The recent brouhaha over the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, its invitation to Narendra Modi, and its subsequent revocation under pressure from a few humanities professors—note, from the humanities and not from the business school—has made me think again about a strange fact. This is that people from the humanities and the social sciences sometimes appear to be fascist, intolerant, and, well, with a warped world-view.
You see this frequently in campuses both in the US, and particularly, in India: humanities people are dogmatic, subject to blind faith, and, alas, innumerate. It is impossible to argue with them with numbers—in particular, those with English as their majors, and exotic variants thereof, including ‘cultural studies’, ‘women’s studies’, ‘cultural anthropology’, ‘gender theory’, and so forth—because they tend to be swayed only by emotion, and cannot comprehend facts, figures, or logic.
These people write tonnes about obscure things such as deconstructionism; this stuff is so close to utter nonsense that there was the celebrated hoax perpetrated in 1996 by physicist Alan Sokal wherein he published a paper titled Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity in an academic journal of ‘postmodern cultural studies’, without the editors realising that it was totally meaningless garbage.
There is also the Postmodernism Generator, a computer programme that concocts weighty essays indistinguishable from what the leftists produce; but the programme is just spewing out structured gibberish.
I have a theory that humanities majors—they are spotted driving taxis when the economy collapses—are deathly afraid of, and envious of, those with more useful and more employable skills. This anger they sublimate into some sort of reverse-snobbery world-view where they sneer at those with science and engineering backgrounds.
Some years ago, I wrote an essay titled Fear of Engineering wherein I explored both the innumeracy and the rage humanities people exhibit about engineers, NRIs, and in fact, anyone who does not buy into their world view. Like Alice in Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts, these humanities types scream, “Off with their heads!”
I have been wondering for long why humanities people act the way they do. The best explanation is by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt whose 2012 book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion analyses the differences between leftists and rightists. Now it is almost an axiom that people in the humanities are leftists, so much so that you can replace ‘humanities’ with ‘leftist’ without loss of generality, so what Haidt says is a first approximation to the humanities professors at U Penn, etc.
Haidt’s thesis is that there are six values that people look for in an ethical system: compassion, fairness, the desire to fight oppression; and group loyalty, respect for authority, and the notion of sanctity or purity. Significantly, he suggests that leftists can only understand the first three, whereas rightists can deal with all six.
Thus, conservatives can appreciate (even if they disagree with) a liberal’s obsessions with the first three. On the other hand, the left is completely baffled by the last three values – they cannot comprehend how anybody could have, say, respect for authority. Thus, Haidt, a self-confessed liberal, implies that there is a ‘conservative advantage’, and that, in effect, conservatives have a more well-rounded, well-thought-out perspective.
Let us revisit those notions: compassion, fairness, desire to fight oppression. Nobody can argue against these. Where things get muddled, as with the Gang of Three (Loomba, Kaul and Ghose) at UPenn, is when these notions are taken to ridiculous extremes, and they become articles of blind hatred. For, in the case of Gujarat 2002, the Gang of Three are only worried about one group; they simply have no compassion for the 59 Hindus burned alive in a train in Godhra. Or the 250 who were also killed in the riots. Thus, they also fail their own test of fairness. And once they go down the leftist rat-hole, they face a problem of escalating commitment where they have to take more and more extreme, in fact repellant, positions, to justify their initial prejudices. They become oppressors.
They also just cannot understand group loyalty, respect for authority or sanctity. The fact that some things are held holy by some people—and that, out of fairness, other things that are held holy by others also deserve respect—does not occur to the left. As far as they are concerned, nothing is sacred. Or at best only their own shibboleths are sacred.
If you agree with Haidt, this also suggests that leftists are in fact sort of anarchists. I was listening to a talk by Max Boot, a military historian, who suggested that 19th century anarchists were never able to—and tautologically, they never could—have an impact because they ended up being too atomised and weak as they could not organise themselves because they detested any sense of authority. Or of larger purpose.
In passing, modern-day terrorists can also be analysed using Haidt’s six values: they obsess on compassion (to their own), but not fairness (to those they terrorise); they allegedly fight oppression (but bring about their own), they are into group loyalty, they don’t respect authority (they want revolutions), and they have ideas of sanctified texts.
Rightists can see all six of the values, and they differ from leftists most in group loyalty. Interestingly, in evolutionary terms, the support of a group is often critical to the success of an individual; and perhaps this means that—I am hoping here—leftists will evolve themselves out of existence! That would only be fair: history is littered with failed experiments, such as Neanderthals, Cro-Magnons, etc.
This explains why the leftist’s so-called ‘Idea of India’ includes no loyalty to India per se, but only some vague slogans about ‘inclusiveness’. The rightist, on the other hand, resonates to a super-ordinate cause that is greater than himself – the transforming idea of matrubhumi, karmabhumi, punyabhumi. The rightist can say with conviction: “I will fight for an idea that I hold sacred”: as Modi says with ‘India First’. The leftist cannot. He doesn’t belong to any group. He doesn’t believe in anything beyond his puny self.
Finally, the biggest folly of the leftists is their failure to see that compassion and fairness necessitate organisation, structure and authority. They can only see ‘distribution’; they cannot comprehend ‘production’, or that if you don’t produce, you cannot distribute anything. I have seen this in Kerala: there is nothing left to distribute, so instead of distributing wealth (which has ceased to be produced), now the leftists are going about distributing… poverty!
That is the crux of the matter. By being naïve, uncompromising, and often malicious, leftists can only be obstacles to progress – and this is abundantly demonstrated by India’s hyperactive and loud liberals. Since history is ruthless (and, in their dogma, supreme), leftists and their ideas deserve to be, and will be, thrown in the garbage-bin of history.
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Updated Date: Mar 18, 2013 18:22:32 IST