Saturday, October 11, 2008

Quotable

From a recent Der Spiegel interview with Noam Chomsky:

SPIEGEL: Who prevents intellectuals from asking and critically answering these questions? You praised the freedom of speech in the United States.

Chomsky: The intellectual world is deeply conformist. Hans Morgenthau, who was a founder of realist international relations theory, once condemned what he called the conformist subservience to power on the part of the intellectuals. George Orwell wrote that nationalists, who are practically the whole intellectual class of a country, not only do not disapprove of the crimes of their own state, but have the remarkable capacity not even to see them. That is correct. We talk a lot about the crimes of others. When it comes to our own crimes, we are nationalists in the Orwellian sense.
That seems to be the rub, and a general theme that Chomsky has been exploring for the bulk of his career. On a related note, Chomsky's remarks remind me of something Arthur Silber was writing just a little while ago:
Take a look at a description of the famous Asch experiment in social conformity. Another simple test, as simple as recognizing that certain consequences are unavoidable should be. Yet many people got it wrong. You know perfectly well why they got it wrong:
To Asch's surprise, 37 of the 50 subjects conformed to the majority at least once, and 14 of them conformed on more than 6 of the 12 trials. When faced with a unanimous wrong answer by the other group members, the mean subject conformed on 4 of the 12 trials. Asch was disturbed by these results: "The tendency to conformity in our society is so strong that reasonably intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call white black. This is a matter of concern. It raises questions about our ways of education and about the values that guide our conduct."

Why did the subjects conform so readily? When they were interviewed after the experiment, most of them said that they did not really believe their conforming answers, but had gone along with the group for fear of being ridiculed or thought "peculiar." A few of them said that they really did believe the group's answers were correct.

Asch conducted a revised version of his experiment to find out whether the subjects truly did not believe their incorrect answers. When they were permitted to write down their answers after hearing the answers of others, their level of conformity declined to about one third what it had been in the original experiment.

Apparently, people conform for two main reasons: because they want to be liked by the group and because they believe the group is better informed than they are.
The pathetic truth is that most people fear genuine independence more than they fear death itself. So desperate are they for "acceptance" and so fearful of being thought "peculiar," they will deny the evidence of their own eyes and mindlessly repeat the lies and ignorance of others. When it comes to a subject like economics or foreign policy, they think: "Oh, that's so hard! I can't understand that. I'll just listen to what the 'experts' say. They know best."

If events of the last seven years have demonstrated nothing else at all, they should have made absolutely clear that "experts" are often the very last people you should look to for guidance. The experts are precisely those people most likely to repeat "conventional wisdom," that is, the views accepted by the ruling class -- because, by virtue of the fact that they are regarded as experts, they are part of the ruling class.
I look at the whole process of graduate training, which is where most of us experts initially hone our skills, as one that encourages conformity. On one level, there is the coursework in which one becomes well-versed in the prevailing acceptable theory and methodology for the discipline. That comes with the territory. Failure to conform within the acceptable parameters on that level will end a professional career before it even begins. Read Kuhn's work on paradigms and normal science (I'm sure there's a good analog for normal science in the arts and humanities as well), and you'll have an idea of what I'm talking about. Why conform? The usual reasons are normative and informational. One, young experts and technocrats to be wish to gain the good graces of their advisors and movers and shakers in their fields in order to grease the path to career success. Two, if there's anything intellectuals hate, it's being wrong. Hence any information about how to function correctly in one's field is to be sought after and retained.

If that were all. There's more. There is of course an enculturation process that goes on outside of the lab, the advisor's office, the classroom. If one ever wondered why so many of academicians tend to dress the same, have fairly similar cultural tastes, and so forth, spend some time among grad students (either among themselves or in the company of their department's faculty) and you'll get the picture. To the extent that one can fit in, one gets "accepted" which of course will grease the old career path. There is not a lot of room for radicalism in the intellectual world either - contrary to what right-wing culture warriors would contend. I used to shock people when they found that I was quite open about having no use for Bill Clinton circa 1996 (or for the mainstream of the GOP crowd from that period), but would rather endorse third party candidates. Of course I had found it easy to get into some bad habits as far as news information during the grad school days, and hence it became rather easy to accept some of the conventional "wisdom" about the land of the "free" while running to and from various lab responsibilities, writing a dissertation, etc. For example, I don't think I bothered to question the propaganda regarding the rational for the Balkans "war" (more of a one-sided NATO-led massacre), even as I questioned the need to actually go to war until years after the fact. I can assure you that a more radical analysis of that particular war (as with the "humanitarian" sanctions against the Iraqis) would have never come up in conversations. Besides, radical analyses, especially when voiced openly, tend to make those who might be awarding tenure or grants for research a bit nervous - making them nervous is not exactly good for one's career. Just look at folks like Norman Finkelstein, whose politically incorrect research (incorrect in the sense of not serving the ruling class) was arguably the main rationale for denying him tenure. Don't even get me started on Ward Churchill. Bottom line is that you're not likely to find to many actual radicals in the academic world, and almost certainly not inside of Beltway think tanks, or among mass media punditry. The lure of the trappings of success (as defined in our current Gilded Age) is just too tempting to pass up. Your intelligentsia is basically safe as milk, as far as the ruling elite is concerned. Even better, for the ruling elite, that same intelligentsia, which may initially reluctantly swallow the propaganda that passes for conventional wisdom, can over time come to accept it as true - there's a nice body of research on attitudes and persuasion that demonstrates the effects of rehearsing a particular attitude or set of attitudes on later behavior. Short story - it becomes easy to believe your own press, if you just keep repeating the myths often enough. We come to "love Big Brother."

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