Le Cirque de le Fou

by rsbakker


There’s nothing better than a blog to confront you with the urge to police appearances. Given the focus on hypocrisy at Three Pound Brain, I restrict myself to blocking only those comments that seemed engineered to provoke fear. But as a commenter on other blogs, I’ve had numerous comments barred on the basis of what was pretty clearly argumentative merit. I remember on Only Requires Hate, I asked Benjanun Sriduangkaew what criteria she used to distinguish spurious charges of misogyny from serious ones, a comment that never made the light of day. I’ve also seen questions I had answered rewritten in a way that made my answers look ridiculous. I’ve even had the experience of entire debates suddenly vanishing in the aether!

Clowns don’t like having their make-up pointed out to them–at least not by a clown as big as me! This seems to be particularly the case among those invested in the academic humanities. At least these are the forums the least inclined to let my questions past moderation.

This, combined with the problems arising from the vicissitudes of the web, convinced me way back to use Word documents to create a record I could go back to if I needed to.

So, for your benefit and mine, here’s a transcript of how the comment thread to Shaun Duke’s response to “Hugos Weaving” (which proved to be a record-breaking post) should read:


BAKKER: So you agree that genre both reaches out and connects. But you trust that ‘literature’ does as well, even though you have no evidence of this. Like Beale, you have a pretty optimistic impression of yourself and your impact and the institutions you identify with. You find the bureaucracies problematic (like Beale), but you have no doubt the value system is sound (again like Beale). You accost your audiences with a wide variety of interpretative tactics (like Beale), and even though they all serve your personal political agenda (again, like Beale), you think that diversity counts for something (again, like Beale). You think your own pedagogic activity in no way contributes to your society’s social ills (like Beale), that you are doing your bit to make the world a better place (again, like Beale).

So what is the difference between you and Beale? Pragmatically, at least, you both look quite similar. What makes the ‘critical thinking’ you teach truly critical, as opposed to his faux critical thinking? Where and how does your institution criticize and revise its own values? Does it take care to hire genuine critics such as myself, or does it write them off (the way all institutions do) as outgroup bozos, as one of ‘them’?

More importantly, what science do you and your colleagues use to back up your account of ‘critical thinking’? Or are you all just winging it?

Your department doesn’t sound much different than mine, 20 years back, except that genre is perhaps accorded a more prominent role (you have to get those butts in seats, now, for funding). The only difference I can see is that you genuinely believe in it, take genuine pride in belonging to such a distinguished and enlightened order… the way any ingroup soldier should. But if you and your institution is so successful, how do you explain the phenomena of conservative creep? Even conservative commentators are astounded how the Great Recession actually seems to have served right wing interests.


DUKE: This is the point where we part company. I am happy to have a discussion with you about my perspectives of academia, even if you disagree. I’m even happy to defend what I do and its value. But I will not participate in a discussion with someone who makes a disingenuous (and fallacious) comparison between myself and a someone like Beale. The comparison, however rhetorical, is offensive and, frankly, unnecessarily rude.

Have a good day.



BAKKER: Perfect! This is what the science shows us: ‘critical’ always almost means ‘critical of the other.’ Researchers have found this dynamic in babies, believe it or not. We can call ourselves ‘critical thinkers,’ but really this is just cover for using the exact same socio-cognitive toolbox as those we impugn. Group identification, as you’ve shown us once again, is primary among those tools. By pointing out the parallels between you and Beale, I identified you with him, and this triggers some very basic intuitions, those tasked with policing group boundaries and individual identities. You feel ‘disgusted,’ or ‘indignant.’

Again, like Beale.

Don’t you see Shaun? The point isn’t to bait or troll you. The point is to show you the universality of the moral cognitive mechanisms at work in all such confrontations between groups of humans. Beale isn’t some odious, alien invader, he is our most tragic, lamentable SELF. Bigotry is a bullet we can only dodge by BITING. Of course you’re a bigot, as am I. Of course you write off others, other views, without understanding them in the least. Of course you essentialize, naturalize. Of course you spend your days passing judgement for the entertainment of others and yourself. Of course you are anything but a ‘critical thinker.’

You’re human. Nothing magical distinguishes you from Beale.


Shaun does not want to be an ingroup clown. No one reading this wants to be an ingroup clown. It is troubling, to say the least, that the role deliberative cognition plays in moral problem-solving is almost entirely strategic. But it is a fact, one that explains the endless mire surrounding ethical issues. Pretending will not make it otherwise.

If Shaun knew anything scientific about critical thinking, he would have recognized what he was doing, he would have acknowledged the numerous ways groupishness necessarily drives his discourse. But he doesn’t. Since teaching critical thinking stands high among his group’s mythic values, interlocutors such as myself put him into a jam. If he doesn’t actually know anything about critical thinking, then odds are he’s simply in the indoctrination business (just as his outgroup competitors claim). The longer he engages someone just as clownish, but a little more in the scientific know, the more apparent this becomes. The easiest way to prevent contradiction is to shut down contrary voices. The best way to shut down contrary voices, is to claim moral indignation.

Demonizing Beale is the easy road. The uncritical, self-congratulatory one. You kick him off your porch, tell him to throw his own party. Then you spend the afternoon laughing him off with your friends, those little orgies of pious self-congratulation that we all know so well. You smile, teeth gleaming, convinced that justice has been done and the party saved. Meanwhile the bass booms ever louder across the street. More and more cars line up.

But that’s okay, because life is easier among good-looking friends who find you good-looking as well.