Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Tribal Knowledge

Fox News's hostile interview with Reza Aslan has lit up the internet. (See Michael Maiello and Historiann for two of the smarter takes.) Obviously, interviewer Lauren Green's insistence that something must be very wrong for a Muslim to write a book about Jesus, and that such a book must be wrong, is a problem. But Green (and her producers) are simply peddling a toxic version of an idea that lots of us entertain in various forms. The idea that a non-believer cannot understand (or worse, should not be allowed to speak about) a belief is only a more aggressive outgrowth of the common conviction that being a believer, or identifying with some specific group, gives you a special insight or understanding denied to outsiders. The conviction that no Muslim could write a "fair" book about Jesus grows from the belief that Christians, by virtue of being Christians, understand Jesus better than anyone else possibly could. That sense of privileged understanding comes from one's social identity, not from actual knowledge, and can be actively hostile to such knowledge. In the Reza Aslan example, faith in Jesus Christ might be construed as more important than, for example, the ability to read Biblical Greek. To a certain kind of Christian, a Muslim who can read New Testament Greek represents not one but two problems. Aslan's scholarly accomplishment is perceived as a threat to "knowledge" derived by other means.

This is by no means limited to Christians, or to religious believers. I happened to read Janet Malcolm's In the Freud Archives the week before the Aslan interview. In that book, Malcolm deals, fairly indulgently, with the common claim among Freudians that only someone who has undergone Freudian analysis is entitled to an opinion about Freud. Only insiders, only properly initiated believers, can be authorities on the subject. (Replace "Freud" here with "scientology" and "Freudian analysis" with "dianetics counseling" and see how that sounds.) And this insistence that outsiders could not possibly understand led important Freudians to restrict access to factual evidence. (Malcolm also weirdly treats this as not-unreasonable.) The custodians of the Freud Archive refused to allow scholars to see biographical evidence about Freud, including letters in his own hand, unless they were sure that the scholar was a true believer who would stick to the current Freudian orthodoxies. The facts are a threat to  belief.

A less toxic but more annoying version of this behavior that I run into a lot is some people's conviction that they have a special insight into certain literature because of their ethnic background. There are, unfortunately, Irish-American students who are profoundly convinced that they have special insight into James Joyce or W. B. Yeats because of their "Irishness." This is observably untrue. Being named O'Shaughnessy doesn't give you any special insight into Ulysses, or guarantee that you'll understand any of it. Likewise, you occasionally run into Brits who are convinced that anyone who is not English or (if the person in question is Scottish or Welsh) not British could ever properly understand Shakespeare. There's much more I would like to know about Shakespeare's works, but I am willing to match my current knowledge of the subject against David Beckham's at any time. He can bring along Posh Spice for help.

But followed to its conclusion, this identification with the literature of one's tribe can shade into racism; the presumption of privileged understanding is, after all, a presumption of privilege. An English racist gives himself credit for Shakespeare's works, despite not having been much help writing them, and presumes that this gives him one-up on, say, a Pakistani immigrant who got at least as much Shakespeare in school as the Englishman did. The English racist may not understand a quarter of Henry V, but he takes credit for it because it was produced by "his people." Indeed, literary scholarship once actively promoted this racialist approach. You can still find old anthologies with titles like "Poems of the English race." Similarly, the Irish-American undergraduate who gives himself credit for Joyce, Yeats, and Heaney is in danger of slipping into the belief that his ethnic group possesses certain kinds of innate superiority. The more seriously he takes that belief, the uglier it has the potential to get.
There's nothing wrong with taking a particular interest in something because of your tribal affiliations. (I've got my Yeats and Heaney on the bookshelf.) But believing that you have special access to understanding it is a problem, not least because it keeps you from doing the work required to actually know about something.

I'm a practicing Christian and Reza Aslan is not. But Reza Aslan can read the Christian Gospels in the original and I cannot. That means he has a lot of things to say that I'm interested to hear. I'm going to make my own decisions about my beliefs at the end of the day. (I also know a translator of the New Testament and I acknowledge his superior learning, but I don't go to the same church he does on Sundays.) I'm perfectly happy to admit that Reza Aslan knows things about my religion that I do not know myself. If I refused to admit that, I would cut myself off from learning more.

In the end, tribal knowledge isn't about knowing. It's about believing one knows. That is a very different thing.  And at a certain point, actual information starts to feel like a threat to one's tribal certitude. Nothing is more dangerous to the illusion of knowledge than facts. There's more than one reason that Lauren Green didn't let Reza Aslan talk about his book. She might have learned something about the historical Jesus, and that would have been intolerable.

cross-posted from Dagblog

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