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?