Oh, Dunning-Kruger, you’re everywhere

12 04 2011

I think the internet has ruined us. Newsflash, right? Maybe I’m being nostalgic for a time that never was, but it just seems to me like there used to be a time in my life when most discussions developed into something larger, when there was a back and forth and endless clarifications and adjustments and analysis (often self-critical, like, HOLY SHIT, you can question yourself!) rather than just a snarky cheap shot across the bow and a reluctance to really engage another person intellectually. It’s not just anonymity. It’s a fear of losing something. It’s defensive. There’s an absence of trust.

If you study literature or film or, really, if you’re in the liberal arts and you go to grad school, you’re going to get hit in the face with a lot of Theory (capital T). There’s good reason that most undergraduates are spared this (I was) and it’s not because they’re too young or immature or even stupid to understand it, but because doing it requires a leap of faith and a buying-in that most aren’t quite ready to do just yet. They’re still taking courses outside their major and they’ve got a million things going on. When you’re in grad school, you think everyone in the world goes to college and it’s grad school that’s rare – I mention that as an aside because everyone everywhere sees the world as a fishbowl sometimes – but because of that perceived rarity, you’re willing to accept and be open to more ideas.

That first hit with Theory is huge, let me tell you. All of a sudden, you’re expected in short span to read Althusser, Marx, Freud, Lacan, de Saussure, Said, Bhabha, Butler, Kristeva, Derrida, Foucault, Benjamin, Adorno… this list could go on for quite a while and even conjuring these names up now, names I’ve not thought about in a long time, is engaging in nostalgia and feels like I’m just touching the edge of something immense. Anyway, the first criticism you always here at this time, and I’m pretty sure I said it myself so I’m not excusing anyone here, is that these writers are just masturbating. It’s said with a sense of self-assurance that is at once cocky and fearful. Because, after all, you’re the first person to have ever thought such a thing and boy aren’t you clever and if you’re standoffish enough, cross your arms hard enough and put your head back and look down the nose a little maybe nobody will notice how worried you are and my God! it just sucks being this awesome all the time, what a burden.

Anyhow, their writing is hard to read. Really, really hard. Deliberately hard and you sit there wondering why they’re such bad writers, as if that’s the right thing to be concentrating on. If you’ve never read deeply into philosophy, there’s a very steep barrier to entry. So, naturally, rather than take that climb, it’s a whole lot easier to diss the climb itself as unworthy. I’m not going to stroke their long dead white egos by seriously reading them. I’m going to just go ahead and point and declare that the emperor has no clothes on. I’m rebelling and I’m doing it by making the laziest argument of all.

Fortunately for me, I had a teacher who didn’t let me off the hook that easily and I’m very grateful to her and always will be. I ended up taking the leap of faith and decided that I wasn’t fit to judge until I had immersed myself in it. If you think about it, it’s a big risk to take. I most certainly did not enjoy myself at all when starting to read these critical works and they were just the tip of the iceberg. There’s an entire language and mode of thought there that, until you’re already in the middle of it, makes no sense. To get to that center, you spend a lot of time reading the same page over and over again for 30 minutes at a time, rubbing your eyes, wishing you could just skip to the end, but parataxis makes it impossible to skip at all. Your legs are broken and you drag yourself through it.

It’s hard to say if it’s worth it. It was for me. I think that once I began to understand how ideas were interrelated and how they described a different, sometimes much deeper understanding of everything in reality and in fiction at the same time, it opened up many directions of thought that I probably would otherwise never have. Mostly, I learned to apply a different mode of thinking to what I read and saw. I was good at interpreting literature before, but it did make me much better at it, especially once I learned to put down the theoretical lens again (it’s an occupational hazard that once you pick Theory up, you can’t put it down again – resisted, though, it can be enriching to remember the fundamentals of close readings and not let your favorites lead you by the nose).

The most important thing I learned, though, was to get past that cheap rejection of the entire enterprise. I learned that sometimes you do have to admit that you know too little to judge. That’s not always easy to accept or even recognize. And, unfortunately, I see that happening so often in conversations I have, not just on the internet, but everywhere.

In his essay “The Triumph of Stupidity,” Bertrand Russell once wrote that “the fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” I came to learn recently, in the light of various discussions, that this is also referred to as the Dunning-Kruger effect. In the study, the lowest performers always overestimate their ability and understanding, while the top performers never realize that they’re actually on top. In essence, the stupid people are too stupid to realize how stupid they are, while the smart folks are so critical of themselves, that they fail to see that they understand as much as they do. I’d say that sums up a lot of my experience: they more I’ve learned, the more I’ve come to realize that there’s just so much I do not know. So, I tend to waffle more than I should.

So, when I came across a recent article about the provost-elect at Kennesaw State in Georgia who drew fire for having cited Marx in an academic paper, it frightened me more than a little. Citing Marx isn’t at all uncommon and it doesn’t mean that you’re a communist or that you’re anti-capitalist or anything of that sort. Personally, I cite Freud a lot. It doesn’t mean that I’d consider it current practice in psychology; it means that his ideas might provide a model for understanding something else. Reading Marx and applying a Marxist reading to something sociological makes a person no more a Marxist rebel than applying Freud makes me a psychologist. Not that the public is going to understand that, though. The reason the Red Scare is scary is because it’s fueled by a great many people who don’t understand that they don’t understand. As an aside, there are many other things that might be questionable about this particular hire, in my view, including a few very shoddy articles that make too many broad, sweeping generalizations, and it might be a ham-handed application of theory to the criticism he’s attempting to level, but the truth is that the public saw the name Marx cited in a favorable context and that’s all they chose (or were able) to focus on. I’m all for public opinion, but not when it becomes a mob. Sometimes, the public just isn’t informed enough really to make the judgment it’s making, but there’s no telling them that.

And yet again, my point here has diverged from what I originally intended. I had meant to say that if we can get over that initial reluctance to engage and the easy, lazy dismissal of opinions different from our own, we can sometimes come to a better understanding and sometimes just have some really great interactions. I was fortunate enough to have had just one such conversation last night with my brother-in-law (Thanks, Dax!). There were a number of times when either one of us could (or even actually did) dismiss a perspective as unworthy too early, but every time, we recovered from that and, for my part, I came to several realizations I would not otherwise have had. It pays to stick to it and buy into the idea that there’s very likely something to be gained just for going through the process of discussion. There’s a reward that can come from understanding that there are all sorts of things we don’t understand.

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One response

12 04 2011
Anthea

Conversations like that are awesome, and I agree they seem much more rare than they were in my college days. Part of that may simply come down to the fact that they take more time and energy than the quick dismissals… There are so many things I used to do a lot that I’ve switched to the quick version of, like cooking, sewing, even reading, which I did a lot more of before I started to get serious about writing.

Which is not to say a deep conversation isn’t worthwhile, just like a cooked-from-scratch meal is – just that I can understand why it’s more rare now.

Kind of an aside, but your mention of mob mentality ties in with another blog post I just read, that you might find interesting: http://www.popeconomics.com/2011/04/12/when-the-mob-makes-you-lose-your-sanity/

Have a great day!

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