Some Casual Critical Theory on Conventional Wisdom
Few of the simple ideals I held as a child persisted through my college years. Some left for more complex, more practical models. Some left altogether. This is the nature of life. We don’t talk about the simple values of belief and experience enough in academic forums. First of all, as I am writing this, I am afraid—very afraid, so much so that I cannot even express the degree to which I am in this sentence—that some scholar may stumble upon this paragraph months or years later and dismiss me completely because I did not state a thesis; I did not write in an academic tone; and I did not support my argument with relevant examples, accurate statistics, and impeccable logic.
As an English major, and as a teacher, I am acutely aware of the fact that presentation is a large part of the efficacy of expository writing. I repeatedly tell my students that they cannot settle for simply getting across what they have to say. They have to do so in an academic manner. They have to sound just a little more pretentious. They will impress their audience more if they attribute quotations by the book, include a cover page, spell-check, and write in complete sentences. Fairly basic advice, I think. Many other academicians would agree.
But sometimes we know the most effective media for the communication of cutting edge ideas are not the properly formatted, extensively researched articles in professors’ journals. One of the books that hit me the hardest in my development—as a human being, as a student, as a teacher, as an American—was The Autobiography of Malcolm X. He did not attribute his quotations with footnotes. He did not have a clear thesis. Sometimes his logic was flawed. Yet he spoke to the issues that pressed upon his heart and pressed upon America, revealing his intelligence, while not allowing himself to be hindered by academic red tape.
The Bible has had an immense impact, not only on my life, but on the lives of hundreds of millions around the world. It speaks many truths, even to non-believers, and does so without “proving” anything. Hollywood movies. TV talk show hosts. Comedians. Comic strips. Comic books. There are many examples of media through which one or a set of people can get across a message with immense cultural value without indulging in intellectual filibuster. Something every intellectual knows in her heart is that even though officially there are things that social scientists, scientists, mathematicians, psychologists, economists, sociologists, etc. can talk about in conferences, journals, books, lectures and other official forums; no one bases her life beliefs solely on academic proof. Once we find out how many doctorate-holders in the world practice astrology to some extent, then we will plow past the hypocrisy of how the burden of proof the religion professors in liberal arts universities across America put on whether God exists or not compares to the burden of proof professors put on whether their own academic training has any validity.
Notes from the Underground is the ramblings of the madman genius Dostoevsky. Somehow that’s literature. How do we get to the base of what we believe and why? How can we truly be introspective, as individuals, as a community, even as academics?
We need to see the value of large words, proper formatting and all the trappings of academia for what it is: a polishing, a finishing, a coup de grace. But first we need to answer for ourselves: What is worth talking about? What is worth re-examining? Whose opinions are worth understanding? What resources do we have? How dependable are they? Those are just some basic questions to start off with. And even before we ask those questions, we must first ask ourselves what we believe. I have read academic journals, popular and not-so-popular magazines, popular and not-so-popular books, watched numerous hours of TV and movies, talked with intellectuals and down-to-earth people alike; very seldom, in these forums, have I seen a discussion of conventional wisdom for content, but even less so for concept.
Conventional wisdom is quite an interesting concept, actually. I love thinking about it. I love trying to examine it. It is what helps us live/ survive from day to day without constantly proving ourselves. It is how people get sociological statistics or ideas in their minds without actually polling neighborhoods and countries. Two prime examples of how conventional wisdom comes into play in our daily lives:
1. In a conversation, two interlocutors (of varying academic background) can argue about a sociological phenomenon, cite statistics, studies, urban legends, and one person could convince the other of an idea without supporting her argument with a shred of academic evidence.
2. We are not surprised when a certain circumstance leaves us with a demographic cross-section disagreeing with us on a certain issue.
In more concrete terms, the first is the case of two friends talking. Here is a clip from their conversation:
Marie: I don’t think that’s true.
Bob: No, it is. I read it somewhere.
Bob: Yeah. They said it was cancerous.
Marie: Oh, wow.
It is not an accident that I choose the hypothetical convincee to be the female in the scenario above. Oftentimes we each choose in conversation to believe (note: this belief at any time is tentative and we often override it at a later time) a person simply because he states his opinion or idea emphatically. Males tend to be overly assertive (right or wrong) in this manner—not always, though. What it comes down to are these two questions: “Might this person actually have read this somewhere/ might this person have a real reason for believing this?” and “Am I intimidated by this person’s knowledge or confidence?” I will not be so haughty as to deny I have been a victim to such a circumstance, because it is the natural course of human conversation. That is an essential part of our development as human beings. We cannot and should not base our ideas on only that which is presented to us in an academic forum with substantial academic proof. We weigh what needs that kind of proof by our personal experience and feeling of what could or could not be right, which leads me to the second scenario.
Every human being who considers herself a “reasonable person” has at least two different types of beliefs: those of which she is conscious and those of which she is not. Sometimes the ones that she is not constantly conscious of are close enough to her consciousness to be easily retrievable. The reason that, without having done extensive sociological research, most people can go about their daily lives and usually not be surprised by the people they encounter on a day-to-day basis is that, whether we think about it or not, we develop our own (though often not fully articulated) sociological theories—based on our experiences—that may not be established enough to base academic sociology on but have at least limited application to a larger sociological theory. For instance, when I have taught children—both outside and inside the public school systems, I have found they usually hold to or at least make the appearance of holding to several, simplistic ideals of American culture:
We should treat others as we want to be treated.
We should care about social issues.
One person can make a difference.
You should not judge people by the color of their skin.
Education is important.
The degree to which said children (or even adults, though sometimes in modification or in still-conscious abandonment) adhere to the above principles is irrelevant to non-academic, personal sociological analysis. The key to understanding conventional wisdom as a concept is recognizing that some ideas, whether a certain individual agrees with them or not, are on the table. Conventional wisdom, pared down, is a factoid or value piece from the larg
er cultural puzzle. That is, if culture is the set of values, traditions, customs, languages, beliefs, etc. that those who surround us perpetuate as a group, regardless of our particular preference; then conventional wisdom is a more localized set of beliefs or values in one arena of culture.
There are three ways of categorizing knowledge, then:
1. Apparently Active Knowledge: the knowledge that is in question, in acceptance, in dispute, in the forefront of modern dialogue-each person knows that knowledge is out there, but may not herself “know” it to be true, nor know that anyone else truly “knows” it to be true.
2. Official Knowledge: the knowledge that learned in school, academic-sounding, backed up with statistics (accurate or inaccurate), likely to be found in books or journals.
3. Accumulated/ Operative Knowledge: the knowledge that has a carrier who may not even be consciously aware she is carrying such knowledge—it is based on the accumulated small pieces of input she receives from her daily interactions with other people.
Conventional wisdom is a cross-product of the three ways of categorizing knowledge. Thence, as regards race, I would label the different parts of teaching race in the following manner. The idea that students present (whether they themselves fully believe it or not) is that you should not judge a person by the color of her skin. This is Apparently Active Knowledge. It is an idea which is in the forefront of dialogues about race. People who “believe” this may, in fact, judge many people by the “color” of their respective skins. However, it is the safe, prescribed answer, which is out there, regardless of how many people think about its implications or fully believe every word of it. The idea that race actually correlates directly with the “color” of a person’s skin is debatable (but in pre-college forums is not debated!), and has to do with Official Knowledge. And, finally, the ideas which a person actually carries about race due to hearsay, personal experiences and a combination of Apparently Active and Official Knowledge is her Accumulated/ Operative Knowledge.
Bob: I hate white people.
Marie: You don’t really hate white people.
Bob: Yeah, I do.
Marie: That’s so bad.
Bob: Why is that so bad?
Marie: You can’t hate white people. Isn’t that racist, hating someone just because of the color of their skin?
Bob: No. Racism supports a system which oppresses non-white people. And race isn’t the color of one’s skin. And white isn’t a race. It’s an attitude.
Bob: Yeah, all people of color know this to be true intrinsically, whether that shows in their outward expression or not.
Marie: No. That’s not true.
Bob: No, it is. I read a sociological study which surveyed the state of California. It’s true.
Marie: Oh, really?
The above contrived conversation touches upon the reality of everyday conversation in ways directly related to the idea of conventional wisdom. First of all, I would like to propose that Bob knows before he begins talking with Marie that she will be shocked by what he has to say (In making a proposal, I am always asking the reader to, for a moment, make an assumption of a certain principle’s truth. I am also putting an idea on the discussion table that I believe is underplayed. Whether someone disagrees with what I have to say or not in proposing something does not hinder my goals: something must be on the table before anyone can agree or disagree with it). Bob’s knowledge here is an example of his Accumulated/ Operative Knowledge. He does not stop to think about where he has the idea that people may be shocked by, really, what is only his opinion. Everyone has the right to express her opinion. In the midst of conversation, though, we usually have a good sense of whether what we’re about to say is going to shock whomever we’re talking to or not. We haven’t done any demographics studies or even really thought about it. We just know this without even thinking about it. It’s an essential part of the knowledge we’ve accumulated over the years through our interactions with others. Sometimes it is not a generalization we extend to everyone. Our ideas of people’s reactions to what we say vary depending on said people’s national origins, circumstances for meeting us, depth of acquaintance with us, gender, social standing, academic background, speech/ language ability, age, sexual orientation, religion… a whole host of criteria. This type of conventional wisdom is unspoken. It is not on the table. It is not up for debate.
The type of conventional wisdom that is spoken is what Marie says in reply to Bob’s statement about white people: “Isn’t that racist, hating someone just because of the color of their skin?” She does not say, “That’s an intriguing idea. I’m not sure I agree with that completely. Can you explain your reasoning?” or “That’s funny—that’s exactly what I was thinking!” Marie tries to convince Bob that he may be wrong. She appeals to his inner sense of what is commonly thought. In a sense, she is saying, “Bob, don’t you remember conventional wisdom?” She follows her polite reminder with a flat-out command, “You can’t hate white people.” She has the confident assertion in her mind, without even contemplating it, that Bob has violated some rule of life. Although Marie tries to intimidate Bob out of his crazy ideas about white people, Bob also tries to intimidate Marie. He convinces her (at least for the ten seconds following their conversation) of a statistical possibility simply by reasserting himself forcefully. He uses the tools of personality, strong self-confidence and a “study” that, for all Marie knows, he could have pulled straight out of his ass.
I would like to propose that there are at least four types of readers who have made it thus far through my theoretical tirade:
1. The slightly (but probably traditionally) educated white liberal or conservative who believes that the parts of my essay she understands are total bullshit and the rest just confuses her.
2. The haughty academic who realizes in her heart that much of what I say is true yet dismisses these new ideas for the very reasons I am critiquing academic theory.
3. The earnest and educated soul who does not particularly like critical theory and is hoping that I will move on to a new topic, as some of what I’ve said may ring true to her ears, but most of it seems too esoteric.
4. A kindred spirit.