I’m getting rather tired of finding myself agreeing with Stanley Fish–but it has happened again. Though I have admired Fish’s intellect and verbal ability for some thirty years now, only recently have I found myself nodding in agreement with things he writes. What bothers me is that I suspect either 1) I wasn’t reading him carefully in the past or 2) my own views have changed. I don’t like either possibility.
Just about a year ago, I presented a paper (via Skype) at the Modern Language Association annual meeting in Seattle. In it, I said, “Blind peer review is dead. It just doesn’t know it yet.” That got picked up by Inside Higher Ed‘s Scott Jaschik and created a minor stir. That surprised me, for what I was saying wasn’t really new–I just felt it needed saying once more.
As Fish says in today’s New York Times, he’s been making a similar argument since the late 1970s. He writes:
I contended that there was no such thing as intrinsic merit and that merit could be calculated only in relation to those factors the policy of blind submission forbids us from considering. The “pure” or cleansed judgment the policy supposedly fosters, I wrote, “is never available,” not because editors cannot distance themselves from the biases attendant upon their professional histories — biases that incline them to value submissions congenial to their scholarly convictions, much as an employer might value the job application of a relative — but because without those biases, “there would be nothing either to see or to say.”
This is the same argument many of us have been making for years in terms of journalism–there’s no possible “objectivity.” To claim so is ridiculous for, at each step along the way, a person makes a decision on what to include and what to leave out, and those decisions always start from a subjective base. The belief that objective reporting is possible is one of the things that has led to the decline of the profession of journalism over the past generation. People don’t trust journalists, in part, for the simple reason that the journalists claim to be presenting objective truths that they can’t possibly know. To pose as objective, one has to leave out what generally amounts to major parts of the topic–or has to inflate other parts to give an illusion of “balance.”
Fish is discussing Stephen Asma’s book Against Fairness, According to Fish:
the content of the tradition Asma argues against, the liberal secular tradition[...] stipulates “fairness between autonomous individual agents” (agents who know nothing of one another) as “the defining feature of our morality.” Against this tradition, which has had its run for over 200 years, Asma poses a morality found in “other cultures, immigrant groups and … rural cultures in the United States.”
Strangely enough, this dovetails with the topic of the book I am in the midst of writing (called The Cult of Individualism, it should be available this fall, from Praeger). My focus is on the Appalachian culture of my own background (though I see it extending far beyond the mountains) and I have found an affinity between that culture and many of the immigrant cultures of the last century–especially in opposition to the ‘liberal secular tradition.’ The ‘individualism’ that I am tracing through American history stems from a Scots-Irish Borderer tradition (that was transplanted to Ulster Plantation before arriving in North America)–a tradition that was almost completely bypassed by Enlightenment thinking.
What Asma and Fish are talking about, and that I am trying to explore, has to do with the root causes of the ‘red state/blue state’ split so noticeable today (but evident in Electoral College results centuries ago as well). The two sides almost always seem to be talking across each other, the difference in mind-set being so fundamental that each ends up seeing the other as crazy.
But they are not. Neither is crazy. They are simply thinking through problems based on fundamentally different assumptions. So different that each side has trouble even comprehending what the assumptions of the other are.
We’re only going to manage to do that if we stop stripping away personality, recognizing that we have to look at the individual behind the argument and not just the argument itself.