How Self-Interest Colours Perceptions

I have a confession to make: I’m a selfish pig. I mean this with regard to opinion on social justice issues.

More particularly, I have to admit that for a long time, I was disdainful of the whole concept of “advocacy,” especially in an academic context. That’s not to say that I ever thought that everything was absolutely peachy-keen-neatoriffic with regards to the way that society was structured (because I never did); I have been an unrepentent social democrat ever since my political awakening in high school*, and I had always been aware that I, as an upper-middle-class, white, “heterosexual male**”, was getting a much better deal out of life than the overwhelming majority of the Human race, and that none of my advantages had been earned by my actual merits as a human being. However, I had little use for things like ‘political correctness’ and tended to view scholarly research into fields like ‘Women’s Studies,’ or ‘Ethnic Studies,’ or, indeed ‘Queer Studies,’ as being a load of vacuous, empty-headed drivel, devoid of practical applications, and designed only for the University to put asses in seats.

Some of that disdain is certainly just a natural consequence of the “Two Cultures.” I have mentioned that I have degrees in both Physics and History, but as you have probably discerned from reading this blog, I am more of a physicist than an historian. I hope to expound upon this at a later date, but the fact of the matter is that a great many science students (especially in the harder sciences) tend to be biased against the Humanities (I recall hearing my fellow physicists, for example, refer to our campus’s Womyn’s Centre*** as being “the lowest circle of hell”). Moreover, what little information that did seep-out (Hawking Radiation-like) from the inescapable maw of those ineffable academic black holes made them seem uniformly stupid. We would hear, for example, that the aforementioned Womyn’s Centre was using its members’ menstrual blood in an art project (and, frankly, I still don’t care how hard that subverts the dominant patriarchal paradigm, it’s still a fucking health hazard); or we would hear about how Sandra Harding referred to (asexual) Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica as a “rape manual”****; or we would hear (or rather, I would hear, since frankly most physics students are fairly illiterate when it comes to history) ridiculous Goddess-based neopagan canards about utopian, neolithic matriarchies. To be fair to myself, I did have some vague understanding that these weren’t necessarily representative samplings of what the discipline had to offer (Women’s Studies is one of those fields which has so many opponents that it is usually deliberately mischaracterized when described by outsiders), but I still disregarded it as I figured that so many idiotic quotes to mine at the very least meant that it probably lacked a strong mechanism for separating the wheat from the chaff.

Mostly, though, I think my disdain arose from a certain assumption that because it meaningless insofar as I was concerned, and because I didn’t understand how it might directly pertain to other people, it was therefore worthless in general.

So what changed my mind?

Well, I’d love to say that, inspired by my own ideal of polymathic scholasticism, I decided to ‘open my mind’ and look more deeply at what these scholars actually had to say, rather than just listening to soundbytes filtering-in from dubious sources I would never trust in any other context. But the truth is that I’m neither that wise, nor that noble. Rather, what changed my mind was what the good folks at TVTropes would refer to as my “Tomato in the Mirror” moment*****, during which I systematically realized that I was transgendered, a woman, asexual, autistic and a lesbian, and that, in fact, all of that “worthless” scholarship had a direct bearing upon my day-to-day life.

So there you have it; I’m a selfish pig. And at the risk of, once again, projecting my own outlook onto everyone else, I suspect that many people, indeed most, are, at least in this respect, also selfish. Thefore I would advise those who are involved in advocacy to take this to heart in their ‘consciousness-raising’ efforts, and, when engaging the population at large, find some way to relate your cause directly to them. Perhaps then they will be inspired, as I was, to take notice.


*Which followed, not uncoincidentally, hot upon the heels of the death of Pierre Trudeau and the 2000 Canadian Federal Election.

**Or so I thought at the time.

***I hate that neologism.

**** I hope I get around to blogging about this one at some point; the truth is, the quote isn’t quite as stupid as it sounds in context, but it’s still pretty stupid.

*****More on that some other day


About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
This entry was posted in Academics, Personal Stuff, Politics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to How Self-Interest Colours Perceptions

  1. Lindsay says:

    It’s been kind of a similar journey for me, too.

    I think, for me, the balance between the Two Cultures is more equal: I couldn’t tell you whether I am more of a biochemist or a scholar of literature; they occupy about equal shares of my being, and are not easily separable, either. But, either way, I definitely used to share that common science-person idea that the kinds of subjects you mentioned above are insufficiently rigorous twaddle. (I still tend to react with incredulity whenever I hear about a class with, say, modern TV shows or movies as the text to be analyzed instead of, say, Beowulf. So, in that sense, maybe my being just as much of a humanities person as a science person made me even more resistant to those “new” subject areas, since I had both the science person’s contempt for anything that doesn’t involve math *AND* the old-school humanities person’s contempt for analysis of any text that isn’t some venerable classic of the Western Canon, preferably in the original Greek, Latin or Old English.)

    Anyway, for me the change came about a bit more gradually and less dramatically. I remember one step on the path being one of my survey English classes, which had several samples from every period of women’s writing, some of which was really, REALLY good and all of which is the fruit of … guess what? Women’s studies programs! So that was eye-opening, seeing how these programs add to the canon.

    (Also, I’ve totally seen that quote about the Principia before, and I don’t think it’s totally off the wall. I guess I will wait for your entry on the topic, as I can’t really come up with a way to verbalize what I think it means and why it has some basis in reality.)

  2. Lindsay says:

    (Also, I think “womyn” is pretty. I think the reason it was made up — to distance “woman/women” from “man/men” — is silly, especially considering the real etymology of “man” and “woman”, but there is something about that “y” that I find pleasing.)

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