It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Monday, June 8, 2015

On Being Ahead of One's Time

I really ought to figure out a way to get credit for some of the things I say.

A recent article in Chronicles of Higher Education bemoans the uses of relativism in the organized subversion of civilization by moneyed interests.
"But now the climate-change deniers and the young-Earth creationists are coming after the natural scientists," the literary critic Michael Bérubé noted, "… and they’re using some of the very arguments developed by an academic left that thought it was speaking only to people of like mind."
That is the price one pays for playing with ideas as if doing so has no consequences, imagining that they will be used only for the political purposes one intended. Instead, the entire edifice of science is now under attack. And it’s the poor and disenfranchised, to whom the left pays homage, who will probably bear the brunt of disbelief in climate change.
Yeah. Well, I kind of said that in 1996.
My concern is that the weaponry of relativism is only coincidentally
and temporarily associated with the rhetoric of freedom and dignity. Less
developed versions of the same thing have been used in the Stalinist
and Nazi tyrannies. This is a central fact of the history of twentieth
century science. In developing a rhetoric of willful uncertainty and
confusion (somehow ignoring manifest and spectacular success) and
conferring some sort of academic respectability upon it, the relativists
are developing a weapon that can and would be used by spectacularly
malevolent forces in the process of subverting and eliminating the
very sorts of human dignity contemporary proponents believe themselves to be
promoting. Ultimately it comes down to the triumph of the ad hominem
over the substantive. In that case, it is a trivial matter to move
the trusted class from tofu munching bicycle commuting book collecting
casual buddhist environmentalist utopians (I have described the class so
as to include myself) to gun totin beer guzzlin angry racist tax paranoids.

If such people ever get the sort of power they aspire to, they will
need a front of intellectual respectability, and the machinery of
radical relativism will prove remarkably malleable.

Truth is not so cooperative. Relativism is the enemy of decency as
much as unfounded certainty is.

Celebration of confusion and uncertainty transcends the left/right
dichotomies of property and nationality. A position that opposes
the possibility of testing hypotheses moots the issue of which
form of government is superior. It amounts to "why, whichever
form I say". It thus presents a common enemy to left and right.
Did y'all listen? Actually getting credit for seeing this coming would be a sort of a nice consolation, but it would be nicer still if my warning had been heeded or, really, had I been actually wrong. But that's reality for us Cassandra types. When we are right, it doesn't matter.

8 comments:

Rob Ryan said...

Well, I don't drink beer and I'm not a racist. Or so I claim, though Tim Wise would, no doubt, disagree. But your other characteristics? Guilty as charged.

And yet... here I sit agreeing. Go figure.

William Connolley said...

See-also "Beyond the Hoax", by Alan Sokal.

afeman said...

I was saying something like that back in '91. *shrug*

jg said...

I hate to ask, but can you help me understand relativism. How is relativism different from any force of ignorance? E.g., how is it different from the reinforcement of faith-based reasoning people get in their churches? How is it a tool, that like a gun, can fall into the wrong hands?
Thanks,
jg

Michael Tobis said...

jg, big words wielded by respected academics used to justify ignorance can get you a lot further than ignorance alone. Witness the various panels of "experts" that the Republicans wheel out to hearings on climate to counter the impact of the people who actually know what they are talking about.

That the academy was sufficiently split that this sort of posturing took hold in the 80s and 90s was bad, but seeing it repurposed in defense of illegitimate power as opposed to in opposition to it seemed to surprise many (like LaTour). My claim is that I saw it coming.

Judith Curry, to mention an especially salient case, is not explicitly a deconstructionist, and she probably hasn't got any more patience than I for reading the likes of Derrida (which is to say, not enough to read a whole chapter, never mind a book). But her know-nothingism echoes their pseudo-intellectual nihilism in some detail.

You may well ask, if nothing is known, why one should have universities at all. State governors in the US have asked themselves this in the past and are asking it again.

I have to say that if the purpose of the university is to cast doubt on the principles of the Enlightenment, I have no answer for them...

Anyway, I'm meandering. To answer your question, I'd say that orofessors promoting ignorance have a certain cachet that the general public doing so lack.

dan said...

Seconding what William says - Sokal was all over this stuff a long while back. Beyond the hoax covers it but this is a shorter take. There's a lovely quote at the top: "the displacement of the idea that facts and evidence matter by the idea that everything boils down to subjective interests and perspectives is -- second only to American political campaigns -- the most prominent and pernicious manifestation of anti-intellectualism in our time."

This is part of a more general critique of postmodernism (and the way its relatively has been co-opted) as a deeply conservative twist away from social reality. Without being able to identify genuine social problems, how are we meant to address them? As Sokal says: "I confess that I'm an unabashed Old Leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class."

Dan Olner said...

That comment was meant to be of the "great minds think alike" type, not snarky. Apols if it came across as snarky. I've been out of the internets loop for a long while, seem to have forgotten how to control comment tone.

Michael Tobis said...

Oh don't worry. I'm an old school usenet type. No need to walk on eggshells around me. I took no offense at all - found it interesting.