Not thinking about being human

At the Chronicle of Higher Education Web site, George Yancy, professor of philosophy at Emory University, writes about what it’s like to be a black professor.

Back in December, 2015, the New York Times published an op-ed piece by Yancy titled “Dear White America,” a thoughtful essay that asked white Americans to reflect on their position as white persons in a social system that provides structural benefits for white people. From my perspective as a former student of philosophy, this op-ed piece was primarily philosophical: it was written in the spirit of dialogue and openness, and designed to evoke serious reflection on an insistent social situation.

Rather than evoking reflection, Yancy reports in the Chronicle of Higher Education that he received “hundreds of emails, phone messages, and letters, an overwhelming number of which were filled with racist vitriol.” Yancy offers quotations from perhaps a dozen of the communications he received. Sadly I was not astonished by the level of vitriol; it was about what I expected. I was mildly astonished at how badly written these communications were, and how thoughtless — I mean “thoughtless” not in the sense of a lack of civility (though they did lack civility), but thoughtless in the sense that the writers had not actually thought about what they wrote.

Since Yancy’s essay was structured to provoke thoughtfulness about the topic of race, how is it that hundreds of people responded thoughtlessly? Part of the problem may be the American cultural tendency towards “evasion of philosophy” — the phrase used by American pragmatist philosopher Cornel West to name the American propensity of avoiding systematic thinking. Another part of the problem is American anti-intellectualism, a well-known phenomenon which includes those ostensibly well-educated Americans who value entrepreneurship and “business” over the life of the mind.

But I think the major problem here is the inability of most white Americans to think seriously about race and racism in America — to think, to think seriously. Sociologist Robin DiAngelo has identified the problem of “white fragility,” but there is more to Yancy’s experience than white fragility. Yancy was attacked for asking white Americans to think, reflect, be introspective. The refusal to think can only be called intellectual fearfulness.

Another way of saying this is that white Americans are fearful of thinking seriously and deeply about what it means to be human. This fearfulness on the part of white Americans is, I suspect, amplified by the general American anti-intellectualism which is in large part a fear of thinking outside the narrow boundaries of technical achievement or outside the even narrower boundaries of American white Protestant evangelical theology. Thinking about virtual reality and artificial intelligence and other technical matters is acceptable. Thinking about, and either accepting or rejecting, the Protestant evangelical conception of God is acceptable. Thinking about what it means to be human as a white American is not acceptable, and evokes fearfulness rather than serious reflection and introspection. I find that very troubling.

3 thoughts on “Not thinking about being human”

  1. I just read his “Dear White America”. He’s one of those identitarians who think all men are sexist and all white people are racist. It’s very true many and maybe most people are racist and sexist to some degree, yet attempts to test this—implicit association tests, the policeman’s dilemma, etc.—continually find exceptions—some people show no measurable bias, and others show a bias for the opposite sex or race, which makes sense of you remember that cultures always produce heretics and outlaws. If he took a more nuanced position, I suspect he would get less flak.

  2. Will, I don’t necessarily agree with Yancy (I don’t necessarily agree with Kant, Heidegger, Rorty, logical positivists, and many other assorted philosophers). I’m not a fan of identitarianism, but when handled with some degree of nuance (as I think Yancy has done, at least as much as is possible in an op-ed piece) I find it is a position that can stimulate me to better articulate what I think. I’m troubled by the responses Yancy received to that op-ed piece where the people who wrote them didn’t even read, let alone think about, what Yancy wrote. The great American philosopher Charles S. Peirce said that the way we make our ideas clear is to be part of a community of inquirers — this is what you’ve done by reading Yancy’s piece and engaging with the ideas — but I’m afraid you’re in a minority in America today.

  3. I may argue differently on further reflection, but his attempt to be humble and polite may have only made his haters hate him more. For me, he has the sanctimoniousness of the sinner who has been saved who now wants to save the rest of the sinners. He seems like another example of the person who cites intersectionality, then goes on to speak of race or gender as if they were the whole of the problem.

    But the second factor is the internet makes it impossible to know whether haters are representative. It’s devastating to have hundreds of people write you, but when you remember the size of this country, they may be statistical blips.

    In this case, I don’t think they’re blips. But I don’t think they’re proof that this country’s greatest problem is racism either.

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