“Stay in your lane” vs. Wimsatt and Beardsley

A variation of the “intentional fallacy” has found fertile soil in academia and the body politic.

W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley published their treatise on the intentional fallacy in 1946, in the heyday of formalist literary criticism. The gist of the piece was that much criticism misses the point by considering the author’s intention as the standard of a poem’s meaning. It is nothing of the sort. The fallacy, as Wimsatt and Beardsley put it, is a “confusion between the poem and its origins.” When we study a poem, we have access to the poem but not to the private meaning that may have been inside the author’s head. Indeed, it is impossible to determine the intention of a poem, and authors themselves often have trouble identifying the intention of their own poem. Moreover, there is clearly more to any work than the author could have intended. We now have the tools to analyze, e.g., gender relations of power in Shakespeare that he could not have intended. No one can deny that transactions of power between genders take place in Shakespeare’s plays, and that studying them can yield fascinating results, but all of this takes place outside the scope of Shakespeare’s intention. One could even argue that the unintended meanings in a literary work often have more to tell us than the intended ones. The bottom line is that we have to look at the work closely and judge it on its own merits, not on some unverifiable (and invariably reductive) conjecture about the poet’s intention.

Apply that to today’s political discourse, especially on matters of cultural identity. With increasing frequency, it seems, arguments are judged not by their own objective merits but by whether they were proposed by a white, black, male, gay, trans, etc., person. In order to get a fair hearing, those who would opine on cultural identity seem endlessly compelled to open with, “As a gay/black/female/white/trans/etc.,” as if credibility lay more in the speaker’s birth traits than in the quality of the argument. And indeed they may be right, insofar as demographic traits of the speaker do seem to be where the onus of credibility lies for much of today’s academic and political audience. It is a version of “intentional fallacy” we might call the “identarian fallacy,” wherein we judge a work by the author’s demographic identity rather than by its standalone merits. One’s race or gender can preclude one, as a widespread mindset holds, from making valid claims. “You cannot understand this issue because you are male/white/straight/etc.”; “you cannot speak about this issue because you are not black/female/queer/etc.” In other words, “Stay in Your Lane.”

I can understand that some demographic groups may want a leg up in the public sphere from which they were long excluded, but perhaps proscribing access to certain discussions based on race and gender is not the way to go. Perhaps we need a recapitulation of Wimsatt and Beardsley. The validity of an argument, the quality of a work of art, should be judged on the merits of the artifact itself, not on some unverifiable (and invariably reductive) conjecture about the speaker’s race or gender. Everyone should be allowed to weigh in on every discussion and the product be judged on its logical or aesthetic soundness with no regard whatsoever to the identity of speaker. If someone proves that cigarettes cause cancer, and is later discovered to be a closet smoker, does that make her research less valid? No, the merits of the argument itself are what counts, as it should be with all manner of public discourse. Let us not fall back into the fallacy of confusing the validity of an argument with the origin of an argument.

The ultimate irony is that those who exalt the identarian fallacy and the correlative “stay in your lane” policy fancy themselves as progressives, indeed as leftist radicals. Probe even to minimal depth and it is easy to see that “stay in your lane” is the most anti-liberal, arch-conservative slogan ever produced by faux-progressives. A society where everyone stays in their inherited lanes is the epitome of a conservative society.

For a truly radical vision, one that would shake off the calcified build-up of the Establishment, you need to look back to the 1960s. Back then, people were being told to stay in their lane, but the preferred phrase was “separate but equal,” and it was the banner cry of Bull Connor segregationists. Martin Luther King and then the hippies combated this ideology with their own ideology, which basically said that you should never stay in your lane and never encourage others to do so. We are all sharing all the lanes from now on. We are all in this together. Never vilify anyone on the grounds of race or gender. Any us vs. them lines in the 1960s progressive vision were based on ideology, not on race or gender. “Stay in your lane” progressives today are no better than the “separate but equal” conservatives of the 60s. Shut the devil out at the front door (Bull Connor) and he comes in at the back (identity politics).

So, too, forget today’s meme about cultural appropriation, which, far from radical, reasserts the capitalist cornerstone of private property into the zone of cultural production. The 60s ideology was culturally socialist and radically integrationist in a way that must horrify today’s conservatives and progressives alike. The 60s ideology favored every form of cultural appropriation in every direction. Full steam ahead with every kind of cross-pollination in arts and ideas. Break the back of private property on the cultural level. Everybody play with everybody else’s stuff. Put yourself in everybody else’s shoes. Cross lines as often as you can. Tear down the walls and celebrate each other across those lines, no shaming, no judgment based on race or gender, just looking toward the future hand in hand. Never trust any ideology (Left or Right) that says we need to respect walls of separation. Today’s faux progressives, on the other hand, emphasize each demographic guarding its turf from appropriation. They emphasize the walls between us and are skeptical of the bridges. Which do you think is the truly radical vision that points into the future toward a harmonious multicultural society, comfortable with diversity, free from shame, in which we all work together and celebrate our differences as well as our shared humanness?

But here come Wimsatt and Beardsley for the final round of our competition: “Stay in your lane” vs. Wimsatt and Beardsley. On the one hand, “Team Stay in Your Lane” has some righteous outrage to express at being long excluded from power and seeks redress by reinforcing lanes for each demographic and setting demographic preconditions for exercising one’s voice. On the other hand, “Team Wimsatt and Beardsley,” with an assist from the hippies, suggest that you will get a better long-term result if you forget about reinforcing the walls around your identity and tear down all the walls in a festive frenzy and usher in the Age of Aquarius. There will still be arguments in that great age, but you will have to judge them on their own merits, not on any “lane” or identity markers assigned to the speaker. This means you will have to lay off the generalizations about, indeed the fetishization of, demographic groups, and judge people as individuals. Demographic backgrounds will still exist, but cultivate this mindset and the walls will slowly crumble, leaving us to celebrate each other across demographic lines where the walls once stood.

As in a previous entry in this fine blog, which pitted the ancients against the moderns in true Augustan style, the laurel wreath goes to the ancients, Wimsatt and Beardsley, for what their “intentional fallacy” can teach us today.

         xxx

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The Nation’s Apology for Carlson-Wee

The long-established progressive magazine, The Nation, recently created a stir by publishing an Anders Carlson-Wee poem about homelessness, and then apologizing for doing so on the grounds that the poem contained inappropriate language (i.e., language that might be offensive to those demographic groups among the homeless that Carlson-Wee tries to identify with in the poem).

As a long-time liberal, it is demoralizing to see what liberalism has become. God forbid that a poet should use language deemed inappropriate by the cultural police. God forbid that artists should ever creatively identify with people of backgrounds other than themselves. God forbid that any one of us should ever try to put ourselves in the shoes of other races or demographics. Guard those boundaries between races and other demographic groups! Where Bull Connor conservatives failed, today’s liberals may yet succeed!

The whole event is a nice, tight summary of where liberals went wrong and gave up the moral high ground on matters of race. Or, as my grandmother used to say (my brackets added), “When you drive the devil from the front door [Bull Connor], he comes in the back [identity politics].”

Links in

The Atlantic

The New York Times

The Nation 

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Identity Politics Explained

In a nutshell, identity politics is the art of taking something quite simple and getting it all wrong.

The backdrop question – what role does demographics play in human identity – is actually simple. So simple, that only very powerful institutional politics (departmental interests within academia and monied interests outside of it) can steer people wrong. Before the brainwashing begins, everyone knows that there are multiple layers of identity – gender, racial, sexual orientation, etc. – and everyone knows that the bottom layer is the layer of shared humanness. Everyone instinctively knows that in our social interactions, sometimes our shared humanness is the dominant feature of the interaction, and sometimes one of the other layers of identity is relevant or even the dominant feature of a given interaction. But in any wholesome vision of a more ideal multicultural society, it is the shared humanness that lays the foundation. We need to celebrate our differences without denying our shared humanness. This is not rocket science.

“Identity politics,” in its current usage, removes shared humanness and defines human identity in every transaction as demographic identity. A black woman sees everything from the point of view of a black woman, a white man’s reality is always white and always male. Every thought or speech act is a priori politically situated. There is no escape from demographics. Indeed, in an Orwellian turn of the dial, the concept of “shared humanness” is itself rejected as racist. Saying that you “don’t see color” when meeting people is officially listed as a racist microaggression at many universities, oddly enjoining students to view each other first and foremost not as fellow human beings but as instances of this or that race. And the point is not to create sympathy between the races but to highlight impenetrable walls between their experiences. For example, when activists recently called on the Whitney Museum to “remove and destroy” Dana Schutz’s painting depicting Emmett Till’s open casket on the grounds that “the shameful nature of white violence” cannot be “correctly represented” by a white artist (quoting Hannah Black’s letter to the Whitney), the message is clear: Creatively identifying with people of other races, genders, etc., is to be forbidden, presumably because it asserts the false notion of shared humanness. This is identity politics in its current form.

There are a few problems with this approach.  First, it is false on the face of it, as anyone with even a modicum of multicultural social life outside of the ivory tower of academic theory knows that cross-group social bonding takes place often in a spirit of shared humanness and less often with attention to group differences. Secondly, it is impractical. It is de facto a divisive theory and not a unifying theory and thus intrinsically antithetical to any future vision of a society living in racial harmony. Thirdly, in its historical aspect, it reverses the positive trends of the Civil Rights and hippie movements of the 1960s, movements that were both radically integrationist and unifying, movements that looked to a time when people “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” We could appreciate our different backstories, race, ethnicity, etc., but the anchor was shared humanness with universal rights and principles. Everyone acknowledged historical inequities that still need to be addressed, but the idea was to work them out together as human beings with a common interest in a more perfect union. Identity politics, on the other hand, fosters the idea that common interest is a myth, that each demographic group needs to get its share of the pie and then go home and block the entrances. It is a short-term vision with no hope of reaching the ideal of a multicultural society that is harmonious, uninhibited, and free to join hands across demographic lines without shame or judgment.

Thus, the final problem with the “identity politics” branch of liberalism is that it has done more than any conservative formation to reverse the gains of the Civil Rights era. Surely, conservatives have been most unhelpful in the policy arena, but in terms of the evolution of consciousness toward a society of peace and harmony across races, genders, nationalities, etc., identity politics has been the most destructive force of the past 30 years. It is demoralizing to consider, but it is not conservatives today but identity politics liberals who are rapidly burning all bridges back to Frederick Douglass and Olaudah Equiano and Mary Wollstonecraft, Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Mandela, all of whom explicitly appealed to our shared humanness as the lighted path toward racial and gender harmony.

So here we stand at an urgent pass. The identity politics Left gets worse, with “cultural appropriation” fences and do-not-cross lines (despite the head fake of “intersectionality” but that’s for another discussion), the demographic double standards for what you can say, think, or do, the branding of all whites as racist and all men as sexist, the erasure of all past and present Western culture as white supremacist and thus without value. Conservatives too have taken a turn for the worse in Trump era, reasserting their own kind of racist, sexist, and xenophobic, demographics-driven identity politics. Despite a policy platform that perpetuated disparities between races and genders, most of my conservative friends had over the years, on the level of consciousness, jettisoned the Bull Connor racism of the Civil Rights era and accepted the equality of all humans as a universal principle and an endgame of racial harmony as a valid goal. Despite liberal cries to the contrary, the Left-Right dance had actually brought moderate conservatives closer than identity politics liberals to Martin Luther King’s principle of equal treatment and unbiased judgment for all regardless of demographics (again, this is on level of consciousness and not policy). But now both Left and Right are in a demographic divisiveness death spiral.

I might sound quite pessimistic here, but all is not lost. Little children growing up in our multicultural spaces understand perfectly well that some kids are black, some kids are male, some kids speak different languages, but that we are all on some level kids with a shared interest in playing together. They get the “shared humanness” part. And therein lies our hope. Just forget about everything you learned in academic theory classes and become like little children. You were there once. You can go there again. And in today’s political and environmental conditions, now is the time to make the pivot. Turn off that academic theory. Turn on the heart and imagination. Greet everyone you meet on the street in a spirit of shared humanness, without regard to race, gender, or political affiliation.  We’re all in this together and we might not have much time.

Unless you change and become like little children,
you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
(Matthew 18:3)