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Self-Criticism and a Further Danger of Identity Politics

In Fugitive Days, his memoir of the radical wing of the anti-war movement, Bill Ayers describes the competitive practise of “criticism/self-criticism”. It was, he writes, an art of “tripping over one another to be exactly alike, following the sticky rules of congealed idealism”.[i] In other words, it wasn’t really self-criticism. It was expression of the “happy safeness” of believing “we and we alone knew the way”. [ii]

Ayers does not deny the vision of world injustice that drove the Weather Underground to remarkable resistance. Youth understood that a comfortable white life was collusion with mass slaughter abroad, or could easily be so. They went to unusual lengths to gain awareness of their white and class privilege and to resist the protection it offered them. Their intentions were courageous and deserve admiration.

Yet Ayers refers to a “soothing and familiar” story, taken up again and again, which gradually replaced the “wisdom of experience”. The “criticism/self-criticism” sessions were incorporated into that story. Initially, the anti-war movement resolved disagreements through practise. The key was political action. But ideology was an “appealing alternative”. And it ended what had been a “genuinely new left”.[iii]

Ayers’ message is relevant. Perhaps from modesty, he doesn’t stress it as he might. It matters to today. Self-criticism is easy. One can be disgusted by one’s own pride and self-righteousness. This also is pride and self-righteousness. It is self-absorption. It can’t make me more open to the world and able to feel compassion for others’ frailties. Without “wisdom of experience”, a “soothing story” easily holds sway.

I have seen something like this in university students, and perhaps have unwittingly promoted it. They think that by pursuing ever more diverse and challenging experiences, they become personally enriched, and more open. No one wants to live in a bubble. They know a relatively rich, protected lifestyle can cut them off. And so they are self-critical, seeking awareness of whatever privilege they happen to possess.

They do many things, one after the other. They claim to have lived in this or that way, to have experienced hardship, simplicity, poverty, insecurity. Maybe. But it’s presented as something done and accomplished, a feat to be listed along with other feats. It’s a step on the way to somewhere, usually unrelated to the experience they just had. The “soothing and familiar story” has not been displaced.

Wisdom of experience, properly appreciated, would do that. Sometimes they want credit for experiences abroad. So I have to assess educational, as opposed to, say, entertainment, value. There’s nothing wrong with entertainment but it’s not education. Education is what you are left with after you’ve forgotten what you were told in school. Or so said Einstein. It’s about who you become.

We give them mixed messages, in teaching. Within analytic philosophy of science, philosophers argue that accessing truth is a result of causation. Since shortly after the demise of positivism, around the middle of the twentieth century, philosophers have argued that we know the world dialectically, as a result of the reliable regulation of beliefs by causal relations between the knower and the world.

That means that we learn as the process of knowing acts upon us, changing even our idea of learning and why it matters. And this means that if we want to learn, that is, if we want to discover what was previously unimaginable, we should expect our expectations to be changed. The very goals of our research should change, in some way, as we research, including when that goal is ourselves.

Any process of learning, if it is really discovery, should be like a passage through dark waters,[iv] in some sense. Expectations may fail. Indeed, they should, occasionally. It is how we know we have them. This is the picture of knowledge that has arisen out of analytic philosophy in the past half century. It is a causally regulated process that should, to some degree, change who we are, and who we expect to be.

That is the theory. In practise, though, we mostly treat academic success as a series of gains, not a process of becoming. It is about what students acquire: knowledge, recognition, stints abroad. Maybe, this is because we always have to measure it. For whatever reason, we give them the idea that learning is a kind of consumerism, the collecting of goods that can be owned at no cost to who I think I am.

Ayers points to moral superiority as perhaps the fatal flaw in otherwise radical and humanistic opposition to war and aggression. Nonetheless, he writes, it’s so “utterly and universally human”. We all look for “a solid surface or ledge to grab on to in the swirling, slippery shambles of ongoing experience”. We want “clear and definitive answers … something certain in our extraordinarily uncertain world”. [v]

It may not be “utterly and universally human”. Our “extraordinarily uncertain world” is known to science and has been known to philosophers, for millennia. Unfortunately, though, the philosophers who have been most realistic about “the swirling, slippery shambles of ongoing experience” are now uninfluential. They’ve been buried and lost under and within the globalization of liberalism: the individual over nature.

Some of those who’ve been most thoroughly honest about our uncertain nature, as human beings, were revolutionaries. Knowing imperialism, they had no truck with European certainties. They found more compelling the vision of indigenous peoples and those arriving from Africa. It was a view respecting nature, and its uncertainty. It was a view of human beings as part of that uncertain reality.

Radical independence thinkers, in our own Americas, thoroughly rejected the soothing story of liberalism.[vi] It tells us human beings, to be free, impose meaningfulness “from within”, by which is meant the conscious mind. This story remains in place even though both science and philosophy suggest we should let learning happen, even if, and especially because it transforms that conscious mind.

The hard part of that suggestion is loss, which is necessary. Education is at least in part something that happens, not something that is done. I should let it happen although not in the interests of gaining something I wanted before. Rather, I learn if I let it happen for the sake, not of gain, but of loss: the loss of self-satisfaction. This is wisdom of experience explaining how to discover diversity not know before.

Precisely the wisdom of experience is needed to learn from anti-imperialists in the South. They weren’t concerned about personal identity. They wanted human identity. They knew it had to be discovered. The logic of imperialism meant it couldn’t be taken for granted. Such philosophers can’t just be studied. Knowing them involves loss, or it should. Knowing them displaces the soothing story.

When students return from abroad with, “I’ve been there, done that”, I wonder about educational value. They went abroad to learn respect for other cultures. But they come back like conquering heroes. This means they may not have experienced unexpected human connection. And they may not know, because we may not have taught them, that undergoing such experience is destabilizing. It is humbling.

We may have misled them. The self-indulgence of academic identity politics is well-discussed. Recent discussions of “epistemic injustice” may follow along. Both address privilege within a framework that essentially denies the causal interdependence of human beings and our environment. More helpful philosophers, those not enthralled by the liberal “myth of the self-made man”, are still relatively absent.

In the sixties and seventies, as Ayers describes, student activists were good at self-criticism. But it ended up explaining, not diminishing self-centredness. A story was still in place. It was political ideology, as he notes. But it was also culture. There’s a cultural story about needing control, about self- realization, self- fulfillment – a false story about freedom, involving false belief in thingish identity.

It needs also to be displaced. But it needs first to be recognized for what it is: ideology. It gets assumed in myriad ways, including (but not restricted to) the “been there, done that” approach to education. Those who point it out are misinterpreted. Inevitably. If critique is radical, it won’t be understood without loss, and the “been there, done that” approach doesn’t accommodate loss. It’s not expected.

If we don’t want to be “tripping over one another to be exactly alike”, we might pay attention to philosophers who have pursued the truth about human existence: its uncertainty. José Martí, who led Cuba’s last independence war against Spain, went so far as to say that inequality between north and south was an issue about a false view of education. [vii] He may be right. There’s a lot at stake.

Notes.

[i] Fugitive Days (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001) 160-1

[ii] 165, 292

[iii] 165-6

[iv] V.I. Lenin 1961 ‘ Conspectus of Hegel ’ s Science of Logic ’ , in Stewart Smith (ed.), Collected

Works, Vol. 38 . Clemens Dutt (Trans.). London: Lawrence and Wishart (Originally published 1930) 114

[v] Fugitive, 293

[vi] E.g. Sor Juana Inés, José Martí, José Carlos Mariátequi, Che Guevara, Paulo Freire, Frantz Fanon

[vii] “The government must be born from the country. The spirit of the government must be the spirit of the country… The battle is not between civilization and barbarity, but between false erudition and nature”. Our America, 1891.

 

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Susan Babbitt is author of Humanism and Embodiment (Bloomsbury 2014).

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