In defence of brainwashing
It is unusual for the details of an academic course to become a hot topic of conversation in the blogopshere, but over the last week or so a paper offered by Mohsen al Attar at the University of Auckland's Law School has engaged the attention, if not the intellects, of scores of commenters at New Zealand's most popular blog.
After Kiwiblog proprietor David Farrar posted a link to the outline of Mohsen's paper, which is called 'Colonialism to Golobalisation', comments boxes quickly filled with denunciations of the propagandists for communism, political correctness, civil unions, and similar abominations who supposedly dominate Kiwi campuses.
For the keyboard warriors who fight for liberty at Kiwiblog and other red meat sites, Mohsen al Attar makes a perfect target: he is foreign-born, he has a Muslim name, he is preoccupied with the history of of Western imperialism, and he is unafraid to flourish fashionable if slightly obscure left-wing phrases like 'counter-hegemony' and 'anti-globalisation' in his lectures and texts.
But it is not only at Kiwiblog that Mohsen al Attar's paper has been condemned. In an article published in several daily newspapers and on his blog, the left-wing political commentator Chris Trotter found himself agreeing with David Farrar about the creator of 'Colonisation to Globalisation'. For Chris, Mohsen offers a 'particularly stark example' of 'self-loathing leftism', a condition which is defined as:
that self-critical mode of left-wing analysis which takes "the politics of victimhood" out of its more familiar context in the anti-racist, feminist and gay rights movements, and extends it to the whole world.
The result is as predictable as it’s banal: an Avatar world of Goodies versus Baddies and Nature versus Technology, in which the holistic philosophy of innocent and virtuous indigenes crashes into the murderously exploitative intentions of malignant and rapacious colonisers. Like David Farrar, Chris bases his account of Mohsen al Attar's worldview on a reading of the outline of 'Colonisation to Globalisation' offered to prospective students of the paper. Chris believes that the outline's references to European imperialism are simplistic and overly vituperative.
It is difficult to make judgements about an academic course based merely on a reading of its outline. An outline is often more like a blurb on the back of a book than an abstract at the beginning of an academic essay - that is, it hints at the content of the paper it advertises, rather than distilling the essence of that paper's arguments.
To declare that a paper is intellectually suspect, simply because the outline which advertises it contains one or two provocative claims and makes the opinions of its author plain, is to misunderstand not only the scope and limits of a paper outline but the place of objectivity in scholarship and teaching.
For the baying, perpetually ill-informed mob in David Farrar's comments boxes, 'objectivity' means studying and teaching 'the facts', and avoiding any reference to 'theories'. Anything but the simple recitation of unvarnished facts is 'brainwashing'. This sort of naive, philistine attitude to scholarship and teaching never bore much relation to reality, and was made completely untenable by twentieth century philosophers, who showed that even the most seemingly obvious statement of fact is inevitably dependent upon implicit theoretical assumptions.
As EP Thompson liked to point out, scholarship requires a mixture of subjectivity and objectivity. All of us have opinions. Strong opinions may actually help a scholar form interesting hypotheses. The question is whether a scholar is prepared to ‘listen’ to evidence, and to other scholars, and modify his or her hypothesis when it doesn’t fit the evidence.
Thompson had very strong opinions on all manner of subjects, yet was capable of changing his mind dramatically in the course of his research. For example, Thompson did a famous study of the sale of wives in nineteenth century England, which he began using the hypothesis that the practice was an example of the oppression of women by men. As he accumulated scores and then hundreds of cases of the practice, though, Thompson noticed that women often participated happily in their ’sale’, that the amount of money that changed hands was derisory, and that the ‘buyer’ of the wife was usually a man who had been having a relationship with her. Thompson eventually decided that the sale of wives was an informal working class form of divorce used in the days when only the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy could divorce legally. Thompson's strong opinions did not make him dogmatic, when unexpected evidence presented itself.
At university level, a teacher is not supposed to be a mere conveyor of facts and figures to a group of passive students - he or she is supposed to present those students with an argument, or a series of arguments, and to invite them to respond to those arguments. Both teacher and students have to test their arguments against the evidence which they will be exploring, and - in some papers - unearthing together. There is nothing to suggest to me that Mohsen al Attar's paper outline, with its series of provocative, deliberately unsupported statements, could not be an invitation to research and dialogue, rather than an exercise in propaganda.
I remember a course taught in the early noughties by Ian Carter, one of the most senior members of the University of Auckland's Sociology Department, on the modern world and modern consciousness. Carter advertised his paper with a brief statement that concluded with the sentence 'Students will soon discover the lecturer's lack of sympathy with postmodern thought'. This was a blatant expression of personal opinion and, sure enough, Ian didn't hold back from criticising Foucault, Baudrillard and other postmodernist thinkers during his very informal lectures.
But Ian did not make his own opinions into red lines for students - on the contrary, he intended them as invitations to debate and research. It would have been very unjust to conclude, from a reading of the outline that advertised his paper, that he was some sort of unscholarly propagandist for a particular point of view. Why shouldn't we give Mohsen the same sort of latitude that Ian and so many other fine teachers have enjoyed? Why are some of us so ready to assume that Mohsen is a sinister pseudo-scholar, simply because he has, like the rest of us, opinions?
Not only has Chris failed to recognise the limits of the outline of an academic paper, he seems to me to have misread Mohsen's outline. Here is the passage which Chris cites as proof of Mohsen's inveterate hatred of the West, and of his desire to return to a pre-capitalist era:
In the late 15th century, imperialist Europe emerged intent on exploring and possessing the New World. Fast forward through five hundred years of colonialism, capitalism, slavery, industrialisation, genocide, and international law and greet the 21st century in all its paradoxical glory.
What Mohsen is surely doing here is recalling the bloodsoaked origins of capitalism five or so centuries ago, and pointing to the contradictory outcomes of capitalist development. On the one hand, he seemes to be saying, capitalism has been implicated in abominations like slavery; on the other hand, it has given rise, thanks largely to the democratic struggles of the working classes it has created and the peoples it has colonised, to (supposedly) progressive features of the modern world like international law. Mohsen acknowledges the 'glory' of the modern world, but he considers this glory 'paradoxical'.
Mohsen's argument is not a new one: it can be found in The Communist Manifesto, which spends page after page extolling the wonders of capitalism before revealing the bloody corollaries of these wonders, and it permeates classical social democracy, which praises the productive forces capitalism has created but argues that these forces need to be placed under the control of responsible national and international institutions.
I suspect that Chris actually subscribes to the view of capitalism Mohsen is advancing, and I don't think he would find much to object to in the well-meaning, rather utopian opinion pieces Mohsen turns out for the national media, which call for the amelioration of the worst excesses of the twenty-first century world through the strengthening of international law.
I disagree with the portrait of capitalism Mohsen advances - in its attempt to see the good side of the devil and strike a bargain with him, it seems to me to owe more to Faust than to a realistic picture of the way the system operates. Against the view that capitalism has progressive features and can be taken over and civilised by well-meaning lefties, I would side with the Marx of the 1870s and '80s, who came to see the expansion of the system not as a necessary step in the march of progress but as an assault on much that was socialistic in indigenous societies.
But my objections to Mohsen's vision of history don't make me hostile to the paper he teaches. If I were a student again, I would be attracted, rather than perturbed, by the prospect of an encounter with a teacher with strongly-held beliefs and a provocative way of expressing those beliefs. It saddens me that, rather engaging in a discussion with Mohsen, Chris Trotter has chosen to side with the read meat brigade of the Kiwiblog comments boxes - a gang of misfits, obsessives and rednecks who surely represent, in an admittedly amusing way, the negation of the Western tradition of reason and debate that Chris rightly venerates.