Imagine Sisyphus Happy

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As we announced April 23, Feminist Philosophers is shutting down. This is one of a series of posts by FP bloggers looking back on the blog and bidding it farewell.

The internet is exhausting. Academia is exhausting. Politics are exhausting. It’s a bit of a miracle—and a testament to the dedication my co-bloggers—that Feminist Philosophers had such a long run, given its subject matter and role in the discipline. It is hard to have productive conversations on the internet about anything, let alone contentious matters of deep social import. And trying to effect change in academia about things as simple as copier use, or keeping a departmental fridge clean, can leave one feeling like Sisyphus—so, when I think about how my predecessors here at Feminist Philosophers successfully shifted the status quo of the entire discipline, I am nothing less than awed with their accomplishments. I’m grateful for everything they’ve done, and it would be unfair to expect more of them. I am, though, one of those who remains optimistic about the potential for online discourse to be a real force for good in the world. I want to use my last post here at Feminist Philosophers to say something about why I think engaging in tough conversations online is still worthwhile, despite its seeming futility.

In the 1960’s, Stanley Milgram, conducted a series of well-known experiments at Yale regarding obedience to authority. If you aren’t familiar with the details, participants thought they had been randomly selected to play the role of “Teacher” in an experiment on memory. Those who were assigned the role of “Learner” were actually part of the research team, though the “Teachers” didn’t know it. The basic experimental set up was this: The Learner was supposed to learn list of words, and then recall it. If they made a mistake when reciting it, the Teacher was supposed to administer a shock to the Learner. Learners weren’t actually given shocks, but the Teachers didn’t know that either (and they were given a low-level shock themselves at the beginning, to have a sense of what it would feel like). They were told the voltage of the shocks would go up with each mistake, until it reached 450 volts. In one version of the experiment, where the Learners were hidden by a wall, once the shocks reached a certain point, they would vocalize discomfort, ask to be released, and when they weren’t, if the Teacher kept going, they’d stop responding, as if they were unconscious. If the Teacher objected, the experimenter would ask them to continue – until the Teacher objected five times, at which point the experiment would end. Roughly 2/3rds of participants continued all the way through, administering the highest voltage. In a variant condition, where Teachers and Learners were in the same room, full compliance dropped to 40%. In a condition where the Teacher needed to touch the Learner to administer the shock, compliance dropped to 30%. Proximity to others—as basic as merely being in the same room—can enable resistance, and consideration, when callous deference to the status quo would otherwise be the norm. Engaging in discourse with each other online is a way of creating cognitive and imaginative proximity when physical proximity isn’t possible.

Of course, whether online discourse is successful will depend on whether we actually talk to each other rather than past each other; and obviously, that’s actually really hard. It’s hard for a lot of reasons. For one, in matters of moral or political dispute, we all tend to think we’re right and the other guy’s a jerk or troll. Elif Batuman illustrates a nearby phenomenon poignantly in The Idiot:

I found myself remembering the day in kindergarten when the teachers showed us Dumbo: a Disney movie about a puny, weird-looking circus elephant that everyone made fun of. As the story unfolded, I realized to my amazement that all the kids in the class, even the bullies, the ones who despised and tormented the weak and the ugly, were rooting against Dumbo’s tormentors. Over and over they laughed and cheered, both when Dumbo succeeded and when bad things happened to the bullies. But they’re you, I thought to myself. How did they not know? They didn’t know. It was astounding, an astounding truth. Everyone thought they were Dumbo.

That we all tend to think we’re the good guy can make genuine discourse about controversial matters especially challenging.

Talking to each other can be hard for another reason though. Who we take to be authoritative, credible, or even legible, is not determined in a vacuum. Our beliefs are deeply interconnected. Our political views are informed by our social networks. What information we recognize as interesting, relevant, or trustworthy is shaped by our social relationships. When our friends communicate, we understand them. When we interact online with people who are very different from us, have different background evidence, different relationships, different interests, different experiences—it can feel as if we’re speaking different languages.

It’s not impossible though.

I know minds can be changed because my own has been, many times. The first feminist philosophy course I took was an independent study. I suspected feminist epistemology was nonsense, and set out, initially, with the aim of arguing as much. That research led me to this blog. I became a regular reader, then a commenter, and in graduate school, a contributor. (If you want to read a genuinely fascinating story—Megan Phelps-Roper, previously of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church—went through a radical conversion via Twitter.)

I’m not naïve. I know engaging online can take a personal toll. We all have limited time, limited energy, and too much to do. There were times during my run as a blogger here where’d I’d get hateful messages posted about me on other sites, or sent to me directly—ranging from ordinary personal insults, to violent threats. Professional philosophers would regularly tell me that, as a graduate student, it was unwise to say much of anything online. If I had a dollar for every time someone said ‘keep your head down, wait till you have tenure,’ I’d have betters odds at being rich than the average graduate student has at actually landing a tenure-track job in the first place. But if we share these burdens—if we take turns engaging, if we’re generous with one another, if we intervene when we witness bad behavior—together, we can accomplish enormous things.

Imagine Sisyphus happy, not because the world is absurd, but because erosion–tedious, slow, challenging–ultimately moves mountains.

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