Monday, May 11, 2015

On the American Epistemology of the Gutcheck

Image credit:

Epistemology is one of those cornerstone terms that worries grad students and obsesses their faculty members such as yours truly.  It’s your theory of knowledge—the unconscious tests you do mentally to figure whether some theory or fact is in fact true.  Can it be trusted?  Acted upon?  Think of it like a filter, shaped by our culture, history and education.  If a river is all of the stimuli and information we receive and interpret minute by minute in our daily lives, epistemology is the kayak we forget we’re in.  Or the prescription glasses we forget we’re wearing.

Everything we see, think, hear and do, each practical, personal or policy choice we make, has gone through this filter—whether we’ve realized it or not.  Hence the obsession with epistemology on the part of devoted faculty members worldwide—we don’t just want our students to think about X subject, we want them to think about thinking.  How do we go about assessing what we accept as true and what we reject as false, or if not false exactly, opinion that doesn’t merit being the basis of research, policy or life choices.


This is why I’m so concerned with what would appear to be the American epistemology of the Gutcheck.  Colbert mocked it, but CNN didn’t appear to get the joke, presenting the Gutcheck as an actual thing, a reliable means of determining what is or is not true.  A disturbing amount of journalists and political elites seem to be on board with this perhaps uniquely American epistemology.  Your gut is all you need.  There isn’t a need for a deep sense of history, data or empiricism.  There’s recently been a ‘gut check’ for about everything from torture to climate change.   GWB was criticized for relying on a gut check to run much of his foreign policy but the prior examples suggest that this is not simply a conservative thing.  There is something masculinist and simplistic to such an epistemology, of course, and it’s easy to conclude that Gutcheck’s popularity is partly a response to a violent and chaotic post-9/11 world.  That’s surely a factor, but this epistemology—the epistemology of individualism and self-reliance, in somewhat more charitable terms, has always been part of Americana, with roots back to Emerson and Twain.  At its best it can arguably encourage independence of mind and a willingness to hold unpopular opinions, healthy tendencies for a democracy.  But at its worst the Epistemology of the Gutcheck is dangerous—reductive, macho, anti-scientific and ahistorical—leaving us without any solid ground on which to base votes, public policy choices or anything else.  Followed to its (ill)logical conclusion, it becomes okay to have not just your own opinions, but your own facts. And that’s where real social unraveling begins.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Dialogue, satire and the attack on Charlie Hebdo

As I watched the recent attack on the Charlie Hebdo publication in horror with everyone else, the role of deep historical memory, even historical trauma, was clear at a number of levels.  The details of this specific attack are still unfolding, and in fact at least as I write, the attackers remain at large in an unfolding hostage situation.  But the outlines of the context raise some questions, as well as possibilities for clarity and progress. 

Juan Cole does a powerful job of discussing some more recent history which may have, he argues, radicalized the attackers, such as the invasion of Iraq and related torture at Abu Ghraib.  As we think about radicalization, identity and history, though, I’m also led to ask two other questions. 

Given that we know schools, like the media, faith institutions and families, are a key institution of “identity making”, I first wonder what the schooling of the two suspects was like.  The NYT reported that at least one of them had dropped out of school, and no doubt consequently were poor and unemployed.  What were their classrooms like? Did schools reach out to include them?  Did teachers have the skill and autonomy they need to meet the needs of such students?  Were they allowed to express their identity or told not to? Was their own history or identity taught at all? Recognized and respected?  No school, teacher or curriculum obviously are to blame for their bloody crimes, but if we are to understand the systems of which we are all a part, these are questions worth asking. 

Second, a reflection on dialogue and satire.  Dialogue is probably the most common tool practiced by peace educators and peace builders.  As distinct from debate, dialogue has as a goal improved relationships and understanding between participants. Debate is focused on “winning” an argument, a criteria which cannot help but be subjective (which I must admit despite my love for a good debate).  This is why so many debates end with both parties feeling they’ve won. 

What is the role of satire, such as that published by Charlie Hebdo, in debate and dialogue? Is there something in the nature of satire’s lampooning and mockery that shut dialogue, and perhaps debate, down?  Or alternatively, does satire indeed provoke debates that we’d otherwise be afraid to have?  Voltaire and Mark Twain are among my favorite thinkers, and Colbert my favorite comic, so forcing myself to consider alternative views that question satire here is difficult.   Does it indeed mock that which demands mocking as a form of a check on power?  In which case…does anyone need to mock the mockers?  My concern about those (Bill Maher comes to mind) who set themselves up as satirists is that too often they don’t actually need to marshal a logical chain of argument.  They simply need to caricature.  It would be wrong to say satire doesn’t involve an intellectual argument; no fan of Twain could claim so.  

Yet the dialogue facilitator in me, the peace builder and student of Elise Boulding and Ghandi, knows that making peace with an enemy, and acknowledging their humanity, is the harder but more sustainable path.  For this, reform of inequitable global systems, a legacy of the historical trauma of colonialism, is a must. 

Avowed academic and supporter of academic freedom that I am, I can only “come down” on the side (why must there always be “sides? Isn’t that itself simplistic?)  of #jesuischarlie.  After all, free speech is necessary for the dialogue I call for above and the murdered journalists fought for it bravely.  Yet satire, if it is to be useful, must target power.  I look forward to increased publication in mainstream Western media of lampooning of such realities as xenophobia, Islamophobia, and white, male and Western privilege.