Thursday, March 25, 2010

Three Isms (2/3)

Likewise be on your guard against axe-to-grindism. When reading a book or article or listening to a commentator of some kind—particularly in matters related to sex, religion, and politics—you should be asking yourself a few basic questions. Does this person have an identifiable agenda that he or she is pushing? Is the author or speaker predisposed to a particular viewpoint because of any ethno-religious tie, economic benefit, or ideological commitment? Because this “ism” comes in many guises, detecting it can sometimes be a complicated undertaking. It can take the form of a diatribe or polemic, replete of course with a tone of righteous indignation. Sometimes axe-to-grinders will pose a “question” merely as a means to subjoin their own answer—and political outlook in general—for the benighted souls in the classroom. Another means at their disposal is to evince disgust or shock that anyone would hold a particular view, not knowing, or perhaps suspecting, that you just might be holding that view.

At other times axe-to-grinders will try to co-opt you through the use of language. Be mindful of adverbs like “obviously” and “clearly.” Global warming is obviously a man-made phenomenon. Their self-evident truths might not be so self-evident; their conventional wisdom less than conventional; their common sense far from common, even if they would present their views as baptized by fire or inscribed on the tablets of Sinai.

They might use the latest neologisms or political speak to make their case implicitly, and sometimes deceitfully. For example, someone might take you to task for using the term “Indian” instead of “Native American.” I have no objection to avoiding a term based upon Columbus’s mistaken notion that he had discovered the (East) Indies. If the objective is to circumvent a Eurocentric viewpoint, however, it will not succeed. After all, Amerigo Vespucci did not cross the Bering land bridge some 20,000 years ago, and yet Americans, native or otherwise, bear his European name. While this is a case of ignorance, another term, “First Peoples,” which was in fashion for a while possibly to get around this problem, induces the listener to agree implicitly with the axe-to-grinder’s ideological perspective. Even this label, I would argue, is problematic. Paleontological evidence does not confirm the much-vaunted claim that many Native Americans today are descendents of the first ethnic group ever to set foot on North American soil. To use such a term implies that Native Americans, or people of a particular tribe or nation, merit some special status or that their victimization is all the more tragic. Political correctness has its place when it comes to respecting the labels and names with which people wish to identify themselves, but it goes beyond the pale when embedded in the word or phrase is an axe-to-grindism that attempts, intentionally or otherwise, to manipulate a topic in a way favorable to them. In the heart of every axe-to-grinder is a social engineer.

Here’s an assignment for you, if you haven’t tried this already. The next time you’re browsing at the bookstore and come across a book that you suspect contains axe-to-grindism, go through the index and find the pages where the author deals with those hot button topics. You can usually tell at first glance on the page where the author is coming from. Frankly, you usually don’t have to go this far, for you can often judge a book by its cover. You can gauge the degree of axe-to-grindism by the title, subtitle, book publisher, or the reviewers’ blurbs on the jacket.

Deflective or inversive axe-to-grindism, part of the same genus in our taxonomy, is also noteworthy here. This form of disingenuousness occurs when a critic wants to rant and rave about something or simply show disdain but doesn’t want to look like a sourpuss or figures subtlety is a more effective way to make the point. Deflective axe-to-grinders can look back on a long and not-so-venerable tradition. The Roman historian Tacitus praised the barbaric Germans in his Germania as a way of condemning his own society, which he saw as decadent and corrupt. (Since Domitian was indeed a douche and the Empire’s rowdy northern neighbors came up with Oktoberfest—of which Tacitus’ is the first account in history—we can’t blame him too much). To update our examples, we could mention here Hollywood celebrities, say, who make their own PR visits to the Hugo Chavezes and Fidel Castros of the world and sing their praises, while otherwise, oddly, supporting free elections and human rights. Perhaps they shouldn’t quit their day jobs. More to the point, drawing these contrasts is another form of axe-to-grindism.

All thinking people with analytical abilities possess ideological underpinnings. By ideology, I mean a set of principles and presuppositions that account for the ways in which humans interact and behave. That is, we all have a worldview. Having an explanatory paradigm or interpretive grid through which we assess phenomenon in the world is tricky. We must not let it constrain or imprison us. You might suggest at this point that one should be free of any ready-made viewpoint so as to avoid bias. However, the human condition (and biology) suggests that we are not blank slates; having presuppositions and prejudices is a given, so the name of the game is to marshal these impulses to attain objectivity as much as is possible. It might turn out that, in your estimation, axe-grinding is merited. So be it. But heed the Delphic oracle and be self-cognizant of your position.