In a review of The Kinsey Report that Lionel Trilling published in 1948 he notes that the Social Sciences were already suggesting ways folks ought to behave instead of simply telling us how they do in fact behave. They were already becoming prescriptive when they should have restricted themselves to description. This greatly affected the way we raised and taught our children. That went well!
He also makes a fascinating point about our democratic way of thinking, what he calls our “generosity of mind.” He regards this as peculiarly American and he insists that it is “often associated with an almost intentional intellectual weakness.” What he is speaking about is our refusal to make distinctions because of our fear that such distinctions will point the way toward discrimination. Indeed, given the date of this review, one must conclude that Trilling was prescient, because we are now handicapped by our fear of “being judgmental,” by our inability to even allow for the possibility that anyone is different from anyone else lest this suggest that the one is somehow inferior to the other. To quote Trilling at some length:
“[This intellectual weakness] goes with a nearly conscious aversion to making intellectual distinctions, almost out of the belief that an intellectual distinction must inevitably lead to a social discrimination or exclusion. We might say that those who most explicitly assert and wish to practice the democratic virtues have taken it as their assumption that all social facts — with the exception of exclusion and economic hardship — must be accepted, not merely in the scientific sense but also in the social sense, that is, that no judgment must be passed on them, that any conclusion drawn from them which perceives values and consequences will turn out to be ‘undemocratic.'”
This is a powerful statement and is worthy of serious reflection. What Trilling is saying is that our refusal to make distinctions has led us to the point where we are now intellectually disabled. Our fear that we might be “judgmental” renders us unable to make important distinctions between those who can and those who cannot. In our effort to “leave no student behind,” for example, we have dumbed down the curriculum in our schools to the point where those who graduate have learned very little, if anything — and the very bright are the ones who are left behind. On a broader canvas the liberal arts, as has been said many times, are elitist (“undemocratic”) and cater only to the very few. On the contrary. They can make it possible for all who come into contact with them to gain possession of their own minds and become autonomous persons who can resist the temptation to follow the herd and swallow the latest political pill that will eventually make them very sick.
The notion that certain thoughts are “undemocratic” is a brilliant way to point out that our determination to think alike has made it impossible for most of us to gain any sort of real intellectual freedom. Liberals must think in a certain way which (God Forbid!) must be nothing like the way conservatives think. And vice versa. True intellectual independence would allow us to make the important distinctions, to point out major differences, say, between women and men, between social classes, between the gifted and the obtuse. It would allow us to make distinctions between such things as the use and the mention of the “N” word, for example. Additionally it would allow us to distinguish between a protest against racial injustice and disrespect for the flag of this country, a distinction so many, including our President, seem unable or unwilling to make. To add to our intellectual burden is the current proscription against using certain words — despite the fact that words form sentences and sentences form thoughts. Without words, all words available, our thinking becomes crimped and begins to resemble, oh I don’t know, say, tweet-speak??
Trilling is on to something here and the fact that he was aware of this tendency in the late 1940s is truly remarkable. The tendencies he points out, as I have suggested, have only become worse and we are, as a society, even more “intellectually weak” than we were in 1948. The only way out is through education properly conceived, a course of study that takes the young on a challenging journey with the greatest minds that ever lived and, while being sensitive to the feelings of the disadvantaged, it allows for the open discussion of even the most controversial of topics with those who agree with us and, more especially, those who do not.
Much to think about here, and on the surface, I partly agree with Trilling and partly disagree. It is one thing to acknowledge differences, and some differences, I think, should result in different treatment. To use your example of a less intelligent person and education. Obviously I do not think that education should be geared to the least able to learn, for that is truly to deprive the rest of an education. However, I think that ‘least capable’ person deserves to be encouraged and given the most challenging education that is within his ability.
But where I have the real problem is with differences that are superficial. For example, my friend Rob is an African-American, 6’6″ male, while I am a Caucasian, 5’6″ female. His skin is very dark, while mine is pale with a hint of olive. His heritage, his ancestry, are different from my own … his ancestors came here from Africa, mine from Wales and Spain. And he is a man, while I am a woman. But what does any of that matter? Should he be treated differently, have different opportunities that I? Should we receive different pay, different treatment by law enforcement? And my answer to all of the above is no, at least not based on the differences I mention. And yet, the reality is that he has been stopped by police 6-7 times in the last two years, while I have not been stopped even once. And I could go on, but you see where I’m going.
It seems a slippery slope, and unfortunately too many, while acknowledging said differences, believe it is okay to treat those two people differently, and that is what I cannot abide. So yes, there is much to think about here … I’m not sure the human race will ever hit on quite the right answer, but that should not stop us from trying.
Stepping down from my soapbox now … 😉
Step up any time! But note that trilling acknowledges the exceptions (“exclusion and economic hardship”). I gather he would acknowledge your point, as do I. He is stressing the need to make distinctions (as you have done in your comment). He does not rule out preferential treatment or condone discrimination. Nor do I.
Thank you, Hugh! There is a fine line somewhere, but we humans keep missing it. I suppose it has to do with the fact that we are all human, a combination of good and not-so-good. Self-interest is always part of our makeup. It’s when self-interest becomes all-consuming and turns into greed that we run into trouble. Seems to be enough of that to go around these days. But it is quite interesting that Trilling saw this long ago, for I tended to think of it as a recent development in the last decade or so.
He was remarkably prescient!
Thought provoking as always. And too slippery a slope for me to begin to add my two-penn’orth.
Slippert slopes can be fun at times. Thanks for your comment!
Hugh, I think a path forward is for people to shun labels. I feel most people don’t fit into a package of beliefs. I am fiscally conservative, yet socially progressive. Everyone needs an opportunity and a needed helping hand, but we also need to pay for things. One of my favorite responses to name callers is to say “I am a tree hugger and a capitalist.”
By shunning labels, we can free others to listen to what we are saying. We can also do them the same favor. Yet, to reclaim our democracy, we need to open the elections to independents. They should not have to join a party or petition to run.
At the heart of all this is education Good people overcome bad structure. Uneducated people will harm the best of structures, like they are doing now. Keith
The problem is, as you know, most of us don’t “shun” labels. We depend on them. It saves us the energy of having to think!