Group Think

The Ruddick essay I discussed in the last N&C was published, as I mentioned, in November 2001, but it was revived and discussed again on several blogs last July. This comment or brief essay by Timothy Burke is particularly interesting.

It’s noticeable what a lot of words there are in both pieces that have to do with social pressure, conformity and group-think. From Ruddick’s article: accusations; how inhibiting these tensions can become; the necessity of adhering to the critical norms of the moment; dominant thinking; rules that I thought were very limiting; disgrace; I was still afraid I’d be attacked; this fear of attack can be utterly compelling; a caution bordering on ventriloquism; disciplinary taboos on certain words and ideals; the threat of ostracism by the group; subtle regulations for speech and thought that are pervasive. From Burke’s essay: the game being played is theoretical one-upmanship; the tyranny of theory; it somehow became shameful to say that I had been drawn to African history simply because it seemed interesting.

Why is that, one wonders. Of course, naturally, there is always some of that in any field, and academic fields are no exception. There are norms and standards and conventions, there is a right way to do things and a wrong way, there is pressure from colleagues to do things the right way – and a good thing too. It’s no good pretending pure anarchy would be preferable. It’s a fine and desirable and necessary thing that scientists should teach and shame each other not to fake their evidence, not to ignore disconfirming data, not to cherry-pick only the studies that support their hypotheses. Same with historians, sociologists, inquirers and researchers of all sorts. It’s fine that philosophers point out logical errors, and chastise confusion of rhetoric with argument. But when necessary demands for rigour and good evidence devolve into heresy-hunting and orthodoxy-enforcing, that’s another matter.

And of course literary ‘theory’ is exactly the sort of discipline where heresy-hunting will flourish – because what else is there? One can present quotations, of course, and say ‘There – you’ve misinterpreted that.’ But it’s always open to people to say simply ‘No I haven’t,’ and that’s that. Especially in a field where deconstruction has dismantled binary oppositions and postmodernism has revealed the futility of Grand Narratives, where Foucault has shown that everything is a power-play and Derrida has undermined phallogocentrism. So all is opinion, and you can’t tell me I’ve misunderstood or misinterpreted or got my facts wrong, but I can tell you that your approach is positivist or Eurocentric or bourgeois or Orientalist and at any rate conservative, and you will feel shamed and guilty and I will not.

So a boring repetitive parochial uniformity is imposed, and some people get out and others censor themselves, and students shrug and sign up for business administration or law instead, and it all seems very unfortunate.

5 Responses to “Group Think”