Particular configurations of privileged knowledge

Doc Stock on brilliant form at Unherd:

Is it possible to write a satirical campus novel anymore? Satire requires exaggeration and the pointed introduction of absurdity, but it is hard to see how modern university life could be further embellished in these respects. As usual, there were some classic stories served up this week for civilians to laugh at.

In the Daily Mail we read that policies at Glasgow University and Imperial College London now direct staff and students to avoid the phrase “the most qualified person should get the job” because this counts as a microaggression.

So the least qualified person should get the job? Innnnteresting.

Over in the US, yet another professor resplendent in beadwork and buckskin has admitted to falsely claiming possession of Native American ancestry. And an article just out in the Applied Linguistics Review provides a brand new excuse to lazy researchers: the requirement of a literature review in some disciplines imposes “particular configurations of privileged knowledge” amounting to an “enactment of symbolic violence”.

It’s true enough. That whole system in which people have to learn a lot of material in order to qualify to do various kinds of work is inherently hierarchical. It’s grossly unfair to the lazy, and is why I’ve never been a surgeon or an engineer or a Supreme Court justice. Many of us can say the same. The problem is, that same many of us also want to be safe getting on a plane. We want the skilled professionals and we want to skip all that pesky learning stuff. Taking the “privileged knowledge” route feels good in the moment but not so much when you need an expert.

The organisation that first uncovered the story about microaggressions is the Committee for Academic Freedom, newly formed by philosophy lecturer Edward Skidelsky to push back against institutional incursions on free inquiry. During drinks at the committee’s launch, where I was a guest speaker, more astonishing tales were aired. I heard of endocrinologists at one Russell Group institution being forced to disavow binary theories of biological sex; of male trans-identified dance students at a prestigious arts establishment insisting they be allowed to perform lead ballerina roles and be hoisted aloft during lifts; and of a reading list in one department with pronouns added for every cited author, including those of Osama Bin Laden (“He/Him”, in case you’re wondering).

Well now how did they know that? Did they ask him before that encounter in the secret compound?

Sadly, there are few if any left to complain.

…it is still true that most employees within relevant institutions remain po-faced and acquiescent in the light of blatantly stupid initiatives by their managers and colleagues. Partly this is because they are frightened to do otherwise, as new research also published this week by CAF suggests. But partly, perhaps, it’s because nearly all of the personality types who might in the past have viciously mocked, scathingly critiqued, or otherwise put up an intellectual fight have been weeded out of the system.

Leaving behind a wasteland of piety and censorious meddling.

Part of the problem, Stock goes on, is the idea of the student as customer.

For trailing in the wake of the new breed of customer came the smooth professionals good at customer service — lecturers adept at producing fancy PowerPoints and ticking items off on promotion checklists, but low on intellectual aggression and the will to stand against the mob. Out were the mercurial and antisocial intellectuals of yore, in love with complex ideas for their own sake and gloriously scathing when others trampled all over them…

And yet we need such characters more than ever. Or at least, we need to adopt their magnificently scathing contempt for daft claims, sloppy thinking, and fallacious reasoning. Not all ideas are created equal, and academics must stop acting as if they are: nit-picking endlessly over small intellectual differences but going quiet about the big ones. It is admirable that there are legislators and organisations now talking about the value of academic freedom in the abstract, and attempting to create a space for it. But unless thinkers fill that space with arguments that take deliberate aim at the stupidity of colleagues and managers, it will remain a vacuum.

But we’re not even allowed to say “stupidity” or “daft” or any related words because that’s “ableist.”

And philosophy itself has a crucial role to play here. So many humanities departments house people who call themselves philosophers but who are no such thing, according to the traditional understanding of that term. Out of politeness or fear of intellectual confrontation, they have been allowed by actual philosophers to get away with it. 

Judith Butler please note.

The predictable result is thousands upon thousands of former students who sincerely believe that truth is relative, sex is fluid, cis het white men are scum and all the rest of it. We need to wrest the discipline back from these charlatans.

Starting with Judith Butler, please.

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