9.02.2010

Follow-Up Post: More on the Structure of Silence

When I was about 18 I was really into novels and memoirs about how bad it was in Soviet Russia. A pretty dorky habit, admittedly. But as a result, a switch tripped in my head last night when I heard one of the Obama administration officials say that she wanted to lead a "re-education campaign" on the healthcare bill--a switch that wouldn't have any reason to trip in the heads of Americans who had not read similar literature. And thus was created in me a sense of correspondence, a little truth-nugget, that would not have formed in the minds of those who hadn't shared my reading background: "Hey, is the Obama administration using language similar to that used in the U.S.S.R.?"

One of the perennial features of those novels and memoirs was a situation involving a person with clear vision of how insane things had become, but who nevertheless held his tongue for fear of being, well, forcibly re-educated.

[Free association here]: Last night I heard Rachel Maddow make fun of right-wing organizations that had recently applied for healthcare funding--from a bill they actively opposed. She said, "You can't do that!," and I remembered how party members always got access to service first in the Soviet Union. I thought to myself, what a rotten point, Maddow: if I'm an anti-theft lobbyist, and then I get mugged by Robin Hood, who then takes all of my money and dumps it in the town-center, do I really undermine my position by scrambling to seize back whatever stolen money I can salvage?

A recent exchange with a virtual friend [meaning I've never met him in "real" life] included this from my friend, who was speaking about a kind of interpersonal duty to speak up during disagreements, if only to root out smugness in those shouting ill-gotten opinions:
...the persistently silent person is like the yes-man in the corner who won’t tell the guy in the ring he’s losing....all this acquiescing in/by silence produces a sorry army of storefront martial artists who never spar. That is, in silence, we REFUSE to, as we say, ‘keep them honest’, by at least an intellectual jab or two. And then we charge them with intellectual dishonesty, and secretly laugh at their penchant for sloppy haymakers? Does not the finger we (silently) point at them start to curve back to us?
But in those Soviet memoirs and novels, the silent person was silent only for fear. Often, the silent person recognized perfectly well that Jesus (for example) would have spoken the truth despite the treat of "re-education" (or a gulag) -- but they didn't have the courage of Jesus. They had a family, a humble livelihood, a routine.

Our conversation started over my "complaint" that I work in an environment that is not conducive to me speaking truthfully about my politics. I've justified the situation to myself by imagining tenure as a solution to the problem (maybe then I'll be able to speak!), but in fact even that seems to involve such a dynamic that speaking up then will not get me fired, but it might lose me the respect of my colleagues: "You mean you 'infiltrated' our campus by remaining silent and deflecting direct questions and agreeing where you could with us? That's insane." And it almost would be insane, wouldn't it?

It can't be true that academia is like Soviet Russia (except in the means of disincentives), can it? Or even if it is, I can blame myself for purposely, half-consciously identifying that structure and choosing opinions meant to bring that structure into contrast--to make it visible. I've wanted to be an outsider.

...[cricket, cricket]... anybody still reading this? :)

4 comments:

pure_sophist_monster said...

I'm still reading. My only comment (if you're still listening): why and how is reeducation different from education? Is the validity of your argument predicated upon your side having gone first? Is the arbitrary somehow more ethical than the manipulated?

To respond here to your question on my most recent, you ask "What was wrong with the way conditions were defined at an earlier time? And who says?" Both fair questions. But they are no more question for me in the present than they are questions for you in the past. "Who says?" is the question all the time (of the present, the future, and the past).

In other words, quit acting as if you are not involved in the same category of activity as those you oppose. The differences are degree (i.e., I like this form of education/manipulation and not this one) rather than kind (i.e., You are manipulating through reeducation whereas my form of education is .... what exactly?).

Casey said...

I think you're right, but I don't like being reminded that I think that, okay?

But for "re-education": that's a very specific term, or it was, in the communist context -- their notion was that people had unselfconsciously imbibed bourgeois metaphysics (education) and that they needed to re-learn to see the world according to Marxism.

I guess what I don't like about that is how it presumes that "the people" are always-already, well, "wrong."

I'm not arguing that we aren't always involved in receiving and regurgitating propaganda (or "rhetoric"), but that if those who are motivated to re-propagandize really believed in the co-equal status of all perspectives, their motivation wouldn't exist.

So it's the peculiar way that postmodernism tries to pretend like it's just deconstructing that bothers me, maybe? -- the way it acts as if it's just disilluioning me, not also reillusioning me.

Also: I have that sense that postmodern reeducators don't want me to have the sense that they have an end in mind... but I suspect that they really do!

pure_sophist_monster said...

I am no postmodern reeducator, nor do I believe "in the co-equal status of all perspectives."They are are equally perspectives, but they are not of equal value. And, as you know, what makes one more valuable than another is the mess we call rhetoric. Again, rhetoric and postmodernism are not the same and are strange bedfellows indeed. The kind of postmodernism you have in mind I call nostalgic modernism.

Casey said...

Rhetoric makes value? Hmm... I think that's only half-true.

You may say (I think too quickly) that even something like valuing gold is subject to persuasion. But the use of money appears in every civilization, and I think that's because of the nature of reality (it's cumbersome to trade goods). So we need a way to "promise" value. And gold does that well according to its nature... and so on.

I used to get in similar fights with people about Chomsky's and "universal grammar." He would suggest that these features of language are "born-in," but I've always thought that that neglects the nature of reality: that it is made up of objects and actions (of nouns and verbs), of qualities (adjectives), etc.... In other words, grammar is not purely a construct, but in part a necessary reflection of something that actually exists.

And I think the same of values. Of "Forms," you know?

But if you argue with me, I can't defend this view, and so I'll end up thinking you're right, and not liking that I think that... so... ?