Rational discussion

For reasons unclear to me, I got on the Tea Party email list. Today’s email started typically:

“Are you as mad as hell and you’re not going to take it anymore? Then keep reading!”

When I worked for Ted Kennedy’s 1980 presidential campaign, I learned that even then, in those dark, pre-internet days, that direct-mail solicitations, back then a cutting edge technology, were quite extreme in the pitches to potential donors. But the Tea Party email gets better and better:

“The Problem: The Main Stream Media is corrosively silent on ‘America’s Fraud President’ Barack Hussein Obama, many Patriots are asking, why?”

Such statements seem all too familiar, as any observer of academia can attest. It’s not just that the stakes are lower than in politics. There is the total divorce from reality, which should provide the necessary distance need for perspicacity. Instead, distance makes the heart grow fonder, from something a little grounded in actual experience.
In the final, wrap-up, plenary panel of a Peacebuilding conference in September 2012 at Manchester, there was a very egalitarian feel with an old-hand David Chandler speaking first, followed by two young, probably unminted young scholars speaking: Ferndando Cavalcante on UN “Agenda of Peace” and an “Ontology on Peacebuilding” by Andreas Hirblinger.
Now, I admit that my views often don’t fit in. When I was an anti-imperialist undergrad, I was far to the left of everyone I knew. Curiously, that same anti-imperialism was far to the right of all my doctoral student colleagues, because I did not believe that Leninist revolution would solve anything. As an American interloper at a European venue, I began to wonder if Americans really were from Mars and everyone else was from Venus, to use the hackneyed metaphor.
I sensed I was getting confused when Chandler started by saying he was too negative in the paper that he had uploaded on the conference website and instead would present something more tame. He presented three clearly operating epistimes of peacebuilding: linearity (liberal peace and democracy telos imposed by the West through compliance with prejudices), hybridity and complexity. I was not sure why these should be so clearly operating since I had just sat through days of debates over exactly what hybridity and other such concepts meant. Chandler said that the movement has been toward the latter two, and that this shift is a “reactionary closure to the possibility of emancipation”, rather than a positive development. Ouch. All the talk was not going to make peace possible? But wait, more was to come. “Hybridity makes the possibility of liberation narrower through a reality gap because hybridity is incoherent and linear resistance unpredictable” (I ask myself, to what, peacebuilding?).Since I do not want to take his quotes out of context, let’s just quote his peroration verbatim:

“We have radically inclusive, agency everywhere, where no particular agency is privileged. Complexity theorizing looks below the structure, and makes theorizing impossible because of the arbitrary nature of the world. This is the end of critical intellectual thinking and the aspiration of improving the freedom and emancipation of the world by eliminating ignorance through linear thinking and other forms of linear thinking. A world that is complex, confronts us out of necessity, reflecting the agency of humans and non-humans, which becomes necessity. This makes even a critical approach, based on the assumptions of the epistemes of peacebuilding, impossible because the world is not amenable to our understanding. Freedom therefore becomes necessity, a world in which we no longer know how to intervene.”
Ok, I guess I need to appeal to my inner Cool Hand Luke: “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate. Some men you just can’t reach.” Surely, David Chandler knows something I don’t. I could not tell if Professor Chandler was embracing or rejecting modernist concepts and argument, but what did come through was a skeptical rejection of understanding. Complexity as a replacement of hybridity is perhaps a worthy argument, but only if complexity is explained rather than presumed as a Gordian Knot or albatross.
We know that politics has never been so polarized. This is, alas, not the first time that academics have claimed that knowledge is not power. The more one knows about a topic, facts still do not trump. Instead, the knowledgeable hold the most extreme views. Why?
Normally, it is because smart people are really scary in the way they think they are rational, but what they do is rationalize. They suffer from cognitive blindness about their biases, blind to their blindness, relying on pre-existing beliefs more than the less informed.
However, it’s worse in academia. Instead of seeking the rational, the turn from rationality and facts, it is to embrace the irrational. When I heard Professor Chandler’s succinct ten minute speech, his point was provocative and telling. I was not moved to tears, like Lincoln’s short Gettysburg address, but to tear my hair out.
I immediately thought of Alan Sokal’s brilliant spoof on the journal, Social Texts. The NYU physicist submitted an essay that was a hoax, on a tiny journal of leftwing cultural politics, epitomized by the assumption of facticity. Life is what you make of it, rather than any concrete reality. Sokal argued that an emerging convergence was bringing postmodern discourse into the mainstream by its congruence with quantum physics. Of course, the opposite is true—unless you believe that the physical laws of the universe are just hypotheticals. The joke was magnified by all the esoteric language that hides the meaning from everyone but the uninitiated.
I have traveled geographically and intellectually, but Chandler’s terrain was not to be grounded. It appears what education does is polarizes. Smart folks are so clever at finding the information that fits their preconceptions, which can then dismiss as linear and clear.
Recondite terminology like complexity means we cannot know anything blinds people to their own self-imposed blindness. To be a professional skeptic is a confirmatory bias, which makes smart folks hyper-aware of the biases of everyone else but their own assertions of nothingness. If we do not have to assert any facts, we do no not have to listen to others in debate, since they cannot have anything to teach us. Our intelligence is uncontrolled from any checks and balances. Academics can ignore any assertion as too complex for comprehension, a reverse snobbery, not unlike those watching Fox or MS-NBC who never watch the other station, except to ridicule it.
Our only comfort is then just to hang with those with similar views. So, the panel had no interconnections. I wanted to hear some interchanges, but instead I was left with everyone immersed in their own biases.
Cavalcante made the solid point that liberal peacebuilding reflects different meanings, not a coherent practice. One view was that the sustainability of the liberal peace is based on the structure of checks and balances, as a minimal form of democracy. That was the UN and Bhoutros-Ghali’s version of the “Agenda for Peace,” not the broader one of promoting institutions and norms that Galtung had originally posited.
Hirblinger presented something about a dispositive, but I could not follow his ontological argument, not because it was late in the day, for which he apologized, but because I was uninitiated to the jargon. I did get it that Otherness fixes and has the potential of essentializing and fixing that which cannot be fixed—which struck me as more gloom and doom. However, at least he did not dive into intellectual nihilism by asserting that the “master cleavage” in ethnic conflict is unknowable. He too seemed to underscore the conference theme that outsiders generally don’t know what they are doing, but the locals CAN resist and govern themselves. But to do this, one has to understand what is Foucault’s concept of the dispositive. Even though I am not sure what is the difference between the epistemological and the ontological, I get the sense that fear of fixing is not as bad as pretending that scholarship has nothing to teach.
At this plenary panel, the issue was how irrational do we take the discussion—in order to overcome the absurd irrational discussions of everyday politics based on cognitive biases. The problem with irrational solutions to irrational problems might appear to one observer to compound the worst tendencies of the status quo.
Maybe I am an American, but if asked to choose between rationalists and irrationalists, as represented by this learned society, I would rather use reason than take it on faith that I cannot learn.
Still, I really wanted to ask Professor Chandler what he said, or if he meant what he said. On my own earlier panel, a philosopher, Harmut Behr, argued that understanding “the other” could facilitate negotiations so long as one did not insist on a version of human rights. Afterwords, he graciously explained that human rights can also be helpful, but one should not be doctrinaire about them—a very satisfying reply.
So, I hoped to speak with David Chandler afterwards for clarification – as well as because my friend-scholar Julie Mertus used to rave about his laurels but did not get the chance for him to clarify his view of the contemporary Zeitgheist. So, I am left wondering, is this his mid-intellectual life crisis and he cannot tell the difference between a “too negative” paper and a speech that might have been “Do, Re, Mi” for “a long long way to run” that “will bring me back to Do” through a commitment to rational skepticism based on philosophical rhetoric and empirical evidence.
I recall my time at Strasbourg four decades ago at the Film Festival entitled, “Les Droits de l’homme, nous concernons tous.” These are real people with real problems. We do know a few things about politics, including that repressive regimes murder and mutilate, and it’s good to figure out how to replace them peacefully with more benign alternatives.
This requires analysis, however complex. The claims of scholars and decision-makers are apt for challenge. Discourse analysis still assumes subjective interchange and rational discussion, even objective evaluation of what people think about facts of life.
Instead, we have facticity and intellectual nihilism. The response to irrationality and complexity is to stick one’s head in the sand, rather than courageously trying to understand, through theory or critique the ways of the world. If I am going to have my British cup of tea that will bring me back to metaphorical Do, then I favor acknowledging our recognition biases that we all use as recognized shortcuts to information. If intellectuals suffer from motivational and cognitive bias, why cannot the response be just to try to eliminate dogma?
Perhaps, I am totally naïve to think it is great to be rational, as I may not have many companions at my dinner table, including those who have decided to revel in and glorify the irrational, even to the point of denying the purpose of discussion. To be rationally argumentative is to care enough about the world that one has to escape her or his separate bubbles or circles of friends or scholars, in which such polite company does not welcome open dissent.

Henry ‘Chip’ Carey, Georgia State University

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