De Tocqueville: A Bit More on ‘Microaggressions’ and Rowan University.

Alexis Charles Henri Clérel, Viscount de Tocqueville

Since my post the other day on so-called ‘microaggressions’ at Rowan University, I’ve been unable to get Alexis de Tocqueville‘s Democracy in America out of my head; volume 2, section 4, chapter 6–‘What Sort Of Despotism Democratic Nations Have To Fear’in particular.

Yes, I know that it’s a hoary old chestnut that has been cited here, there and everywhere by all sorts of people, some of whom I might not want to be counted among; nonetheless, de Tocqueville’s thinking offers a useful lens for viewing what speech-and-offence codes on university campuses are doing to both their students and their freedom.

Here’s the snippet I’ve been pondering the most:



Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things; it has predisposed men to endure them and often to look on them as benefits.

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

Beautiful writing, isn’t it? That’s even in translation.

De Tocqueville is, of course, talking about the state, and Rowan University is just a university. Indeed. But what connects them for me is the process whereby individuals are infantilized and their freedom eroded by an institution that has authority over them. Rowan’s policies on ‘microaggressions’ boil down to an institutional interference in how grown people talk to each other; and, as de Tocqueville notes, the process of infantilization is carried out through a benign, mild authority that is composed of ‘a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate.’ Indeed, such an authoritative network of ‘microrules’ seems designed to ensnare, rather than free, individuals through the active micromanagement of small, everyday interactions. De Tocqueville also reminds us that ‘[s]ubjection in minor affairs breaks out every day and is felt by the whole community indiscriminately. It does not drive men to resistance, but it crosses them at every turn, till they are led to surrender the exercise of their own will.’ It’s hard not see the same grinding mechanism at work in Rowan’s policies, which amount to imposing a one-sided model of language wherein everyday conversations must take place in accordance with rules that both presume the guilt of the one accused of causing offence and prevent the same from refuting the charges. Such a model of communication clearly has nothing to do with dialogue, no matter what is claimed; it rather resembles the controlling one-way flow of information used by the Senders in William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. It is designed to shut people up.

De Tocqueville makes it clear that the old words like ‘tyranny’ and ‘despotism’ don’t quite capture what he wants to isolate for scrutiny: this network does not ‘tyrannize’ per se; nor should we expect it to resemble a ‘despotic’ regime, complete with a dear leader wearing a vaguely militaristic uniform surrounded by laughing-but-terrified minions. On the contrary, this ‘despotism’ doesn’t look much like despotism at all. As de Tocqueville notes earlier in the same chapter, this ‘despotism’ even looks mild at first glance: ‘it would be more extensive and more mild; it would degrade men without tormenting them.’ Therein lies the network’s insidiousness: it reaches into every corner of your existence, making you dependent upon it, unable to function without it, as it quietly degrades you, reducing you to the state of being a helpless, perpetual, child, utterly in grip of its mild power.

Can such a form of authority, which disregards personal freedoms as it ‘compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies’ people, reducing them ‘to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals,’ actually be considered a good thing? How can such a form of authority do much besides stunt its charges? It certainly can’t do much to equip them with the skills required to stand on their own two feet like reasoning and free individuals.

And what if both the university and the state want the same thing?

‘Microaggressions,’ Rowan University and Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes

While browsing the Campus Reform website, I came across a report that Rowan University had just ‘published a guide on “Interrupting Microaggressions” with strategies for “calling out” those who advocate concepts like “color blindness” and “meritocracy.”‘ The digital bumf on the Rowan website makes it clear that the notion of ‘microaggression’ is bound up with identity politics.

One example of a ‘microaggression’ given in the Campus Reform piece is the statement, ‘Everyone can succeed in this country, if they work hard enough.’ Now, one could certainly question that statement by pointing out that not everyone who works hard actually succeeds, no matter what their background. People fail at stuff all the time, and if there were no ‘failures’ then there would be no ‘successes.’ We could follow up by asking more interesting questions like, ‘How does the speaker measure “success”?’ or ‘Has success to do with money, personal happiness, health, etc.?’ At the same time, it’s obvious that the statement is true: working hard is a necessary ingredient for any type of success. For example, doing well in a class at university requires keeping up with the assigned reading, engaging with the material, getting assignments done on time, revising for exams, and so on; all of those activities require dedicated effort, careful concentration and efficient time management.

So, it would appear that there is both truth and shortcomings in the assertion; the point, however, is that there can be a rational conversation about it without the need for anyone to get offended.

But, one might wonder, how is the supposed ‘microaggression’ actually aggressive? How, exactly, does it inflict damage or unpleasantness? Part of the answer to this question seems to depend upon the hearer: in another document also linked by the Campus Reform piece, we find the following: ‘If you are “called out” on your behavior… focus on the impact of your words or actions rather than your intent.’ So, it would seem that a ‘microaggression’ is aggressive if the hearer takes it that way, no matter how far from the truth that person may be. (I suspect that the sloppy notion that language is ‘violent’ is lurking here also; more about that in a future post.)

I find this formulation troubling for at least two reasons: first, it shifts discourse to the realm of emotion and emotional responses, which is fundamentally irrational; second, the underlying automatic assumption of guilt–not unlike ‘original sin’–on the part of the speaker. In other words, it doesn’t matter what idea the speaker was actually trying to communicate or express; what is important is how the words were taken by the hearer. A speaker is thus automatically assumed to be guilty—regardless of what was intended—once offence is taken; it also seems that a speaker cannot defend him- or herself against the charge of aggression.

So, in a nutshell, a speaker is automatically guilty of being aggressive wherever and whenever a hearer takes exception to their words, no matter what was intended; truth apparently does not matter. These policies seem to me dangerous precisely because they throw away the very useful model of language as a communicative tool, which one party uses to try to communicate an idea or thought to another party, and attempt to replace it with a one-sided, non-communicative model of language, where, regardless of what the speaker may have intended, the hearer alone gets to decide what was originally intended; to cap this off, in a butchering of logic, this model also makes the speaker responsible for that hearer’s (mis)interpretation. This paradoxical model of language robs the speaker of agency, judges him or her on how someone took their words, condemns him or her as guilty of aggression and leaves him or her with no means of defending themselves against the charge. Such policies, which are more reminiscent of the ‘re-education’ characteristic of show-trials and struggle sessions than proper education, herald the end of communicative language altogether on university campuses: if you are no longer sure whether or not what you say will trigger someone else no matter what you may have meant, are you more likely to keep trying to communicate or simply shut up? In a capricious and unpredictable environment, where even just the perception of offence can get you into hot water, it makes more sense to stay silent. Is this what we want to see from universities? I know I certainly don’t.

What troubles me most about university policies such as these is that we are actually witnessing the intrusion of institutional authority—here, the university—into individuals’ daily interactions, where that authority not only actively takes sides but seeks to prescribe how individuals should think and speak to one another. In other words, this situation seems to be about controlling speech through institutional interventions into individuals’ freedom of speech and the free exchange of ideas; and this is being done in universities by the universities themselves.

Reading about Rowan put me in mind of Roland Barthes’ (in)famous notion of ‘the death of the author.’ Barthes’ essay has commonly been taken to mean that the reader’s interpretation of a book is more important than what the author meant or intended; and, on the face of it, it’s tempting to say that Barthes’ notion is now being pressed into service by universities for the purpose of policing of speech and thought in the name of identity politics.

But ironies abound: the Rowan University policies are really more of an active distortion of what Barthes wrote (note, also, the delicious irony of how talking about what Barthes intended in an essay about the death of authorial intention is unavoidable–there are limits to how freely one may interpret a text). For Barthes, an author’s biographical or personal attributes—his or her political views, historical context, religion, ethnicity, psychology and so on—were not to be taken as binding when interpreting a text. This position is incompatible with an identity politics view of the world, where the genetic fallacy is never not in play. Indeed, Barthes’ own words would be enough to convict him of being a ‘microaggressor’ at Rowan, seeing that—according to the Campus Reform article—’When I look at you, I don’t see color,’ is also considered a ‘microaggression.’ Meanwhile, the prominent anti-authoritarian streak in Barthes’ essay is diametrically opposed to Rowan policies, which seem to be about creating and enshrining the very type of tyrannical authority over meaning that Barthes was trying to dislodge in his essay: at Rowan, readers or hearers get to assign a single, authoritative interpretation to every utterance—their own.


Teaching Philosophy

Note: The following post is a taken from the Teaching page on my website. I’ve decided to post it as a blogpost because it introduces and pulls together some of the issues that I plan on discussing in upcoming blogposts.

Philosoraptor philosorapts

Teaching Philosophy:

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this site, I am a firm believer in maintaining a strong interrelationship between teaching, writing and research.

However, teaching in universities is all too often viewed by faculty as an inconvenience or a hassle. It’s surprising just how much complaining tenured faculty members do about having to teach. (Now, obviously, I don’t mean that all tenured faculty find teaching to be a chore, but faculty complaints about having to teach are certainly not uncommon.) In fact, a good way of measuring this is to look at how many tenured and tenure-track faculty have voted to give themselves reduced teaching loads (for example, going from a 3/3 or 2/3 per semester load to a 2/2, 2/1 or 1/1 load), on top of seeking out teaching releases, which allow them to avoid even more classtime. The recent attempts by Vassar College faculty to give themselves 2/2 loads offers useful insight into this issue, and useful context for the practices and attitudes with respect to faculty teaching loads can be found here. The latter link also delves into the issue of unproductive tenured faculty, a topic I’ll be exploring in a future blog post. Meanwhile, this is happening to their non tenure-track colleagues.

This, to me, is a terrible shame. Not only that, it is very shortsighted: the plain and simple fact is that, without students and the tuition they pay, there would be no faculty, no departments, no universities. Perhaps there’s a (albeit weak) case to be made for this bad attitude among faculty in the sciences where important, impactful work often takes place. But such an attitude to teaching is unbecoming in the humanities, where ideological posturing, outmoded sources and tedious antiquarianism–often spatchcocked with poorly grasped critical theory–masquerade as knowledge that is then doled out to students with little or no thought given to how such ‘material’ will allow them to engage, navigate and understand the modern world they inhabit.

However, this bad attitude is downright bewildering (and deeply ironic) when expressed by faculty in literary and cultural studies departments–or, at least by those who still do a modicum of research. Such individuals appear to view teaching actual real-world skills like proficiency with digital tools, research methodologies, composition and critical thinking, as somehow beneath them; it’s almost as if they can’t see how the university sees the humanities as a whole. And so, all that ‘unimportant’ stuff gets farmed out to underpaid contingent faculty, who are, in turn, looked down upon; and those lucky–yes, lucky, because ‘talent’ plays no role in getting an academic job–enough to have tenure can then teach the ‘super important’ stuff like ‘images of grief from the C16th.’ Surely, however, such high self-regard is unwarranted since data shows that some 82% of academic articles published in the humanities are never cited by their peers, never mind read by non-academics. But, one might argue, doesn’t the value of teaching and reading literature lie in expanding the social abilities and humanity of others? Nope.

So, while I’m pleased to note that all the articles I’ve published fall into the 18% of humanities studies that actually are cited, data like the above made me really start to re-evaulate what teaching in literature and the humanities is all about. Throughout my career, I’ve tried hard to distance myself from the aforementioned attitudes and blinkered viewpoints, which are certainly not uncommon. To that end, I’ve tried to connect my teaching to my research: all of my research publications, with the exception of my first book, which was my PhD dissertation, have arisen directly out of the various courses I’ve taught over the years at UBC.

Of late, however, even this practice no longer seems to me to be enough: indeed, I often worry that what passes for ‘critical thinking’ in literature and humanities departments amounts to an active de-skilling of students. In particular, I have begun to wonder if pedagogical theorizing by the likes of the Marxist educational theorist, Paulo Freire, as well as notions of a ‘hidden curriculum’ (the belief that ‘lessons’ teach not just specified content but also the ‘hidden’ transmission of norms, values, and beliefs), are largely to blame, since they both often produce what looks more like cognitive bias and conspiracy theory than actual critical thinking. This thinking transforms classrooms into ideological battlegrounds and students into activists, with little room for thought given to the stuff to be learnt. So, we have a not-so-merry-go-round, where ideologically-driven suspicions about lesson content create condescending half-baked theories about the unconscious–Freud preserve us!–transmission of politics in classrooms, which in turn create political counter-measures that import yet more politics into the classroom…

dunningkrugereffectSo, where might all this lead? It would appear that such an ideologically-driven approach to education is already bearing terrible fruit: witness, for example, the ‘demands’ made by students at Evergreen College in the US, which seem to have little to do with important or essential content and more and a lot to do with enforcing identity politics. Now, Evergreen College is an admittedly extreme example, but it is far from being the only recent example of what I would call ‘unreason’–literally, the privileging of ‘feels over reals’ in educational and learning settings. And, as this type of educational approach has become increasingly widespread, more and more humanities students have left or are leaving colleges and universities, buoyed-up with the kind of misplaced confidence that only ideology can give and believing they have a simple solution to all that ails the world. The reality, however, is that many students leave their humanities education with very few actual real-world skills and find that their degrees do not open doors to well-paying jobs. Now, let me be absolutely clear here: this situation is not the fault of the students; it is the fault of ideologically driven and out-of-touch professors who do each and every one of their students a massive disservice by turning them into textbook examples of the Dunning-Kruger Effect (see image above). The humanities is well on the way to irrelevancy, piloted into the ground by people who seem to think there is actually nothing wrong. And I understand that this is a bitter pill for humanities students to swallow, and it gives me no pleasure whatsoever to have to say it.

Lysenko and Stalin

As it stands, these problems seem mostly confined to the humanities; however, the sciences should not get too smug. Lysenkoism has shown that science is not immune to ideological infestation, and there are worrying signs that ideology is once again making its way into the sciences, especially biology. Nevertheless, I still think the humanities can learn a great deal from how things are done in the sciences: think, for example, of the intellectual honesty and integrity that is fostered by the scientific method, a wonderful tool for rooting out cognitive and ideological biases; the sciences are also constantly engaging with and trying to understand reality, a thing that the humanities seems content to deny exists. And, perhaps, this denial explains the increasing out-of-touchness of the humanities: if you don’t believe reality exists except as a projection of your own phenomenological experience and/or as a discursive formation something created by language, then why bother trying to understand it? Strangely, a lack of belief in the reality of reality doesn’t appear to bother such deniers when they turn on their computers or need a medical diagnosis or want to fly to Paris.

My growing concerns about the intellectual dishonesty in the humanities, coupled with my increasing appreciation for science and its investigative methods, are the main drivers of the shift in my more recent research interests, pushing them towards an engagement with information, cybernetics and technoscientific advances. In particular, I am interested in questions about how such realities are changing humans into ‘posthumans’ and how those changes signal the need for a transformation of the humanities into the ‘posthumanities.’ In short, there must be a reconfiguration of the humanities that both understands and incorporates the science and technology that is changing C21st humans. As I argue in Posthumanism: A Guide for the Perplexed, if the humanities imagines that it does not need to understand advances in science and technology in their technical aspects and mathematical specificity, but treats them instead as opportunities for baseless speculation, reckless scaremongering or grinding tedious ideological axes, then why should anything the humanities has to say about such topics ever be taken seriously by those who do truly understand them? Afterall, what’s to be learned by listening to willful ignorance? And if, as I suspect, the gulf in the understanding of technoscientific topics that separates the science from the humanities is destined to ever-widen, then how can the humanities ever learn anything from the sciences? Can such a humanities claim to teach anything truly useful about the realities of the modern world to its students? Is this not to actively de-skill students?

The concerns and questions I’ve raised here form the foundations of one of my current research projects, a book on reason and unreason, as well as one of my upcoming classes at UBC.