Thursday, June 28, 2012

When should we call out woo on the left?

The answer to this question might seem obvious: “Always! Not only should we call out woo wherever we find it, but we have a special responsibility to talk about problems with woo within our own movements.” But in my experience the question is significantly more complex. Natalie Reed wrote earlier this week against woo in progressive movements and the flawed social and political thinking inherent in many of these ideas.* She talks about her reluctance in the past to call out these beliefs and the reasons behind it:

When it’s come to confronting attitudes and beliefs I saw as damaging amongst the activist, 'progressive' movements to which I belong, I’ve often been hesitant and timid. A lot less open in my opposition, and a lot more likely to simply 'agree to disagree', leave subjects alone and untouched. There’s a lot of fear in that. Perhaps I’m scared of being hated. Perhaps I’m scared of losing friends. Perhaps I’m scared of alienating my allies, scared of falling out of any wider movement and no longer having a community to belong to. Scared of belonging to nothing, to no one, no longer being a part of anything beyond myself. Scared of ending up an isolated misanthrope, fighting a lonely angry war, with no one left I’m actually fighting for. Standing for nothing except pride and a stubborn adherence to inflexible, abstracted principles.

These are of course valid, as are her reasons for working to overcome those fears – that she’s also “scared of allowing my participation in activism to be defined by compromise, and of my principles ultimately deteriorating to nothing more than a vague adherence to a certain 'side' of a certain dialectic ideological conflict that no longer has much of anything to do with what I actually believe in. Just cheering for my team, no matter what they’ve come to stand for,” of “ending up blindly supporting an ideology that is going to end up hurting people.”

I don’t mean for a second to minimize such personal reasons, with which I don’t disagree, but as this is something I’ve been struggling with since before I became a blogger,** I thought I’d take the opportunity to talk about a few complications that attend criticizing woo and anti-science on the left. It’s important to bear in mind both the political context in which such criticisms are made as well as how the hierarchical social relations that characterize this context shape people’s thinking. It’s only by appreciating this that we can most fully judge the potential effects of our criticisms and thoughtfully consider the best course of action in each case.

The first complication is that there exists a tendency, when an example of woo on the left is raised, for people to extend the connection between the group(s) and the belief well beyond the original claim. This is the case more generally: mention is made of the existence of misogyny amongst some gay men, for example, and many minds jump to the idea that gay men have some particular predilection for misogyny. It’s very natural for people, especially those hostile to the aims of a social justice movement, to let individual examples of woo color their view of the movement as a whole and jump to dismiss it as anti-science.

This makes discussing examples of bad thinking or ideas amongst social justice advocates somewhat fraught. If you point, say, to a few examples of gender essentialist thinking among feminists, or, worse, discuss the problem of gender essentialist thinking within feminism in the abstract without offering specific examples, it’s quite likely that anti-feminists and even many would-be allies and feminists themselves will form a mental link between feminism and gender essentialism (and ignore, of course, that patriarchal systems are founded fundamentally in essentialist thinking, of which feminist gender essentialism is merely the mirror image, and that feminism has overwhelmingly been about challenging essentialist beliefs). Or, to take another example, the existence of the notion that animal rights activists anthropomorphize nonhuman animals, despite the reams of species-specific evidence from animal rights organizations and nuanced views about anthropomorphism, will lead many people to latch onto isolated examples of invalid anthropomorphism and dismiss activists’ arguments. It’s convenient for those who don’t want to think about the physical or emotional suffering of animals to be presented with such examples.

Stereotyped thinking about marginalized groups in this context is not just a human tendency. It’s exploited opportunistically by those in power, and corporations have a long history of slapping the “anti-science” label on their critics. They do this by pointing to real examples and generalizing from these to an entire movement as discussed just above, by portraying all activists’ concerns as identical to those of the wooists, and by misrepresenting evidence-based challenges as woo. Industrial agriculture conglomerates are especially adept at this, as is the psychiatric drug industry. Those who oppose policies centered on GE foods and industrial agriculture are routinely painted as anti-science health kooks, and those pointing to the weaknesses of the brain-disease model of mental disturbance are regularly claimed to be denying that mental suffering exists or that the brain is involved, even despite clear evidence to the contrary.

Insofar as they identify science with that which claims the label, and particularly the understandings promoted by corporations and the powerful in general, skeptics often act as the unwitting (or in some cases willful) accomplices of conservatism. Epistemically, we often treat movements from below unjustly, focusing on a few failures of skeptical thinking to discount a person’s, organization’s, or movement’s claims entirely, whether the woo is purely incidental or fundamental to their main arguments and whether or not these arguments are otherwise strong.

Recently, the Mad in America site – which features a number of voices and arguments, of generally uneven quality – invited a “holistic psychiatrist” to post there, who apparently will be talking about such useful and well-founded ideas as chakras and energy fields. I’ve been torn about mentioning it here because I’ve seen the dynamic play out over and over when radical criticisms of psychiatry are raised: people tend to look for reasons to discount the criticisms without engaging with them, and often even the most tangential will suffice. (I’m still uncertain if mentioning it here is the right thing to do. I’ve made an effort for months now to encourage people hostile to these ideas to read books like Joanna Moncrieff’s The Myth of the Chemical Cure, and I fear this single wooish connection of one web site, otherwise containing much sound and important information, will give people a rationale to avoid those critical voices. That would be unskeptical and unfair. We should make more of an effort to engage with fact claims that make us uneasy or don’t fit with our cultural presuppositions, and maintain a sense of proportion about errors or lapses in judgment that aren’t pertinent to consistent and well-evidenced arguments.)

Another complication is that wooish ideas often contain insights. We shouldn’t ignore these insights simply because they’re not presented in the language of science (and we shouldn’t always assume that claims are wholly non-metaphorical and non-strategic). For instance, I’m ambivalent about publicly challenging some things - the recognition of Pachamama in the Bolivian and Ecuadoran constitutions, the suggestion that eating meat is eating suffering, or some cultural understandings of mental distress - without extensive caveats and contextualization. I appreciate these ideas, understood metaphorically, in ethical and aesthetic terms. But I believe also that these notions contain insights about the world and our place in it that are lacking in my own instrumental, exploitative, alienated, unsustainable culture.

This isn’t always the case, and of course I’m not suggesting that all understandings are equally valid or anything like it. As Ethan Watters points out with regard to beliefs about mental disturbances:

I have tried to avoid making the clich├ęd argument that other, more traditional cultures necessarily have it right when it comes to treating mental illness. All cultures struggle with these intractable diseases [sic] with varying degrees of compassion and cruelty, equanimity and fear. My point is not that they necessarily have it right—only that they have it different. (Crazy Like Us, p. 254)

(I should note that the brain disease model of contemporary psychiatry is woefully uninsightful about human distress and unhelpful when it comes to addressing it; in fact, as I’ve discussed before, it marginalizes the insights of other perspectives.) Further, recognizing these insights doesn’t require or entail accepting the belief system in which they’re found or its epistemic basis. (This is complicated by my firm stance against religious and wooish beliefs forming the basis for any social activism, as I’ll discuss in more depth in a future post.)

In psychiatry as in some other areas, it’s not a matter of science vs. woo or anti-science but of various mythologies, one of them (the brain-disease model) claiming the status of science. Reed calls on people to recognize that in addition to science our culture has its own mythologies and superstitions, but we also need to acknowledge, I think, that many of our myths masquerade as, and are widely accepted as, science. We should be careful when distinguishing between disinterested science and politically motivated ideology, since when doing so we run the risk of supporting what is in actuality a more harmful set of beliefs and practices simply because it’s widely accepted in our culture as scientific.

So calling out woo in social justice movements is complicated by a tendency to generalize from specific examples, stereotype movements, and dismiss well-supported arguments; the opportunistic exploitation of these tendencies by corporations and other powerful entities; the desire to look for reasons to ignore uncomfortable arguments or reject them out of hand; the insights that might be found in "unscientific" sets of beliefs; and the mythological character of some beliefs claimed to be scientific. Arguing that this should all form part of decisions about challenging bad ideas in social justice movements is not arguing that we therefore should never challenge them - on the contrary I do so regularly. But it's complicated, I’m generally unsure as to whether I’m making the right decision about calling it out or not in any particular instance, and it tends to nag at me forever whichever way I decide to go.

*There’s a lot to this post, and I don’t necessarily agree with all of it, but I do agree with quite a bit.

**In fact, one of the first struggles I had with this here related to one of my first posts - the Yes Men are connected to and support what generally appears to be a wonderful organization, the Bhopal Medical Appeal, which blends some “traditional medicine” with science-based treatments. Given the context and all of the various factors (WOW – SEE HERE!), I didn’t think this bit of woo worth bringing up.

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