Monday, July 23, 2012

Reinventing Charlemagne

As usual, TNC hits out of the park:
Consider this: what if you were a medievalist and the majority of your public simply refused to accept that Charlemagne ever existed. Indeed, what if they felt their prosperity was contingent on not acknowledging it. And thus all your medievalist friends spent a great deal of time proving that Charlemagne did exist.

Think about all the other interesting questions you might never get to ask, because you were spending all your energy in refutation of myth. And this would be frustrating because surely you had true questions, questions which you actually didn't have answers for. But every time you presented your work before an audience you felt called back to 800 AD all over again.

I think about how the climate scientist, or the evolutionary biologist living in Tennessee must feel, and I find some sympathy. So much of black intellectual life is wasted in disabuse, in explaining yourself to other people, as opposed to yourself.

Above all, I think this is the case for HBCUs. It wasn't like we didn't talk about racism at Howard -- where Toni Morrison attended -- but we never had to explain. And we were free to consider the geography of ourselves, to understand ourselves as another country. I remember going to the CSA (Caribbean Students Association) parties. It was like some other parallel world. Or watching the fraternities and sororities come out in the Spring, something I had no understanding of at all.

This, presumably, explains the frustration at having to repeat "101" level material over and over and over again. When I was newer at this, I couldn't understand the frustration -- probably because I remember when I was 101. Nowadays, it's far more clear to me, though I still do my best to be patient. It really depends whether someone is being deliberately pugnacious or not. But either way, having to spend huge portions of one's times reinventing the wheel (or Charlemagne) is time that one can't spend pushing the ball forward, and that really is annoying.

1 comment:

PG said...

I'm pro setting up "no 101" spaces, where people who have achieved a certain level of understanding/ consensus on an issue can then discuss more complex aspects of it. (E.g. "we all agree Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state, now we can discuss where the boundaries should be set without fending off people who don't agree with that premise.") I thought the sort of things they'd do on Alas A Blog were good efforts in that direction, like the posts that were set for only feminist-identified commenters to discuss upon.

But I find the frustration with dealing with 101 when one hasn't explicitly set up that space kind of annoying in itself. It's indicative of people who almost can't believe that there's still disagreement on something -- when often that disagreement will be on a matter of American policy and is held by a good 50% of the U.S. population!

TNC is himself evincing this in his comparison of climate science to the existence of Charlemagne. By definition, people who think there is human-activity-caused climate change that will become catastrophic are engaging in predictive claims. Moreover, their claims mostly are based on noting how different things today are from things in the past, and forecasting that this will cause the planet to be less hospitable to human life than it was in the past few millennia. I think they're probably right and therefore both take action in my daily life and take action politically to try to ameliorate these problems. But it's something I'm basically betting money on (in the form of voluntary increased costs and voting for people who would mandate increased costs), not that I'm so sure about that I would bet my or others' lives on it.

It demonstrates just how incredulous TNC's attitude toward those who disagree with him on this issue is, that he would compare them to people who deny a past historical fact. (I suppose we should be grateful he didn't go for "Holocaust denier.")

Also, I'm pretty sure 99% of people who are concerned about catastrophic climate change are as incapable as I am of explaining it well for the people who need a 101 education. It's very much something where one relies on experts, and neither the people who believe nor the people who disbelieve are science literate enough to communicate about it in a way that would be non-laughable to an actual expert. Long term evolution from entire kingdoms to another -- i.e. that we came not only from monkeys but from single-celled life forms -- is almost as bad in terms of requiring better-than-average science literacy to discuss. (Maybe it is worse, but I'm personally better at biology than I am at understanding the subspecialties involved in climate science.)

In contrast, for things that happened in the we-had-writing-and-stuff past, I can make a pretty clear case for people who need 101. Eg if I were the kind of person to harass ignorant old women, I could have explained to the senior citizen at the next table last weekend that Article II's "natural born citizen" requirement for the presidency never has been interpreted to mean that both of the candidate's parents have to have been citizens at the time of his birth, and if it had been interpreted that way, Andrew Jackson wouldn't have qualified.

Some beliefs are so dumb that they can't stand up to a 30 second explanation. They're not 101, they're the remedial class before you can take 101. And a lot of history is at that remedial/ 101 level. But I'm more skeptical that publicly-debated aspects of either natural or social sciences (I'd consider racism to fit under sociology) are generally at that level.