i dream of being possible

on feelings and the ideal agent

Of all the terrible things contained in Vox’s recent hit piece on how sjw’s – sorry, ~liberals~ – are ruining higher ed, the whole thing about feelings has been slowly grating at me.

Without a doubt, the worst part of this article is the way that it unabashedly used lies and untruths to expose vulnerable people to harassment. It’s impressive that a ‘liberal’ professor who claims to care deeply about pedagogy can’t be bothered to fact-check or behave in an intellectually honest fashion (ie, violating the usual standards of academic discourse by misrepresenting the positions he cites).

But what I do want to talk about is this liberal attack on ‘feelings’, since this is something that is echoed in conservative/reactionary discourse as well. As a trans person, I frequently see the argument that my ‘feels’ regarding my gender don’t override the ‘reals’ of my biology. But it is important that is a liberal professor who is undertaking this general disparagement of feelings.

Liberalism is one of the main/major ideologies to come out of the enlightenment, which I’ve recently criticised (and not so recently). And, in general, also something that came out of the enlightenment is the current popular type of ethics known as ‘consequentialism’ (or, via enlightenment, utilitarianism). The thing about liberalism and its use of consequentalist ethics is that it relies heavily on the enlightenment conception of the ‘ideal agent’. And what characterizes this ideal agent? This agent is the perfect embodiment of dispassionate, objective rationality. Moral decisions are made using an objective, rational calculus that determines the greatest good to the greatest number of people.

All the old, enlightened means of discussion and analysis — from due process to scientific method — are dismissed as being blind to emotional concerns and therefore unfairly skewed toward the interest of straight white males. All that matters is that people are allowed to speak, that their narratives are accepted without question, and that the bad feelings go away.

His explicit mention of the enlightenment (and its values) is not accidental. And it’s weird because he really does understand why emotions are a threat to white men, like him. And it isn’t about feelings.

It is about this ideal agent. Because this ideal agent, coincidentally, is men exactly like him (educated, white, class-privileged, hetero, cis, etc.). And in a world where emotions might actually be important, ideal agents no longer become the focal point of our political, cultural, and social institutions. Even worse: they are perhaps no longer even necessary.

This is why liberals like this professor are terrified. It is also why liberals and conservatives can, by and large, use this exact same argument about ‘reals over feels’ to attack marginalized people. Both ideologies are united in their desire to ensure the hegemony of white men. And both, of course, find their roots in the enlightenment.

The thing is, is that the enlightenment – as a whole – absolutely does eschew the importance of emotions as a way to ensure that the ideal agent is always and only the default human. Incorporating emotions (and emotional harm) into our politics and ethics absolutely challenges the supremacy of white hetero-cis-patriarchy. It creates a world where men like this can no longer assume positions of absolute authority in the realm of politics, ethics, and culture (inclusive of education).

The amusing thing is that this professor’s position is more anti-science than the one he attributes to BD or ‘the professors of library science’. Contemporary research into human cognition and how the mind actually reasons demonstrates over and over again that the ideal agent is impossible and cannot exist (so far as humans are concerned). It isn’t just post-modern critical theory and its adherents that insists that objectivity is a false reality.

But this professor feels that dogmatically adhering to a 300 year old conception of the mind and the ideal agent is more ~progressive~ than re-imagining how ethics and politics could work if informed by a more realistic (and scientific) understanding of human cognition and behaviour.