27 March 2008

only i can save the world

a bit ago, timothy burke wrote about gatekeeping and territorialism in academia, beginning his discussion with a recent tempest-in-teapot over tim weiner's recent history of the CIA, legacy of ashes. i'm only halfway-or-so through the book, and i haven't read the critique by stephen weissman that burke points to. luckily for me, the substance of that debate is sort of incidental to burke's argument.

burke writes: "You can always tell when a serious scholarly pissing match is about to kick off in a journal or a listserv or a conference panel: it’s exactly when you see this mismatch between the intensity of the adjectives used by one scholar to describe his opponent and the alleged errors being described.

...When you see this kind of adjectival intensity associated with such a relatively picayune point, one of two things is going on. One possibility is that there is a major analytic disagreement about the overall substance of a book, and both parties to that disagreement represent substantial schools of thought or factions with a long-running history of antagonism...

Or the critic whose tone is mismatched to substance is a gatekeeper: someone accustomed to personal ownership of a given subject, to disciplinary ownership of a subject, or who is trying to keep non-academics off of turf perceived to be a scholarly monopoly."

oh boy! this is the closest i've come to a useful description of some of the politics occurring within a the corner of human rights research where academics and advocates come together. it doesn't quite describe the ferocity of this phenomenon in human rights, though, for a couple of reasons i'll get to in a second. first, an example.

a few weeks ago i was completely mystified (also overwhelmingly disgusted in a sort of train-wreck way) at the ferocity, the withering condescension, the downright rudeness and the assumption of bad intent, that poisoned what should have been a collegial debate about the magnitude of human rights violations in a situation where the magnitude of violations is unknown and, unless knowing is guessing, almost certainly unknowable. the case concerned people of unmistakably good intentions acting like complete assholes, essentially claiming that other human rights advocates sought to minimize a catastrophe and were therefore not, in fact, on the side of human rights at all.

[separate question: what, precisely, do we gain by maximizing a catastrophe? and at what cost?]

it's difficult to describe this particular exchange without going into details -- but it's also the case that exchanges like this are a dime a dozen in human rights, and the details are unimportant. as in burke's description, the descriptive-substantive disjuncture is a common feature of this sort of exchange. what is particularly troubling, however, is that most of these exchanges take place between people who have very similar goals and concerns but who seem convinced, for a number of reasons, that 'only i can save the world.'

'human rights people' -- almost always overworked (often by choice), very often underpaid, extraordinarily ambitious, self-consciously do-gooder-y, doing an incredibly difficult and incredibly important job that is unlikely to yield concrete or contemporaneous results, competing for scarce resources with many, many other people who are trying to do the same job with the same amorphous measures of 'success' in a context where actual Success is usually unachievable without, say, time travel and/or miracle-working abilities.

combine resource scarcity and true urgency, and the ultimate result is that no one has the perspective, or the incentive, to police the boundaries between gatekeeping and 'major analytic disagreement.' of necessity, one sells one's work as sort of an 'if and only if' solution: we are special, and have a unique new approach to saving the world, and it is better than all the other approaches to saving the world for the following n reasons. corollary: if you don't follow this approach, you are not really concerned with saving the world.

all this is basically a description of intra-advocacy fighting, the sort of thing that is bound to happen when lots of people who really care compete for scarce resources with which to express their caring. however, advocates are increasingly academics, and vice versa, so that the line(s) between getting the story right (whether that means calculating the right magnitudes over time or faithfully reproducing the meaning and intent of an individual victim or perpetrator, or understanding the structural conditions that led to the violations, or what have you) and fighting the good fight are increasingly murky. [in a context of urgency, what does it even mean to 'get the story right'? but that's a blog entry, or maybe a dissertation, for another day.]

what burke is describing is an undue intensity of conflict over getting the story right, sometimes due to real theoretical differences but just as often due to ego-driven territorial disputes. what we are often experiencing in human rights, i think, is an undue but understandable conflation of getting the story right and doing what we believe to be effective right this minute. gatekeeping, which is likely enough to happen even when people are not out there dying, begins to seem like the only response when you've convinced yourself of the total rightness and necessity of your approach. and then the gatekeeping itself jumps the shark: it's not that an intellectual adversary is guilty of a "shocking" or "gross" distortion of historical fact, as in the _legacy of ashes_ dispute -- it's that the adversary is personally "irresponsible" or "in the wrong business" or nefariously inclined toward a "blithe ignorance of...realities." an intellectual adversary is now a moral adversary as well, no matter what side that person started on.

to which i say: humility, people. i know it's hard when you've got tenure or a really huge grant, but come on.