Sunday, October 3, 2010

Confusion And Distrust, In Colonialism And In The University

I just finished listening to E. M. Forster's A Passage to India the other day.  It's an amazing book, and one of the many things that make it amazing is the way it shows what is ordinarily so hard to describe:  the way in which mutual distrust poisons community life.

The story is set during the British colonial rule of India.  The book is masterful in its depiction of the racist and condescending attitudes the British take toward their subjects.  But what makes it so sophisticated, it seems to me, is the way it shows how basically well-meaning and reasonable people get drawn into terrible situations, situations whose terribleness is created and exacerbated by the inherently screwed up -- and immoral -- way the British regard the citizens they hope to govern.

The novel has a big dramatic event at the middle of it, but there are many small events that show this with subtlety.  There are so few shared expectations.  One guy tries to have a party to bring together some British guests and some Indian friends, and it totally fails as a party:  in the absence of shared expectations about who is supposed to go and talk to whom, and who is supposed to make what kind of conversation, and how seriously offers and future plans are to be taken, the whole thing becomes a mass of confusion and hurt feelings.  Because there is mutual distrust, confusion and hurt feelings turn immediately into anger and disrespect.

As I was listening, I was reminded that this aspect of power-imbalance and difference is not restricted to imperialist contexts.  Mutual distrust poisoning relationships, in an atmosphere of power imbalance:  it's one of the things that makes racism and sexism so very destructive.

Laurence Thomas, a philosopher, wrote an essay called "What Good Am I"? -- meaning, What Good am I as a black philosophy professor, in particular? -- about why it matters to have people of different races, and of both sexes, as professors.  The answer goes beyond role models, he says, and is more about mutual understanding and trust.  Learning, he argues persuasively, can only happen in an atmosphere of trust, and racism and sexism are a bar to that trust.

Think about it.  In a classroom setting, learning involves being evaluated and criticized, even corrected, by someone else.  In at atmosphere of distrust, it doesn't make sense to make oneself vulnerable in that way.   Either you feel antagonized, or you feel like a dupe for interpreting the evaluation as well-intentioned.

And then, it's in the nature of things that people with different backgrounds will find one another sometimes hard to interpret, making that trust especially hard to establish.  I know I've experienced this difficulty of communicating in academic life a ton:  in my male-dominated field of philosophy, the kinds of things people think are obvious to assume, and the kind of things they say to establish a friendly but professional relationship, just often don't feel to me like the kind of things it's obvious to assume, or the kind of things one would say to establish a friendly but professional relationship.

This wouldn't really matter if there were lots of women and lots of men, but when there's lots of men and few women, it's difficult:  a woman ends up always feeling a little destabilized, a little uncertain, a little like a foreign visitor to another country, trying to figure out the codes.  Who's supposed to talk first?  Is small talk about family nice, or a waste of someone's time? -- or worse, an invasion of privacy?  Is complimenting someone's clothes considered friendly or peculiar?  What about dark humor?  I know everyone has to figure these things out, but for whatever reason when I'm around a lot of women, even in a professional setting, the answers seem to me pretty obvious -- small talk about family is nice -- but when I'm around a lot of men in a professional setting, they don't.  And then there's the complicating factor that what seems nice coming from a fellow guy might seem peculiar or intrusive coming from a woman.

As Forster so aptly shows, misunderstandings which might come to nothing in an atmosphere of trust become toxic in an atmosphere of distrust.  In his paper, Laurence concludes his reflections by saying something like this:  the importance of minority professors is that their existence represents the hope that the university is a place where trust and gratitude are possible among people of all races.  I've always thought this an apt observation, and I think about it often when the question comes up of why, and how, it matters to take active steps for diversity in all the academic disciplines. 

If philosophy is exceptional for being lots-of-guys, it's truly outrageous for being lots-of-white-people. I don't know how to solve this problem, but these thoughts are one of the many reasons, at least, for why it's a problem.  

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