“Theory” as polemic

I have been following – via The Electric Agora and via Twitter (where I maintain a fitful and tenuous personal presence*) – certain recent sex/gender identity debates and, more generally, the internecine conflict between various feminist and other progressive factions. I have not been participating in these clashes and skirmishes. They are not my battles.

I will say here, however, that I support the view (which Daniel Kaufman has articulated through EA articles and through the EA Twitter account) that much psychological and physical harm is being done to children and others, especially in relation to sex/gender “transitioning”. There is no doubt that young children need to be protected from the actions of a group of people who are at once the victims and promoters of a set of extremely muddled ideas about sex and identity.

My criticisms are not just of the arguments being deployed but of underlying assumptions; in fact, of the whole framework of identity politics within which the arguments are deployed. I am inclined to see the ideological splintering as deriving from deep-seated contradictions and flaws within feminism and within progressive and radical thinking more generally. The process is similar to what has happened to churches and other religious groups over the millennia, and also to the splintering which inevitably affects political parties. The more passionate and radical the groups, the more they are subject to internecine strife.

An article by Sonia Zawitkowski recently got me thinking about these issues again. The article is about standpoint theory which entails a highly politicized approach to knowledge and values. You know the sort of thing: the “oppressors” see everything in distorted, self-serving ways, while oppressed groups tend to see things more truly.

Zawitkowski writes: “[T]he complexity of today’s most controversial social problems coupled with an increasingly polarized political climate means that we need standpoint theory more than ever.”

Do we really? Sure, we need to take account of social situation, self-interest, etc. when assessing people’s opinions (including our own) on various controversial social issues, but we don’t need standpoint theory or any other kind of theory to do this. The whole concept of “theory” when used to refer to intellectual constructs driven by ideology (critical theory, feminist theory, standpoint theory, etc.) is extremely problematic. It is, as I see it, a case of intellectual sleight of hand, rhetorical trickery, the packaging of mere opinion and polemics as scholarship. (Once upon a time scholarship required a commitment to actual research – and scholars were actually respected.)

I have points of agreement with Zawitkowski. She speaks, for example, of “a glaring disregard of the moral and normative nature of [early arguments concerning universal suffrage and the status of women]… There exist rational arguments for and against most egalitarian policies, but ultimately people are arguing for their preferred state of affairs based on their conception of the Good. This necessarily involves the prioritization of different rights, each conferring benefits and drawbacks for different groups.”

It is always unfortunate when values-based and ideologically-driven arguments are presented as if they were not values- and ideology-based.

As I see it, social harmony is a function of the extent to which moral and social values are shared within a population, and the social fragmentation we see today in most Western countries is directly associated with the loss of a shared culture. Ideologically-driven academic theorizing isn’t going to help.

Inevitably, in the sort of situation we are in, bureaucracy and regulation expand and proliferate. This process is both facilitated and justified by the promulgation of narratives developed and approved by various entrenched groups (including teachers and academics). Clumsy legal remedies are sought in areas where previously informal cultural and moral systems did the work. A spare and limited framework of law and regulation supporting the basic prerequisites for ordinary social existence, prosperity and peace is now just a forlorn libertarian dream, or perhaps a distant memory.

* @mark_english1

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