“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.


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