The social sciences and humanities have not produced much of intellectual value for 25 years or so, but they have been enormously productive in generating “isms”—widely held allegedly toxic beliefs that are said to undermine a professor-defined “good society.” The notable classics—“racism,” “sexism,” classism, and nativism—once sufficed, but unexpected bursts of faculty creativity have given us ableism (privileging of the so-called physically “able”), Eurocentrism, ethnocentrism, elitism, masculinism, fatism (disdaining the differently sized), phallocentrism, and scentism (imposing the odor of one’s perfume or cologne on others), but not yet phalloscentism—the belief that men smell bad.
Ageism, lookism (judging people by physical appearances),
heterosexualism (privileging heterosexuals) and credentialism
(emphasizing paper credentials) are approaching classic status. So is
speciesism, the faulty belief that humans are somehow more important
than deer ticks.
Can this tsunami of campus creativity be sustained? If so, what’s the next “ism”? This is hardly a trifling question. Professional rewards can flow to those who can sniff out the latest academic fad while money to be made by helping society cleanse itself of newly discovered cancer-like thought crimes. More important, being PC au courant means knowing the latest taboo, no small matter where an “innocent” slip of the tongue can be career-ending.
The next “ism” will be–brace yourselves–“realism.”
Since the mid-60s the professoriate has been struggling to save the world by rooting out the evils of racism, sexism and all the other above-mentioned isms. Proffered remedies for all the evil isms have included moral relativism, multiculturalism indoctrination and mandatory sensitivity training. Unfortunately, the off-campus population has refused to cooperate. People remain sadly lookist and heterosexualism remains normal. Given this failure to improve the real world, challenging the very idea of a “real world” is just what the Doctor of Philosophy ordered. In other words, explain that what students personally observe is only the illusion of reality created by the hegemonic patriarchy. Distorted shadows on the cave wall, so to speak. Recall Groucho Marx’s quip: “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?”
Non-academics cannot imagine just how easily this “don’t believe your eyes” cosmology can be built and imposed on wide-eyed students. Students have already been softened up by anti-truth relativism and deconstruction, so denying a Platonic reality is just a short step away. Remember, in a famous hoax, NYU professor Alan Sokol got Social Text magazine to publish, as serious commentary, a nonsense article arguing that physical reality and gravity are, at bottom, dubious social and linguistic concepts.
Sokol was a precursor of the coming war against realism. Let me speculate a bit about the future. The project commences when Amber Bernstein, a well-known trend-setter and Ford Foundation Professor of Gender Inequality, reads her paper, “The Need for Alternative Realities: the View of the Oppressed” to a packed house at the 2014 Modern Language Association meeting. Dozens of jobless Ph.D.’s now sense that attacking the very idea of a “reality” may be the Next Big Thing on campus, the fast track to a job, even tenure and perhaps, like Amber, an endowed chair.
The Disgrace of Believing in Reality
The rush is on. An unknown professor at an obscure school offers up a scientific account of “reality.” Though he specializes in remedial English, he announces that modern physics (especially Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg’s writings on quantum field theory, symmetry breaking, pion-scattering, and infrared photons) posits that “reality” is multidimensional, and inherently uncertain. His coup de grâce; is a laboriously copied page of mathematical symbols demonstrating that no two people can observe the same object in the same way. QED: where you are determines your personal reality. A few asides about the Heisenberg principle, uttered in horrible German, settles it all.
Fulminating against “reality” burgeons into a hot academic trend. Conference papers explain, for example, that rich and poor really do live in separate worlds and both worlds are equally real though one is more unfair than the other. Ditto those with varied sexual preferences. Ambitious hardliners insist that “reality,” like race and gender, is just an arbitrary concept concocted to stigmatize the powerless. “Each to their own reality” is their powerful but ungrammatical slogan.
The historically-minded return to the first half of the 19th century to show how utopian writings (especially Marxism) promoted social change. “Social justice,” they insist, “begins with a Utopian blueprint,” not “facts.” This is the turning point in the movement. Facts are already in bad odor on the modern campus and here is yet another justification for ignoring them. The academic literature on “realism” explodes, online journals appear and opportunistic departments compete to recruit rising academic stars in “Anti-Reality Studies.” Our once anonymous remedial English professor is invited to Duke and bedazzles everyone at the Friday faculty colloquium. Sokol’s hoax is re-published as “Sokol’s Reality: Gravity is Not for Everyone.”
Savvy publishers quickly sign up books on evils of realism and within a year, the idea infuses cutting-edge textbooks. Ideologically-minded teachers warns students on the dangers of “realism,” and students naturally, in their brief periods of classroom alertness, learn to “see past” what they have been previously told is true. Innovative teachers expose their students to optical illusions and magic tricks to demonstrate the dangers of relying on sensory data.
It’s My Reality–Leave It Alone
Later, “realism” like all previous isms, becomes weaponized to defeat opponents of the university-defined good society. Facts no longer matter since there is now no single reality, so those who claim that Marxism failed and killed millions in the process are told that this is “true” only in personal reality but not in the reality of others. The Dean who demands tough academic standards is denounced as “imposing his white middle-class reality in a world of multiple realities, a world where it is impossible to confirm the validity of one reality over another.” In a nutshell, anyone who dwells on an unwelcome fact will be accused of “realism.”
Freed from the ancient bondage of facts and the hoary old theory of one-reality-for-all, professors and students rejoice in a new birth of freedom. The new heroes of the movement–the new PhDs in anti-reality studies, are hailed as liberationists. Nobody goes to their classes, however, since each person, even those paying $50,000 a year as students, already has his or her reality, which no professor can help or hurt. Nothing to do then but wait for the next New Big Idea.