Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The Necessary Preconditions for Intellectual Growth: Integrity at the University Requires Diversity of Thought

Analyzing the problematic subcultures which arose in the last decade or two on university campuses and which are now spreading to other parts of society, author Bradley Campbell distinguishes between ‘dignity culture’ and ‘victimhood culture.’

The ‘victimhood’ culture assigns permanent moral values to an individual based, not on her or his being a rational human being, but rather based on the individual’s race, gender, ethnicity, etc. According to this ideology, an African-American is essentially a victim, regardless of academic or economic achievements. So is a woman, or a person whose heritage is from the Spanish-speaking parts of Central or South America.

Likewise, a person of “white” (European) descent, or a male, is permanently an ‘oppressor,’ despite the morality or immorality of any of his actions. Being a victim or an oppressor is, for those who embrace victimhood culture, an innate and immutable status. Bradley Campbell writes:

Dignity culture fights oppression by appealing to what we all have in common. Our status as human beings is what’s most important about us. But victimhood culture conceives of people as victims or oppressors, and maintains that where we fall on this dimension is what’s most important about us, even in our everyday relationships and interactions.

Although the ideology of the victimhood culture arose at universities, it is not friendly to intellectual integrity. In fact, integrity and consistency are not virtues in the eyes of victimhood culture.

The political vision of the Enlightenment - that the governed, being uniformly rational despite differences of race or gender, are the source of the government’s legitimacy because their rationality directs them toward a general consensus about those social structures which best preserve life, liberty, and property - is not accepted by the victimhood culture.

Citizens or voters in a state - or researchers or professors at a university - do not have validity because they embody human reason’s quest for knowledge, according to the victimhood mentality. Instead, victimhood teaches, they are valid because they are of a certain race, gender, ethnicity, etc.

This means that victimhood culture is ultimately incompatible with the goals of the university. Pursuing truth in an environment of vigorous debate will always involve causing offense — and one of the shibboleths of victimhood culture is that it’s okay to offend the oppressors but not the oppressed. Many campus activists, realizing this, have attacked the ideals of free speech and academic freedom. One of these visions will have to prevail — either dignity culture and the notion of the university as a place to pursue truth, or victimhood culture and the notion of the university as a place to pursue social justice.

Some critics of victimhood culture, Bradley Campbell writes, mistakenly assume that the campus activists who promote the victimhood culture are too fragile, too much like a snowflake, to be confronted by a diversity of opinions. Campbell disagrees. He argues that the victimhood culture is a reaction to what it perceives as injustice.

This raises several questions: How does one determine what is justice or injustice? How does one respond, rather than react, to it? These questions are at least as old as Socrates, and are never easy to answer.

Is it an injustice for a person to be exposed to individuals who have contrasting opinions? Or is it a healthy and intellectually stimulating experience?

It’s not that campus activists are afraid of taking risks; rather, they’re outraged by what they see as injustice. An example from the book’s first chapter actually highlights the difference. In the 1990s, parents began following medical advice to keep their young children away from peanuts. Peanut allergies were very rare at the time, but they could be deadly. The strange thing was, peanut allergies began to skyrocket after that. We now know this was precisely because children were no longer being exposed to peanuts. It turns out that early exposure to peanuts is good for most children’s immune systems.

Bradley Campbell examines a recent book, written by Lukianoff and Haidt. He argues that the book makes the mistake of labels in the ‘social justice warriors’ as fragile snowflakes. Campbell argues that the advocates of victimhood culture aren’t timid, but rather they are mistaken.

Lukianoff and Haidt use the analogy of peanut allergies:

What Lukianoff and Haidt say, correctly, is that this illustrates the principle of antifragility. As with the immune system, various kinds of adversity often strengthen us. Campus activists, like the parents protecting their children from peanuts, often embrace a myth of fragility. They believe people need protection from microaggressions and conservative speakers, lest they cause them harm.

Instead of embracing head-to-head debate with those who embrace divergent viewpoints, the campus activists believe that they need to shelter their fellow students from those viewpoints. These activists picture themselves, not as timid or fragile, but rather as strong: hence the ‘warrior’ in ‘social justice warrior.’

But they view their fellow students as fragile, as victims, and as members of various oppressed classes. Hence the drive to shelter them.

The question which these advocates have failed to contemplate is this: might it not be a strengthening experience for their fellow students, the alleged victims, to learn that they will not wither when encountering a diversity of opinions, but rather that such intellectual sparring is in fact a strengthening experience?

Monday, November 5, 2018

The Building Blocks of Both Fiction and History: Archetypes

In literary studies, scholars use the word ‘archetype’ to describe a pattern which is at the highest or broadest level of application. An archetype is a feature of reality which is so ubiquitous in human experience that it requires no explanation.

The reader will note that ‘arch’ occurs in both ‘archetype’ and ‘overarching’ - these are patterns so universal that they encompass both fiction and reality, and are in some sense inescapable. They constitute limits to imagination in fiction, inasmuch as any and every author will obliged, often unconsciously, to include them.

Leland Ryken, James Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman write:

An archetype is an image or pattern that recurs throughout literature and life. More specifically, an archetype falls into one of three categories: it is either an image or symbol (such as the mountaintop or evil city), or a plot motif (such as crime and punishment or the quest), or a character type (such as the trickster or jealous sibling).

Part of the definition of what it means to be human - part of the essence of being human - is shown in archetypes. They are necessarily a part of human life.

Any discourse about humans or about human life may or may not include archetypes, but if that discourse takes the form of a sustained narrative, it will necessarily include archetypes.

Archetypes are a universal language. We know what they mean simply by virtue of being humans in this world. We all the experiences of hunger and thirst, garden and wilderness. Ideas and customs vary widely from one time and place to another, but archetypes are the elemental stuff of life. In the words of literary scholar Northrop Frye (noted archetypal critic), “Some symbols are images of things common to all men, and therefore have a communicable power which is potentially unlimited.” Another literary scholar defines the master images of the imagination as “any of the immemorial patterns of response to the human situation in its permanent aspects.”

Some scholars, notably C.J. Jung, have been prompted by archetypes to posit some form of collective cultural memory. Whether or not one accepts Jung’s hypothesis, it is understandable how the ubiquity of archetypes could tempt him to invent such a conjecture.

Archetypes also explain the power of narrative. A gripping narrative often seizes the reader in ways more powerful than a sharp polemic or brilliantly logical argumentation.

Such elemental images are primal in the sense of being rooted in essential humanity, independent of civilized trappings and complexity.

As something essentially human, archetypes can cross all boundaries: cultural, linguistic, social, racial, religious, etc.

Archetypes are contained in, and shape, the deepest levels of human thought, consciousness, perception, and awareness. Developmentally, they must take up residence in the human mind at a very early age. Humans use them to process sensations into perceptions.

Perhaps the only structures deeper than archetypes would be Kantian notions of space and time. The will have also embedded themselves into the structures of all human languages.

There are also psychological overtones to an exploration of these elemental images of human life. The modern study of archetypes began with psychologists (though archetypes have long since been separated from that source). Part of the psychological dimension is that there is wisdom and strength to be found in being put in touch with bedrock humanity in this way. Carl Jung wrote that archetypes “make up the groundwork of the human psyche. It is only possible to live the fullest life when we are in harmony with these symbols; wisdom is a return to them.”

All authors, knowingly or not, will work with archetypes as they create narratives. Some authors consciously and deliberately use archetypes, and have the opportunity to create narratives which are more effective in moving the emotions and more effective in powerfully imprinting themselves on the mind.

Leland Ryken, James Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman continue:

A further useful thing to know about images and archetypes is that when we begin to categorize them, we find good and bad, desirable and undesirable, ideal and unideal versions of the various categories. Kings can be benevolent or tyrannical, for example. Lions are usually a negative archetype, but the can also symbolize power or rulership in the hands of the good.

Not only in fiction, but in accounts of historical events, archetypes will make themselves felt. The habit of examining a text in terms of its use of archetypes should not be restricted to literary studies. It is equally as valid in history. Because history and fiction are both human experiences, they are both shaped by, and composed of, archetypes.

The universality of archetypes allows the reader to span the chasms of time, space, language, and culture to engage in narrative texts. A narrative which is several millennia old can take hold of the reader’s mind as effectively as if it were written yesterday.