“Whitesplaining”

From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

The Whitesplaining of History Is Over

When the academy was the exclusive playground of white men, it produced the theories of race, gender, and Western cultural superiority that underwrote imperialism abroad and inequality at home. In recent decades, women and people of color have been critical to producing new knowledge breaking down those long-dominant narratives. Sociological research confirms that greater diversity improves scholarship.

Yet the struggle to diversify the academy remains an uphill battle; institutional biases are deeply ingrained, and change evokes nostalgia for times past. Both of these obstacles were fully in evidence at a recent Applied History conference at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Although history is a discipline with a growing number of nonwhite faculty members, and a healthy percentage of female scholars — indeed, women constitute more than a third of the faculty in Stanford’s own history department, across the bike lane from the Hoover Institution — the Hoover conference was made up of 30 white men (and one woman, who chaired a panel).

Etc.

This sort of critique is becoming all the more common in my profession (the article above was approvingly linked by two friends on Facebook), and I hate it. I hate the jargon (“whitesplaining”) and glibness (“exclusive playground”) – but most of all I hate the Jacobinism of it, how anything produced by “white males” in the olden days is necessarily tainted, while anything “diverse” is necessarily better (the link goes to a book entitled The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy which, as anyone who has spent time in the world of work can attest, is no more true than its opposite*). Before we learned to care about the identity of the author in order to prompt us how we should respond to his ideas, it was possible for an idea to be considered largely on its merits, and I sure wish we could return to that dispensation. To suggest that all those bad old white males produced scholarship to justify Western imperialism, etc., is contradicted by the author’s own examples of Edward Thompson and E.P. Thompson, white males both who were dissidents against the prevailing orthodoxy (one can think of any number of others, like Charles Beard or Marc Bloch). But more importantly, how dare Priya Satia dismiss the work of everyone who came before her because they weren’t diverse enough for her tastes? Presumably they were men of integrity, who investigated the past to the best of their ability and who opened up new vistas in human understanding. Just because they don’t share her own point of view on certain issues is no reason to preemptively dismiss their entire body of work. 

I can’t stand this adolescent pose.

* As I wrote once: “You definitely need something in common – intelligence and a sense of modesty come to mind. Furthermore, it all depends on the purpose of your organization. Sometimes when everyone’s on the same page, sharing the same background assumptions, then you can achieve your goals much more efficiently. The notion that different people with different opinions really have something special to offer could have value, but what is the nature of those opinions? So often “diversity” just boils down to “skin color,” “configuration of genitals,” or “direction of erotic desire,” with any “opinions” that derive from these things being completely irrelevant to the vast majority of problems to be solved or tasks to be completed in the wonderful world of work; worse, there is a very real possibility that the people concerned can be indifferently competent but have massive chips on their shoulders about how allegedly oppressed they are, and will interpret every difficulty as proceeding from some amorphous but entrenched prejudice arrayed against them. This is not conducive to getting anything done.”

UPDATE: Turns out the Hoover Institution conference was organized by the great Niall Ferguson, who responds:

“Masculinity, not ideology, drives extremist groups,” was another recent headline that caught my eye, this time in The Washington Post.

Got it.

I have had to listen to a variation on this theme rather too much in recent weeks. Last month I organized a small conference of historians who I knew shared my interest in trying to apply historical knowledge to contemporary policy problems. Five of the people I invited to give papers were women, but none was able to attend. I should have tried harder to find other female speakers, no doubt. But my failure to do so elicited a disproportionately vitriolic response.

Under a headline that included the words “Too white and too male,” The New York Times published photographs of all the speakers, as if to shame them for having participated. Around a dozen academics — male as well as female — took to social media to call the conference a “StanfordSausageFest.”

So outraged were Stanford historians Allyson Hobbs and Priya Satia that they demanded “greater university oversight” of the Hoover Institution, where I work, as it was “an ivory tower in the most literal sense.”

The most literal sense?

Now let’s be clear. I was raised to believe in the equal rights of all people, regardless of sex, race, creed, or any other difference. That the human past was characterized by discrimination of many kinds is not news to me. But does it really constitute progress if the proponents of diversity resort to the behavior that was previously the preserve of sexists and racists?

Publishing the names and mugshots of conference speakers is the kind of thing anti-Semites once did to condemn the “over-representation” of Jewish people in academia. Terms such as “SausageFest” belong not in civil academic discourse but on urinal walls.

What we see here is the sexism of the anti-sexists; the racism of the anti-racists. In this “Through the Looking Glass” world, diversity means ideological homogeneity. “The whitesplaining of history is over,” declared another heated article by Satia last week. Hideous Newspeak terms such as “whitesplaining” and “mansplaining” are symptoms of the degeneration of the humanities in the modern university. Never mind the facts and reason, so the argument runs, all we need to know — if we don’t like what we hear — are the sex and race of the author.

The process of indoctrination starts early. My six-year-old son stunned his parents the other day when we asked what he had been studying at school. He replied that they had been finding out about the life of Martin Luther King Jr. “What did you learn?” I asked. “That most white people are bad,” he replied.

This is America in 2018.

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