Friday, 1 April 2016

No.20 - Emotion and Reason: Universities’ dilemma


The turmoil at South African universities over the last few months has raised so many areas of concern it’s hard to get one’s head around any of it.  So many sub-issues splintered off the initial drive for better funding, and so many external party-political opportunists weighed in, that central issues rapidly got obscured.  So much angry over-simplification was aired, as always happens at the barricades, that it’s hard to know where to begin a response.  Since I’m an ageing white male academic, anything I say is likely to be dismissed immediately as irrelevant and defensive, if not intrinsically racist.

One is tempted to follow the suggestion of my lovely philosophical colleague Samantha Vice, a couple of years ago, that whites no longer have the moral right to do much other than subside into “humility and silence”.  After a storm of protest and misreading, she explained that she didn’t mean that whites should withdraw entirely from public life, but that they should no longer regard themselves as automatically speaking from a position of authority and control.

I agree – so anything I might add is offered from a desire not to harden the lines of debate, but to transcend them; not to negate the critique of academia, but to see what positives might be drawn from the situation.  I certainly have no solutions – only perspectives and ruminations on one or two aspects.
Trouble is, of course, that any one aspect instantly feeds into a gazillion others.  It’s neither easy nor entirely satisfactory to tease them apart – but developing a more holistic response to the whole crisis is complex and takes time.  Revolutionaries by definition don’t have time to take their time – so their temptation is to try to make quick, spectacular gains on the back of stark dichotomies: black/white, young/old, colonial/indigenous.  Whole institutions, even governments, are pressured to follow suit.

We academic scholars, on the other hand, suffer the opposite impulse, which is to say, “Hang on a bit, it’s more complex than that.”  This is almost always true, but it can also be a defence mechanism.  We have a natty way of taking real issues and wrapping them up in so much discussion, theorising and qualification that nothing gets done at all.  This can be seen as a way of preserving the institutional status quo.  The resort to “complexity” and “reasoned debate”, as Ra’eesa Pather has suggested in a recent Mail & Guardian piece, can even be experienced as part of a “chilling”, oppressive and exclusive “white”, “colonialist” machinery.

I witnessed an example of this among responses to a recent talk at Rhodes University.  The talk was delivered by William Beinart, a hugely respected historian of Southern Africa, two decades at Oxford University.  He was reporting on a debate held at Oxford’s Oriel College about the proposed removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes from the college façade.  Beinart both supported the removal and applauded the activists’ win at the debate (though the college itself elected not to remove the statue).

One of Beinart’s respondents in question-time argued both furiously and eloquently that the form of the debate itself was the problem.  In such debates, she was not recognised in “my black female body”; the British parliamentary rules of such debates, she stated over and over, “are so reasonable that they are unreasonable”.  They made no space for her emotions, seemed to be the issue.  I was reminded of a scene, televised during last year’s protests, in which a large black female student faced up two bemused-looking white-haired professors, literally shrieking and shaking, “You tell me to put down my emotions, but how do you ignore my emotions, I am my emotions, I can’t study here because of my emotions, I can’t breathe in this place!”  (An oft-used phrase borrowed from that poor man killed by US police a year ago.)  As a rather bemused white-haired professor myself, I’m not sure how one might even begin to respond to such outbursts; they open no doors to conversation.
So here’s the interesting thing: the perceived conflict between “reason” and “emotion”. Is “reason” itself a “colonial” imposition?  Is the opposite or antidote to reason or rationality unfettered emotionalism?

It’s understandable that “the West” is seen as governed by rationality – it’s the image it has often projected of itself.  The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century – the “Age of Reason” – gave birth to both a scientific revolution and to modern democracy.  These things are closely tied by ideals of objectivity, reasonable debate, persuasion by evidence rather than prejudice, laws forged by impeccable logic.  And it’s understandable that the university is seen as governed by those principles, and therefore as the flagship of an imported “Western” world-view which is fundamentally un-African.  Yet as I write, our Vice-Chancellor in his Graduation Address urges our graduates to be – amongst other unimpeachably virtuous things – “the voice of reason”.

Poor old René Descartes is often blamed for the Western mindset, since he wrote the following in 1640:

The true function of reason, then, in the conduct of life is to examine and consider without passion the value of all perfections of body and soul that can be acquired by our conduct, so that since we are commonly obliged to deprive ourselves of some goods in order to acquire others, we shall always choose the better ... It is enough to subject one’s passions to reason ...

Emotions are not quite banished, but are reduced to mere instruments of reason.  Descartes’ goal of the “mastery of nature”  and “better goods” also translated into mastery of other peoples, with some appalling consequences.  It’s not popular to point out that the legacy is nevertheless mixed. The scientific rationalism that produced the cellphone and the heart transplant also produced the Gatling gun and the atom bomb.  The capitalistic profit-motive that operates hand-in-hand with democracy is responsible both for fantastic advances in human well-being and for irreversible damage to our global environment. 

Descartes wasn’t the only philosopher on the block.  The wrestle between reason and the “passions” or emotions goes back at least as far the Stoics of Ancient Greece.  And it has never stopped.  “The West”, it might be more accurate to say, is characterised by that very struggle.  There have always been voices disputing the primacy of rationalism.  The poet William Blake thought that an over-dependence on reason would just lead to “the Ratio of all things ... the same dull round over and over”. And in last week’s Sunday Times, the novelist Yann Martel (The Life of Pi) is reported as saying:
I realised that reason and rationality had become a disease.  It scours and scrapes away at things and I felt that I was drying up.  I was equating truth with factual truth.... Magical thinking is shared not only by religion but by art; both are preoccupied with a greater truth that goes beyond factual truth.

In between, there have been countless thousands of other writers, artists, musicians, and philosophers who have made it their business to valorise the spontaneous over the arithmetical, imagination over logic, quality over quantity, beauty over utility, the feeling over the cerebral.  Whoever thought Western society is ruled by reason alone, anyway?  Been to church lately? Read a horoscope? Fallen in love? Watched Donald Trump?

In short, there is no single “The West”, rather a bundle of conflicting views, some of which are notably compatible with certain “African” ideas and ideals.  (Nor a single “Africa”.)  And perhaps the reason-emotion conflict is illusory anyway: neurologist Antonio Damasio, in his fascinating books Descartes’ Error, Looking for Spinoza and The Feeling of What Happens, discusses research that shows how reason and emotion almost always function together inseparably at the neural level.  These ideas might lead us to some ground-breaking and magical thinking.

Finally, what about the place of emotions in the work of the academy?  As a scholar of literature, my subject-matter is almost wholly the emotional life.  Poetry is largely about beauty and the immeasurable inner life; stories are about individualised feelings of love and hatred and fear.  Literature and the arts are humanity’s way of exploring our emotional lives, lives that even the most rationalistic of scientists or accountants can’t escape.  Yet even in this discipline we examine our students’ responses through the essay, formalised into coherent and rational argumentation (“Your claims must be supported by evidence from the text”); and finally our assessment is collapsed into a simple number (“You got 68%”).    In this sense, the university and its structure is still profoundly Cartesian, scraping and scouring away.  And yet, such liberation of thought occurs, too ...
My feelings about it all are, well, complex.  Damn, there’s that word again.

(This is just me thinking; it in no way reflects opinions of my colleagues or my institution.)

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