Thursday, October 06, 2022

Institutionalising Social Justice

Via Rob Henderson, an article from the Heterodox blog Seizing the Means of Knowledge Production. It discusses a lot of material I see elsewhere, and is more thorough in some sections than anything i have seen to date.  I disagreed with a few points, and also thought that some points were over-emphasised.  But it's pretty good.  There's a lot in it.  It discusses how ideas of social justice and righting wrongs get put into practice, stressing that the people who contribute to institutionalising an idea are not only different people than the originators, but a different kind of people, from other professions and approaches. 

While academics in the social sciences and (especially) humanities are most frequently attributed with the rise of the concepts and approaches listed above – they may be getting way too much credit. In fact, most of the people listed on the chart, who created and established these innovations, were practitioners in fields like psychiatry and law (and occasionally, activists outside the university, such as in the example of the ‘safe zone project’ or with the mainstreaming of ‘trigger warnings.’).

As Nassim Nicholas Taleb explained in Black Swanthis is par for the course: rather than being a font of innovation themselves, academics tend to systematize, rationalize, extrapolate from various innovations that were produced by people outside their field, or outside of academia altogether.

Understanding this dynamic helps us better understand how these approaches were so effectively institutionalized: lawyers, practitioners and activists tend to be very oriented towards applying ideas in concrete and impactful ways – particularly through leveraging institutions. This is not so much the case with other scholars.

I dealt with this second type of person in my mental health career - the activists, mental health lawyers, the hired speakers brought in to explain how we were going to put new programs into practice.  I had continual frustration with challenging them whether their ideas were actually any good.  Whether there was an evidence base we could rely on that this large investment of energy and resources was likely to produce results.  They seldom could.  They treated that information as a given, and because they did not question it - it accorded with their explanations of how the world worked - they gave off an air of treating it as beyond question. But I was asking the wrong people, because those were the only ones who I could get access to, and the ones who were making us do things. By the time an idea had been delivered to them questioning was over.

I suspect that our railing against the additional college administrators and the HR staffs of companies is related. They swim in an aquarium where the water is not noticed, and larger questions about other aquariums or changing the existing ones don't especially occur to them. Their job is to get certain tasks accomplished, not to consider whether there are associated costs. They are not (necessarily) stupid. They may tend to be incurious and non-abstract in their thinking, as their type of work seldom requires it. But they may have even brilliance in their ability to plan and effectuate.


David Foster said...

"rather than being a font of innovation themselves, academics tend to systematize, rationalize, extrapolate from various innovations that were produced by people outside their field, or outside of academia altogether"

The write Andre Maurois suggested that people who are *intelligent*, but not *creative*, tend to latch onto the intellectual systems created by others and to hold to those systems even more fiercely than the originators of the systems would do.

I think there is a lot of this in academia.

james said...

The Engineering Expo is fun to visit, but I can't imagine anyone cheerfully going to a Grievance Studies Expo.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Some conservative humorist needs to write up the Grievance Studies Expo.

Aggie said...

In a way, the people you speak of are experts in the application and use of leverage. The principles and ideas are beside the point.

G. Poulin said...

This is a problem in bureaucratic structures generally. The people staffing them are not necessarily stupid and evil, but they end up doing a lot of stupid and evil things because they can't even imagine doing things differently.They are too heavily invested in the current thing. I see this a lot in the church as well. Try engaging with some church bureaucrat on whether Social Justice should even be a concern of the church in the first place--- they will look at you like you've got horns sprouting out of your head. It is a given for them, and the only question is how best to implement it and what should be prioritized in the quest to make the world a better place. Some years ago I noticed that our resident Church Lady had put up a slogan on our bulletin board : "Whoever is not part of the solution is part of the problem!" I pointed out to her that it was a quote from Lenin. She didn't know that and was quite embarrassed (but she didn't take the quote down).