The discipline of humanities is facing threats from state-controlled powers across the world. But a bigger danger may be the refusal of academics to allow dissidence within the discipline.
In a recent opinion piece in The Guardian, American novelist Francine Prose lamented that the discipline of humanities across the world was facing assaults from the state, most visibly through funding cuts and closure of departments. It is not only the state and funding bodies, but also other academic disciplines like empirically-oriented social sciences, whose faith in the infallibility of data rival that of fundamentalists in the infallibility of their scriptures, believing the humanities departments to be a waste of campus space. Indeed, across continents, humanities as a discipline is under siege from a variety of hostile forces.
St. Ignatius of Loyola said that in a besieged fortress all dissidence is treason. In the fortress of humanities though, dissidence is a virtue without which its very edifice would crumble. If the humanities can hold out against those who seek to devalue it, it is its dynamism that functions as its key strength. Unfortunately though, in as much as this fortress is assaulted from without, an equally great threat to its dynamism comes from within.
A recent incident raked much controversy in the humanities in the US. Rebecca Tuvel, an assistant professor in philosophy at Rhodes College, had the audacity to publish an article in the feminist journal Hypatia that argued that race, like gender, was a category that could be transcended. The article was reasonably well-written, though one could quite legitimately have critical assessments of the same – I for one would have suggested that the author engage with the works of Frantz Fanon, especially his Black Skin, White Masks, as his arguments on race, recognition and transcendence might have theoretically strengthened her own.
However, instead of intellectual critique, the publication of Tuvel’s article was followed by an explosion of outrage on social media. These reactions, which have been rightly termed as a “modern-day witch hunt” against Tuvel, include forceful demands that her article be retracted from the journal and threats against her career prospects if she pursues this line of research. If one were to go through some of the several posts on social media against Tuvel, one might even get the impression that this young woman academic is a core member of some white nationalist outfit on a mission to eliminate racial and sexual minorities in the US!
Prose argues in her article that a training in the humanities provides the individual “the ability to think critically and independently; to tolerate ambiguity; to see both sides of an issue; to look beneath the surface of what we are being told; to appreciate the ways in which language can help us understand one another more clearly and profoundly – or, alternately, how language can conceal and misrepresent.” This is of course an ideal scenario. All of these desirable faculties were absent in those humanities academics in their vitriolic criticisms against Tuvel.
While support for Tuvel has slowly been trickling in, with remarkable intellectual spinelessness, Hypatia issued an apology for the publication of her article, permanently damaging its credibility as a space that respects academic rigour. Similar offended sentiments guided the politics of Hindu nationalists in their arm-twisting of Penguin to withdraw Wendy Doniger’s magisterial work The Hindus from the Indian market. And let us not forget the fatwas against Salman Rushdie or the massacre of the Charlie Hebdo staff.
Of course, offended academics ranting their sentiments out on social media against Tuvel, threatening her career prospects, are not the same as Hindutva mobs or Islamist death squads. But the validation of hurt sentiments, rather than critical theoretical engagements, as a core point of debate perfectly legitimises right-wing strategies.
We live in times where a poor adjunct teaching Joseph Conrad or Mark Twain can get fired for not using trigger warnings but faculty who advocate triggering a war against Syria or North Korea can get the best of academic positions and funding. Left-leaning academics in departments of cultural studies in the US who urge their students to critically look at, lets say, the blatant misogyny in the discourse of black identitarians like Eldridge Cleaver run the risk of being called-out as racists and endlessly trolled on social media, but professors in the departments of economics who advise the IMF to put poor African countries in a financial stranglehold can expect to live out their careers mostly unchallenged.
Even world-renowned universities are not immune to the tyranny of political correctness. A few weeks back, Oxford University put up a newsletter claiming that avoiding eye-contact is offensive and might be considered racist. (So a woman who avoids eye contact with some ‘man of colour’ leering at her is a racist?) Instead of countering this unadulterated stupidity that passes off in the name of sensitivity, this move was criticised for being insensitive to autistic people. It appears that one can counter a ridiculous politics of victimhood only with another equally ridiculous politics of victimhood!
Intellectual shallowness, ultra-radical posturing, verbosity, celebration of pointless transgressions, glorification of the exotic, fear of offending sentiments and a vicious culture of shaming pervade the humanities, making any critical intellectual debate tough. Social justice warlords have carved out little fiefdoms, with communities of the faithfully offended. One’s argument is legitimate insofar as one can project oneself as a victim. Out-manoeuvring victimhood then becomes a greater skill than critical thought and theoretical expertise.
It is true that blind universality is extremely problematic – a lesson that leftists should have learnt from the previous century. But the academic left in the humanities, especially in the West, largely seems to have abandoned emancipatory projects for the immediate thrill of winning insignificant victories over social media platforms. The arrogance of the particular cannot be an answer to the insensitivity of the universal. And these particular identity fiefdoms and their substandard ideas on research will encourage further assaults on the humanities, a fight that they cannot win as they are busy scoring brownie points with one another. If those who believe in the universal purpose of the humanities are to get the strength to fight the war without, they must have the courage to confront the war within.
Karthick Ram Manoharan is a senior lecturer at the School of Development at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.