Friday, February 23, 2018

Naming and Describing the "Alt-Libs"

I’ve been thinking off and on about a certain set of people, generally white men, though not all, who I agree with on some things but find wrong a bunch of other important issues. I’ve mentioned before my dislike of Jonathan Haidt’s stance on microaggressions, for instance. Steven Pinker falls into this category as well. Right now a lot of people I respect are talking about the Canadian academic Jordan Peterson in the same way.

Today I saw a very long Twitter thread by Michael Oman Reagan, an anthropology Ph.D. candidate in Newfoundland, about this topic. I've lightly edited it for clarity and removed links to supporting articles (see his full series of tweets for more).

What do we call them? They’re Anti-Trump but often islamophobic, not U.S. right-wing per se, but religiously capitalist, anti-social justice, not all New Atheists, but some... They self-describe as Classical Liberals, Cultural Libertarians, etc. For now I'm going with the alt-libs.

While there are plenty of explicitly right-wing groupies following people like Jordan Peterson, it's true that most aren't alt-right. The majority are a more insidious alt-lib population who say they dislike the alt-right but talk pejoratively about "SJWs" [social justice warriors, a pejorative term used by both the Right and what this writer calls alt-libs].

Alt-libs make appeals to mythologies of Liberalism, the enlightenment, science, and reason to decry "postmodern cultural marxism" in the name of truth. They're not the alt-right, they're more slippery. Instead of the average 1950s bigot, they're the average ’50s bigoted academic. Alt-libs promote what they see as centrism, but it's right-wing regressive, reactionary ideology. They oppose any mode of dealing with history, colonization, appropriation, etc. They reject multiple voices. There is one truth, and the path to it is white men in laboratories. Alt-libs justify misogyny, racism, war, capitalism, etc. with appeals to myths about early humans. They think eternal life is around the corner. They don't like white supremacy, but they practice a kind of ethno-cultural supremacy through their myths about "western civilization."

What are alt-libs reading and listening to and following? Peterson, Pinker, [Richard] Dawkins, [Camille] Paglia. They like the idea that they're drawing on a grand tradition of academic research and knowledge but simultaneously position themselves as opposed to the new "academic orthodoxy." Alt-libs think "truth" is threatened by discussions of racism, sexism, islamophobia, transphobia etc. They think movements for justice like feminism prevent them from revealing how things "really are" using "objective data" if only they were allowed to confirm their prejudices.

Despite the fact that they decry today's university, alt-lib ideology is marked by nostalgia for a "simpler time" when academics could work unquestioned by the people impacted by that work. They want to return to a time of untroubled expertise, unaccountable, unethical research.

Eurocentrism is the foundation of alt-lib scholarship and their notion of "civilization" and "progress." They want "free speech" to mean the freedom to claim the world is better off because Europeans colonized it without anyone bringing history to bear in critiquing that myth. The alt-lib ideology doesn't want to hear about genocide, slavery, and the ongoing violences of colonialism around the world, they want everyone to say "thank you, Europe for science." They don't want to learn the often obscured, global, non-European histories of knowledge.

The alt-lib sees themselves as living in a dangerous time. Not because of figures like Trump, or structural oppression that has always been there, but because of concern for the welfare of marginalized people's lived experiences. They see that concern as toxic, deadly to truth. The alt-lib shares the spectre of the "safe space" with the alt-right, and loves to decry "sensitivity" to language. The alt-lib sense of danger also emerges from their own sensitivity to language, their own desire for a safe regressive space, their nostalgia for the status quo.

The alt-lib is outraged by idea of language change — like right-wing culture wars of the past, they long for a stabilized, prescribed, and standardized English of the 1950s. [ed. note: this is not true in any simple sense of Steven Pinker.] But that image of language is also a myth, ahistorical and constructed like their histories of knowledge.

On the one hand everything is biology, evolution, nature. And so culture, for the alt-libs, emerges pre-ordained out of a greater-than-human universe of truths and facts. Fixity of categories inspires religious devotion, that these categories were created by humans is denied. Humanity is positioned as both entirely a product of forces explained by science, and yet something that must be overcome to understand nature. The path to salvation for the alt-lib appears as an objectivity machine, gathering pure data, unadulterated by messy, unnatural culture.

This contradictory positioning provides a template for every alt-lib appeal to objectivity. They say they want to "remove bias" from things while at same time refusing to acknowledge any of the data demonstrating a multiplicity of biases built into the structure of all fields.

...some alt-libs will even talk about intersectionality and feminism, but underneath it's the same bigotry in the form of flowery fascism. They call themselves liberals, classical liberals, or cultural liberals, but make no mistake: This re-branding of alt-right bigotry works to differentiate themselves from the torch-carrying white supremacists in the news. They're gravitating toward academics who can cloak the hate in appeals to science and reason. It isn't new, but it's particularly dangerous now.

If anything, the focus on behaviour instead of content has taught the alt-right a valuable lesson from American history: racism, misogyny, and other bigotry is perfectly acceptable to wealthy white Americans as long as it's done politely and respectfully. This is a deadly turn.

There's a strange trend shared by the alt-right and alt-lib to adopt the language of the people they brand as enemies, and then use it cynically to attack them. But the more they do this the more they actually seem to be using that language seriously but without understanding. Example: I just saw someone who identifies as a "progressive left-libertarian" and "Green Party member" accusing people of having a "post-structuralist hyper-relative view of truth" for critiquing GamerGate while arguing for polyvocality in narratives about LGBTQIA community. Example: Alt-lib and right-wing ideologues invented a category of left-wing enemies called "postmodern Neo-Marxists" and claim they are "secretly conspiring to destroy the world by promoting social justice." Which is one of the most postmodern things I've ever seen.

A key aspect of regressive rage driving the alt-lib movement: It's no longer possible to be who they want to be, or think how they want to think because the myths on which those identities and theories were built have been revealed as products of society, even in their own circles. Alt-libs know they can never return to their mythical idealized era when histories of knowledge and power were only written by people like them. The very foundation of their mourning for that time is premised on an acknowledgement that the rest of the world has moved on.

Even neoconservatives and neoliberals acknowledge, through usually meaningless performances of faux respect, many aspects of the previously oppressed histories of humanity and the planet. The alt-lib and alt-right movements reject even that insincere posture of acknowledgement.

In this way, the alt-lib and alt-right movements both seek a return to pre-Boasian ideas of culture. To a hierarchy of identities, cultures, societies, and civilizations that was popular in British and U.S. anthropology of the 1800s. That's how regressive they are.

While the alt-libs and alt-right want to return to the social organization of the 1950s in the U.S. and Canada, they argue for this organization based on 150-year-old ideas that were long ago debunked and rejected by a majority of the fields that study humanity. The alt-libs are effectively the climate change deniers of the sciences of humanity and human history, a small minority of quacks who insist that human cultural and social change and difference should be explained just like Euro-American researchers did in Victorian times.

However, because the alt-libs and alt-right argue for such outdated ideas about human society and behaviour, they can't help but be products themselves of more recent culture, and as a result they often use ideas that undermine the very arguments they make.

Many alt-lib heroes and prominent figures have records of being sexual harassers and abusers. In academia we all know how often they escape accountability, and how fame and networks help them do it. How many other alt-lib stars are harassers who just haven't been exposed yet? There'sJordan Peterson (who admits that he has been accused "three times during (his) career of sexual impropriety" and Lawrence Krauss [who was recently named as a serial harasser.] Dawkins has defended sexual harassers. Pinker defend has defended sexual harassers. Christopher Hitchens defended sexual harassers.

In addition, and perhaps even more important, much of the alt-lib produced scholarship is devoted to implicitly claiming scientific support for the structural oppression and misogyny that leads to sexual harassment. Especially in the area of "Evolutionary Psychology."

For example, Geoffrey Miller on Damore's "Google Memo" writes: "Its key claims about sex differences are especially well-supported by large volumes of research across species, cultures, and history." Miller continues, with what might be the most precise summations of the alt-lib philosophy of society ever written, and one of the greatest errors in their thinking: "Equality or diversity. You can’t have both."

Equality vs. Diversity, Men vs. Women, Black vs. White, these binaries shape alt-lib thinking because of specific intellectual histories, myths, hierarchies, and explanations that alt-libs draw their ideas from, which are often the same ones that much of the alt-right use. You can see this underlying structure of binaries popping up everywhere across the alt-lib and alt-right horizon, like the jagged edges of a bio/psych-structuralist iceberg peeking above the waves in a churning sea of regressive brine.

As a rallying cry, nothing could better serve alt-libs ideological aims than "there are only two genders!" — it's an ideal summation of their assertion of binaries as deriving from natural laws of the universe, and their myth of the dominance of those laws over society/culture/id. From "there are only two genders" you can extrapolate almost every other position they hold: essential genetic/biological differences between distinct races, essential genetic/biological differences in abilities/roles of men/women, truth/untruth, science/arts, right/wrong, etc.

Some people find alt-lib scholarship so appealing precisely because it validates their existing bigotry as "natural" or "a product of evolution" or as anything other than a material history of oppression reproduced through their refusal to address it.

So, what makes this kind of public (sometimes) academic discourse such a threat to the future that it's worth even worrying about? And why should scientists, STEM folks, social scientists, et al. be looking at what they're doing and refuting it? Here are a few issues. Alt-libs claim that they are the *only* people doing science correctly. For them everyone else is biased, everyone else has bad methods, everyone else is caught up in the "postmodern neo-Marxist" nexus of untruth that is ruining what used to be good about academia.

As part of this belief alt-libs are actively engaged, right now, in ongoing campaigns to actually destroy all social science and humanities departments in universities. Peterson: “a huge chunk of the humanities and the social sciences have turned into an indoctrination cult.” Why are they so angry that they're lashing out at their colleagues in the university and trying to destroy entire departments? Because research is moving beyond the kind of bigotry-reinforcing work they do. For the first time, people are finally saying no.

This is another reason STEM, social science, and humanities researchers should be concerned about the alt-lib movement. It wants to set research back decades, erasing all of the work done since then that happens to undermine alt-lib work.

Many alt-lib claims feel intuitive to the people listening. But they're not based on something essential, natural, or determined about humanity. They're based on bias which has become normalized as "common sense" which is a product of history, society, and culture.

This is what makes the alt-lib agenda such a threat to the future: It often aims to re-codify as truth a whole collection of ideas that we already worked through and determined were not based on evidence, but on the fact that science is a human activity, a human process.
I know it's a lot, and I don't even like this name Reagan has come up with, but I want to save his words for later because they contain a lot of analysis I may want to refer to later. So into the filing cabinet it goes.

No comments: