulaic papers) and conforming to whatever is de rigueur amongst peers.

In academia, where styles, conventions and professional duties have become so rigid, this older, more traditional kind of scholarship is now often regarded with an unwarranted reflexive hostility. Popular science works (especially those that overlap with humanities disciplines such as history and anthropology) are the latest casualty.

Veneration for formulaic academic writing is so ingrained in scholars that any writing that transcends it is viewed with suspicion or otherwise treated shabbily (such as in bad reviews). Paradoxically, this even applies, retrospectively, to classic works such as Guns, Germs and Steel. Davis’ review of The World Until Yesterday in the Guardian, for instance, evaluates the former text in the most dismissive and laughably dishonest manner possible. (He concludes his summary of Guns with this comment on its analysis: “No surprises there.” Oh, really? Hindsight is wonderful thing!) 

And, while most of what I’ve said so far pertains to structural issues, it’s important to keep in mind (and to attempt to untangle) the politics underpinning all of this. Although admittedly confounding, understanding the politics of what is critiqued (and for what reasons) is, ultimately, indispensable to evolving a relationship with both text and critique.

When a writer is attacked for seeming to offend current dogma, and when such attacks are justified in the name of upholding moral norms or correcting historical wrongs or injustices – such wrongs being grossly unfairly attributed to the scholar – then we have a form of moral/political persecution of scholars (in the form of scaremongering amongst readers) that is as dishonest and almost as dangerous as that practiced by, for example, religious fundamentalists who make it their business to set limits on what constitutes ‘acceptable scholarship’.

Unfortunately, the end result is an intellectual world that is poorer, less informed and more partisan.

And, at the end of the day, when people of my generation barely read anyway, one wonders what those in the business of educating others are attempting to achieve by undermining what remains of scholarship?

Friday, May 22, 2015

The PhD rant that was not meant to be

Many months ago, I told myself that I would never write 'that PhD blog'. You know, the one where a hapless PhD candidate somewhere in the world writes of the brutal turmoil desiccating his soul bit by bit? Where the demons of the PhD-infested mind are unleashed upon a computer screen that is not, tragically, teeming with 'new words in your chapter'; where the sheer wretchedness of unabashed self-pity and self-indulgence is tempered only by the comforting knowledge that countless others have gone through and indulged in the same rather tedious ritual of self-flagellation to arrive at a (temporary, always temporary) point of 'zen'-ness? Yeah, that's the one. I've read a fair number of them and I have to admit, they are fascinating. There is nothing quite as satisfying as knowing that you're not the only one, no matter what the circumstances are in which you imagine you truly are the 'only one'. You're afforded agonisingly detailed glimpses (the longer the post and the gorier the details the more complete the catharsis) into the lives of other PhD candidates who, in some lonely corner of the world, have gone through and are going through similar bouts and seemingly never-ending cycles of self-doubt, defeat and (occasionally, very rarely, almost negligible-ly) triumph. I have to admit that in every moment of self-doubt I masochistically google 'I hate my PhD'. The results are always immensely satisfying. The sheer gore on offer on this subject is always very cathartic. Is there shame in admitting to hating your PhD? I don't think so, not really. Not if you don't actually, truly hate your PhD but just the fact that it's not over yet! (Correction: what the hell, there's no shame in admitting that you actually, truly do hate your PhD if that's the case! In fact, if you do, then admitting it, to yourself firstly, is absolutely necessary.) The thing is, everyone starts a PhD on a very high note. The optimism is infectiously high. But once the initial excitement has run its course, the Dementors take over and basically destroy what's left of hope and optimism in your miserable existence. Now when I hear people make ludicrous (outrageous!) statements like, 'I think I want to be an academic. Maybe I should apply for a PhD' I instinctively flinch and avert my gaze. I don't want them to see the admonishing, hope-denying cynicism in my face. 'Well, it can't be all that bad?' you ask. Well, no, it isn't in reality all that bad. But in your head it is and what does it matter if the reality is not quite as tragic as the interpretation in your mind? You've already convinced yourself that you're no good, your work is no good, academia is no good, the whole education-(insert your evil of choice) complex is no good, and there is very little you can do now that you're almost there - just a few (gigantic) steps away - but stick around and finish! Besides, as one discovers rapidly in academia, you cannot just write and publish what you want to write. You have to take what you want to say, disinfect it with academic-formula spray (if you try to act fancy, you're going to get a swift kick in the backside, and so many kicks that you'll forget what fancy is) and only then is it even worthy of consideration. This is no one's fault but just the way things are and if you want to clear the last hurdle you have to understand how to work around it. But going back to the many, many mournful online confessions of PhD self-hate I've read. What is truly remarkable is how similar a lot of people's experiences are - the same long dark nights of the soul, the same unedifying brooding and unhappiness - and how such experiences span the whole gamut of disciplines. (The sciences, from what I can see online, have it worse, but who am I to say? Maybe scientists articulate their feelings more than those in the social sciences and arts. OK, no, I take that back.) So, in effect, there must be something universal about the PhD-end-of-hope experience. Perhaps something even more universal than the agony induced by injections, dental surgery, complete and utter destruction of a favourite filled-to-the-brim hard-drive... Anyway, the point is, all this psychodrama is very unnecessary. If you can do anything in life that leads to happiness, self-sustenance and growth, then do it. Don't do a PhD! 

(Disclaimer: the views expressed are the product of a tortured mind. Do not take everything at face value.)