Brownies for Dinner: Silly or Catastrophic?

*Posted by Joe Wooddell

In 1978 Edward Saids book Orientalism shocked the world of Middle Eastern Studies. In this book he basically claimed that the West or the Occident held a view of the East or the Orient that was racist, bigoted, paternalist, imperialist, oppressive, and any number of other horrible views. In this book he was operating from perspectives some have called post-structural, post-modern, or post-colonial, and in all of this he claimed to follow a Frenchman named Michel Foucault, who taught that discourse is all that exists. There is no reality as such, and if there were, we couldnt know it. All we have is language. Of course, Said made all sorts of historical truth claims (i.e., claims about reality), especially with respect to what he understood to be oppression, unfairness, and downright evil on the part of the West toward the East. Presumably, he wanted to be taken seriously and to be taken as presenting objective, historical facts (i.e., claims about reality). Colloquially, he was trying to have his cake and eat it too or have it both ways. Everyone else is biased and trapped in language and cant say anything truthful about reality, but please take my historical claims seriously.

Enter Allan Bloom, who in 1987 wrote The Closing of the American Mind, in which he argued (among other things) that the philosophies in the previous paragraph are not only nutty and inconsistent, but that they are taking over the American university system. Such a takeover, he argued, would spell the end of Western Civilization. Such views are catastrophic. In 1990 in The New York Review of Books analytic philosopher John Searle wrote The Storm Over the University, in which he rebuked Bloom and others for overreacting, of being too hysterical about the problem and its effects. Searle was not agreeing with the above philosophies, but he didnt see them as catastrophic. According to Searle, such philosophies tend to produce silliness rather than catastrophe. The spread of poststructuralist literary theory is perhaps the best known example of a silly but noncatastrophic phenomenon. He then noted, We cant yet know to what extent we are dealing with temporary fads and fashions or with long-term assaults on the integrity of the intellectual enterprise.

Its been nearly twenty-one years since Searles article, and now we have a better picture. Such philosophies have taken hold of several departments in the American university system, and the results, in my opinion, speak for themselves. People dont believe in objective truth, goodness, or beauty any more. Everything is relative. Of course, they dont really believe or live like this, but its what they say. Theyre scared to death of coming across as bigoted, racist, imperialist, oppressive, or intolerant, so they just throw out truth, logic, and reason altogether (or simply keep it when it suits their purposes). The point of this post, however, is not to try and refute these false philosophies. Rather, it is simply to say that Searle is right in one sense and wrong in another. Hes right insofar as these philosophies really are silly, but hes wrong to say they are not catastrophic. Silliness left unchecked often leads to catastrophe. If I let my children eat brownies and lemonade one night for dinner, thats silly. Were I to allow them brownies and lemonade every day for every meal, it would in the end prove catastrophic. Ideas matter. They have consequences. Silly ideas, left unchallenged, can be deadly. The loving and kind thing to do, then, is to challenge them. The tolerant thing to do is to disagree but not blow up the one who holds the view. And the prudent (and most difficult) thing to do is to model truth, goodness, and beauty so as to persuade and inspire the holder of the silly, catastrophic, deadly view to give it up.

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