This is a blog about text mining, but from time to time I’m going to allow myself to wander off topic, briefly. At the moment, I think social media are adding a few interesting twists to an old question about the relationship between academic politics and politics-politics.
It’s perhaps never a good idea to confuse politics with communicative rationality. Recently, in the United States, it isn’t even clear that all parties share a minimal respect for democratic norms. One side is willing to obstruct the right to vote, to lie about scientifically ascertainable fact, and to convert US attorneys (when they’re in power) into partisan enforcers. In circumstances like this, observers of good faith don’t need to spend a lot of time “debating” politics, because the other side isn’t debating. The only thing worth debating is how to fight back. And in a fight, dispassionate self-criticism becomes less important than solidarity.
Personally, I don’t mind a good fight with clearly-drawn moral lines. But this same clarity can be a bad thing for the academy. Dispassionate debate is what our institution is designed to achieve. If contemporary political life teaches us that “debate” is usually a sham, staged to produce an illusion of equivalence between A) fact and B) bullshit — then we may start to lose faith in our own guiding principles.
This opens up a whole range of questions. But maybe the most interesting question for likely readers of this blog will involve the role of social media. I think the web has proven itself a good tool for grassroots push-back against corporate power; we’re all familiar with successful campaigns against SOPA and Susan G. Komen. But social media also work by harnessing the power of groupthink. “Click like.” “Share.” “Retweet.” This doesn’t bother me where politics itself is concerned; political life always entails a decision to “hang together or hang separately.”
But I’m uneasy about extending the same strategy to academic politics, because our main job, in the academy, is debate rather than solidarity. I hesitate to use Naomi Schaefer Riley’s recent blog post to the Chronicle as an example, because it’s not in any sense a model of the virtues of debate. It was a hastily-tossed-off, sneering attack on junior scholars that failed to engage in any depth with the texts it attacked. Still, I’m uncomfortable when I see academics harnessing the power of social media to discourage The Chronicle from publishing Riley.
There was, after all, an idea buried underneath Riley’s sneers. It could have been phrased as a question about the role of politics in the humanities. Political content has become more central to humanistic research, at the same time as actual political debate has become less likely (for reasons sketched above). The result is that a lot of dissertations do seem to be proceeding toward a predetermined conclusion. This isn’t by any means a problem only in Black Studies, and Riley’s reasons for picking on Black Studies probably won’t bear close examination.
Still, I’m not persuaded that we would improve the academy by closing publications like the Chronicle to Riley’s kind of critique. Attacks on academic institutions can raise valid questions, even when they are poorly argued, sneering, and unfair. (E.g., I wouldn’t be writing this blog post if it weren’t for the outcry over Riley.) So in the end I agree with Liz McMillen’s refusal to take down the post.
But this particular incident is not of great significance. I want to raise a more general question about the role that technologies of solidarity should play in academic politics. We’ve become understandably cynical about the ideal of “open debate” in politics and journalism. How cynical are we willing to become about its place in academia? It’s a question that may become especially salient if we move toward more public forms of review. Would we be comfortable, for instance, with a petition directed at a particular scholarly journal, urging them not to publish article(s) by a particular author?
[11 p.m. May 6th: This post was revised after initial publication, mainly for brevity. I also made the final paragraph a little more pointed.]
[Update May 7: The Chronicle has asked Schaefer Riley to leave the blog. It's a justifiable decision, since she wrote a very poorly argued post. But it also does convince me that social media are acquiring a new power to shape the limits of academic debate. That's a development worth watching.]
[Update May 8th: Kevin Drum at Mother Jones weighs in on the issue.]