14 March 2024

intellectuals, priests and power - III

In the previous instalment, I suggested that humanities professors, and other institutionally authorised intellectuals, are subject to a source of bias related to the issue of power. Certain perspectives – and the humanities are all about perspective – are more likely than others to generate ideological and moral power for those who profess expertise in those perspectives.
   Let us consider two examples, one from the US, one from the UK. I could have come up with more extreme illustrations, but the following are reasonably representative of their professions.
   American philosophy professor Michael Sandel gave the BBC’s Reith Lectures in 2009. In a preliminary conversation with Sue Lawley, Professor Sandel revealed that he had considered entering academic economics, but chose philosophy instead.
[Lawley] You were thinking about, as you were becoming an academic, of studying Economics further; and then you decided, you decided it was ‘a spurious science’. [...]

[Sandel] It’s a spurious science in so far as it is used to tell us what we ought to do, because questions of what we ought to do in politics or as a society are unavoidably moral and political. Economists can inform us about possible implications of policy choices, but they can’t tell us [...] what’s right and wrong, what’s just and unjust. So I decided to veer into that line of work [academic philosophy].
The central message of Professor Sandel’s Lectures was that the world needs a politics
oriented less to the pursuit of individual self-interest and more to the pursuit of the common good
though at no point did Sandel define ‘common good’ (good for everybody? good for the majority?), other than to imply that moving towards it would mean curtailing the private economic sphere in various ways.
   As is often the case in the social sciences, a phenomenon can be looked at from two (or more) radically different viewpoints. One possible assessment of the desire to enter academic philosophy, in order to be able to tell people what is ‘right and wrong’, might be as follows:
   This person recognises that some aspects of society are unnecessarily negative, and believes he can help bring about an improvement by influencing people’s thinking.
   From a different perspective, however, one might make the following, more critical assessment:
   This person has a view about how society should be changed, to conform better with what he considers to be the ‘right’ political and moral norms. He has set about acquiring a position of state-endorsed intellectual authority, in order to help bring society into accord with the norms he prefers.
   My second example is Somerville College, Oxford. Their 2023 alumni magazine has as its theme ‘working towards a fairer world’. This is a theme which, the Principal asserts, ‘has been at the heart of Somerville’s purpose since its earliest days’. She gives as current examples:
[...] the potentially life-saving research of Professor Abigail Barton [...] the hard political choices of NATO adviser Charlotte Dixon [...] student Ellie Flyte’s year of advocacy for Young Carers [...] medic Gillian Harvey’s health initiative for Oxfordshire refugees [...] Professor Iris Jolyon’s determination to share the stories of Kenya’s ‘untitled scholars’ [and] the seventy-year quest for recognition of the extraordinary centenarian codebreaker Karen Lindsay seventy years ago.#
She goes on to say:
Social justice and climate justice, meanwhile, intersect powerfully in the advocacy of Marion Nikita. As the OICSD’s [Indira Gandhi Centre for Sustainable Development’s] inaugural Rani Lakshmibai Scholar, she is seeking to highlight the intersectional vulnerabilities of India’s historically marginalised communities.#
Again, let us consider two possible perspectives. Perspective 1 says:
   It is good that a prestigious Oxford college is lending its weight to the global battle for fairness, and to the promotion of such things as refugee welfare and ‘climate justice’.
   Perspective 2 says:
   As a prestigious component of the university system, being held out as a source of objective and impartial expertise, it is no business of Somerville College to promote particular political and moral visions. To do so is to abuse its position.
   Somerville College, incidentally, was reported in 2021 as having forced undergraduates to answer a questionnaire purporting to increase their awareness of bias. Students were required to choose the ‘right’ answers. If they failed to do so, they were called in for a chat with the Principal.
   Both Professor Sandel, and the Somerville dons responsible for the alumni magazine, seem to be promoting goals they believe are virtuous and necessary. Both must be aware that their viewpoint is becoming increasingly dominant among university intellectuals, and that any calls to action they make are likely to be echoed by other academics and activists across the globe.

Individuals who want to shift moral norms in a particular direction, and who are able to do so, by acting collectively.
The ability to get what you want seems as good a definition of ‘power’ as any. Whether the shifts in question are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is a matter for individual opinion.

The above discussion may give a flavour of how the humanities, and academia generally, are moving emphasis away from analysis and towards assertion of moral values. The move points to the possible transition from the classical liberal model of academia, of promoting free enquiry, towards the religious model, in which the primary aim becomes reinforcement of the dominant ideology rather than unbiased enquiry.
   The religious model of academia may seem to be an *inversion* of how we’re used to thinking about the university system. However, the religious model of academia held sway for many centuries, so a return to it is not as implausible as it may appear.

* * * * *

Somerville College is the alma mater of my colleague Dr Celia Green. The latter has spoken to me at length about her experiences at the college, to which she won the top entrance scholarship. Somerville did nothing to help her enter an academic career at the end of her degree, though she was clearly eminently suited to one. This meant she had to set up her own research organisation, a task that has been one long struggle. In spite of the respect gained from other academic psychologists for her work on lucid dreaming and hallucinatory experiences, Somerville has never tried to aid her efforts, and has never honoured her achievements.
   One of the ironies of the ‘social justice’ movement, which trumpets its supposed caring for the unfairly deprived, is that the caring often seems to be applied in a selective way. In particular, it appears to be preferentially applied to those whose misfortune can be exploited to reinforce the collectivist agenda: ‘this person’s case provides evidence that capitalism/patriarchy/etc. is harmful’.
   If you don’t tick the right boxes, you may find you are of relatively little interest. Being (say) female, or black, will not be sufficient, if you violate other key criteria, e.g. by being too individualistic, or too pro-capitalist.
   This selective approach to ‘caring’ may explain why, in a Britain that is – on the face of it – obsessed with social justice, the injustices of the Post Office scandal* escaped the notice of the ‘compassionate’ intellectual elites for well over a decade. The victims were men and women running, in effect, their own small businesses. Many of them were members of the despised pro-Brexit generation. These characteristics may help to explain why a blind spot developed about the issue.
   It is clearly easier, for some commentators, to equate ‘injustice’ with abstract themes such as ‘capitalism’ or ‘sexism’, or to identify instances of injustice in foreign countries, than to see it in relatively straightforward practical issues on their own doorstep.

* * * * *

There is an argument that, by relentlessly fomenting moral unease with regard to the boilerplate themes of gender/race/class, intellectuals have succeeded in diverting moral sentiment away from areas that don’t fit with collectivist ideology, and thus created moral apathy in relation to those less fashionable areas.
   For Marxists, such diversion of sentiment, from bourgeois to collectivist themes, has always been part of the explicit agenda. One has to wonder whether – at least on an unconscious level – the same has also become true of the majority of non-Marxist intellectuals.

* The scandal has now finally been exposed, more than twenty years after it began, and the 900+ men and women exonerated. Whether Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was right to instigate new legislation specifically to help the victims is another matter. A dramatised version of the story, Mr Bates vs The Post Office, starring Toby Jones as heroic postmaster Alan Bates, is available on ITV Player.
# Names have been changed.