It Pays To Be Unobvious

A while ago, in a post on Professor Jere Surber and his prodigious self-regard, I noted a feature of academia’s less reputable corners:

In many arts subjects, especially those tethered only loosely to evidence, logic or practical verification, there’s often pressure to avoid the obvious and prosaic, even when the obvious and prosaic is true. The obligation to be unobvious, if only for the benefit of one’s academic peers, may help explain the more fanciful assertions from some practitioners of the liberal arts. Consider, for instance, Duke’s professor miriam cooke, who refuses to capitalise her name, thus drawing attention to her egalitarian radicalism and immense creativity. Professor cooke’s subtlety of mind is evident in her claim that the oppression and misogyny found in the Islamic world is actually the fault of globalisation and Western colonialism, despite the effects predating their alleged causes by several centuries. Professor cooke also tells us that “polygamy can be liberating and empowering” – a statement that may strike readers as somewhat dubious. It does, however, meet the key criteria of being both edgy and unobvious.

In a review of Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society, Theodore Dalrymple touches on a similar point: 

Intellectuals, like everyone else, live and work in a marketplace. In order to get noticed they must say things which have not been said before, or at least say them in a different manner. No one is likely to obtain many plaudits for the rather obvious, indeed self-evident, thought that a street robber cannot commit street robberies while he is in prison. But an intellectual who first demonstrates that the cause of an increase in street robbery is the increase in the amount of property that law-abiding pedestrians have on them as they walk in the streets is likely to be hailed, at least until the next idea comes along. Thus, while there are no penalties for being foolish, there are severe penalties (at least in career terms) for being obvious.

As Dalrymple notes, the obligation to be unobvious can lead some to make claims that are original only insofar as more realistic people would not be inclined to take them seriously. Or as Sowell puts it elsewhere

If you’ve mastered the writings of William Shakespeare and convey that to the next generation, who have obviously not mastered it, you’re performing a valuable service. But, that’s not going to advance your academic career. You’ve got to come out with some new theory of Shakespeare. You’ve got to go through and show how there is gender bias or the secret gay message somewhere coded in Shakespeare. You’ve just got to come up with something.

Thus, Dr Sandra Harding, a “feminist philosopher of science,” can claim that it’s both “illuminating and honest” to refer to Newton’s Principia as a “rape manual,” while insisting that rape and torture metaphors can usefully describe its contents. Likewise, Professor Judith Butler – a high priestess of the ponderous and opaque – can dismiss clarity and common sense as inhibiting radicalism. (Sentiments shared by, among others, Ralph Hexter, Daniel Selden and Mas’ud Zavarzadeh, who disdains “clarity of presentation” and “unproblematic prose” as “the conceptual tools of conservatism.”)

Occasionally, Judith Butler’s politics are aired relatively free of question-begging jargon, thus revealing her radicalism to the lower, uninitiated castes. As, for instance, at a 2006 UC Berkeley “Teach-In Against America’s Wars,” during which the professor claimed that it’s “extremely important” to “understand” Hamas and Hizballah as “social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global Left” and so, by implication, deserving of support. Readers may find it odd that students are being encouraged to express solidarity with totalitarian terrorist movements that set booby traps in schools and boast of using children as human shields, and whose stated goals include the Islamic “conquest” of the free world, the “obliteration” of Israel and the annihilation of the Jewish people. However, such statements achieve a facsimile of sense if one understands that the object is to be both politically radical and morally unobvious.

Thomas Sowell discusses his book with Peter Robinson here. Parts 2, 3, 4, 5.