Ivy League Beliefs- Who Is An Expert

I decided to read a book by a professor of philosophy at an Ivy League school a few months ago. And I ended up really pretty dismayed at how juvenile it seemed.

Like many in the US, this person (who I’m not going to name), blithely assumes some lack of empathy for Others is “natural”.  Unlike many others, this person is noted as a world class philosopher. I’ve read a little bit about this person’s upbringing and history. They appear to have been fully socialized and enculturated into fairly conservative cultural assumptions, and rejected some of those ideas. But despite doing that, they (like most people) don’t seem to realize how deeply and pervasively enculturation and socialization get into our minds, and shape our beliefs. We are all products of our cultures, after all.

Living with a bunch of untested assumptions is a pretty common state for -many, if not all- US born people. Most of the liberals I’ve known over the years (and I’ve known thousands in different capacities) see some conservative stuff as ridiculous, but retain a whole host of other unexamined assumptions, USUALLY without even realizing they are holding them.

For example, virtually all liberals can point to obvious false assumptions that have been publicized (blatant racism, sexism, heteronormative assumptions, etc), but maybe not be aware of others.

Assuming it’s “natural” to not have much empathy for Others might well be one of those assumptions. Here’s the thing: most of the world has been adversely affected by the brutality of colonialism. And, much as it would be great if they did, those past harms don’t simply disappear and stop affecting people. They leave enduring marks. After all, it took a lot of sometimes incredible levels of callousness to colonize Others.

So to somehow think some sick assumptions about what is “natural” didn’t get passed along and survive in our current cultural assumptions is a bit…naive.

Really: isn’t it a possibility that a “lack of empathy” is one that has been created by our cultural constructs, rather than a “natural” tendency? I mean my entire worldview (and yours too) would be completely different if we’d all somehow been purposefully and consciously socialized and enculturated by a society of people who had a radically egalitarian view of the world, and had escaped that long shadow of colonization.

How Much We Don’t Know About What We Don’t Know

So in this one book I picked up (they’ve authored several, and I haven’t read them all) the philosopher talked about the role of emotions, and went on to examine “disgust” at length, but never once made the (pretty basic) observation that what is seen as disgusting by a person is learned. It is simply not an innate preset thing in the vast majority of cases. 

Think about what used to be called a “natural” levels of disgust people had for LGBTQ people (hello!), for differently sized or differently abled folks, or for folks with different skin tones, or eating habits, etc. If you aren’t raised to see those things as somehow wrong or inferior, you just don’t develop “disgust” for them.

Indeed, it really seems disgust arises -in reaction- to things we have already coded as “bad.” 

If we haven’t already been taught the social imperative that two men holding hands is “bad”, do we feel disgust? No, ack-shully. But this (non trivial point) never seems to cross ________’s mind.

Back in reality, -all- our emotions are pretty inextricably bound up in the -social meanings- we discern or determine about the situations at hand. It is our constructed and learned social meanings that “elicit” the emotions in many cases, not anything intrinsic to the situations themselves. Truly, most emotional sensations help give social meaning to, and are ALSO elicited by the specific contexts in which they appear*. 

Disgust And The Meat Eating World

Content Warning: Gonna talk about meat eating in a way that might gross some omnivores out for the next four paragraphs:

Seeing someone eating a rich potato and cauliflower curry might “cause” me start to salivate. But seeing the same person eating from a plate with the juices from a really rare steak turning the edges of the nearby mashed potatoes pink really does “cause” (a long time mostly vegetarian person like me) to feel a stomach turning and very visceral level of disgust. 

As a usually vegetarian person, I certainly understand that many people like eating dead cooked flesh. And millions of people really do habitually enjoy meals that are centered around dead cooked flesh. And I also understand if they don’t like cauliflower, or curries, they might very well blanch at a veggie curry and instead just start to salivate at the sight of a bit of nicely displayed dead cooked flesh. And yes, I am aware that people usually prefer to call it steak, or chicken, or fish. My question is: are YOU aware of what else I could -accurately- call grilled chicken that might cause it to seem disgusting or at least less appetizing? Full disclosure: I love me some good grilled chicken, I just don’t eat it very often at all.

My point is: we’re all much like Pavlov’s dogs in some ways that can -feel- completely “natural” and not conditioned, but very much ARE very conditioned. 

But to be fair, understanding these distinctions as learned (understanding that salivating when you see dead cooked flesh in certain forms is a learned thing) isn’t immediately obvious. We -do- sort of forget that these are learned things, because, when we have pretty visceral reactions, like salivating (or our stomach turning), these reactions really can and do feel completely “natural” to us. 

Here’s A Good Looking Example

A few months ago, about the time I was reading the book, I think, I saw a highly attractive, fit looking woman in a grocery store. She had classic white woman beauty markers galore, a pleasing face, luxurious blond wavy hair, she was tall (not too tall), curvy, (but also slender), young-ish, (but not jail bait), standing confidently (but not too confidently), etc.  She was gorgeous by current “highly attractive white woman” standards.

 But my immediate, completely unbidden, and -very real- visceral reaction was one of stomach turning disgust. It was because of her attire.

I’m a long time pacifist and she was wearing a full military issued camouflage uniform, complete with combat boots. In a god damned grocery store, nowhere near a military base. I truly was repulsed by the social signals her attire set off in me. It literally caused me to feel a lurching sensation in my stomach. 

Another full disclosure: I often have the same sort of gut level disgust for men in this kind of attire, but since I’m rarely physically attracted to males, and she was an otherwise noticeably “really good looking” person, the difference was…interesting.

The Point?

The point is that in almost all cases, what is seen as disgusting is a fully learned thing. Note the qualifier. 

Witnessing harm to others (violence) seems to affect us pretty universally. It doesn’t necessarily elicit disgust, but it does tend to garner attention when we see/hear that happening. That attention (called arousal in psychology terms) is then shaped and decoded. What it gets shaped into (disgust, fear, rage, lust, vindication, etc) can vary greatly, depending on our experiences and the cultural contexts. 

Other exceptions that cause arousal and can elicit a variety of emotions are being in close proximity to very young kids or very old or sick folks. People can have emotional reactions ranging from playfulness and joy, to fear and sadness, to protectiveness and reverence. Personal experience and cultural norms matter.

And I’d be remiss in not mentioning that folks who strike us as “damn fine” can also elect a range of emotions as well (such as lust, interest -either furtive or explicit, fear, a feigned and determined kind of indifference, etc).

The point is that -as humans- we so quickly learn to decode situations, shape our reactions into certain emotions, AND make decisions about how to act in regards to them, that we often don’t notice -what- we are doing. So these really quite complex dynamics can begin to feel like completely “natural” reactions.

If this is confusing: these dynamics are in many ways as complex as driving a car. Once we know how to drive, we can do it “naturally” and with very little thought in many cases. And we tend to think this is the only way to do it, until we try driving in a country where the right of way is reversed.

The Bottom Lines

If you’re going to riff on emotions, as someone who has been called a world class philosopher, yet not seem to be aware (or at least not mention) that cultural norms and personal experiences and values TOTALLY affect what we perceive to be disgusting or pleasing, I’m not sure I am very favorably impressed. In fact, I think that doing so in such a confident manner is sort of a symptom of how much “we” really don’t know about ourselves as a species. Sorry, _______fans, but that’s how I see it. 

To keep at the point until it becomes tediously obvious:

1) We need to understand that many cultures -create- all kinds of artificial hierarchies that grade people into “good” and “bad”.

2) We need to clearly understand that evolution itself does not do this. Evolution is in many ways the opposite of enforcing hierarchy. In fact it is -endless- riffs on diversity, ack-shully. It does not “grade” the gazelle, it only creates a form, and then makes other patterns from that form, while keeping much of it the same. Given time, billions, even trillions of variations on life forms have been created. I’d say the focus is more definitely on DEI, than not.

3) Once we lose the idea of these hierarchies being “real”, we can more easily see that we have learned to react emotionally to what we consider “good” and “bad”.

4) and further we can more easily see that these reactions do not have to remain “ours” if they don’t serve us. Indeed, these were merely enculturated ideas of how to react based on what some people in our cultures thought.  

That this is -so- obvious to some of us, yet STILL not at all the commonly taught to undergrads, it makes me wary of what else is taught as “truth” and “important” in philosophy. And yes, here I’m assuming this philosopher doesn’t teach this to undergrads, since they seemed to have no concept that what they think of and write of as “disgusting” is a culturally learned and very relative thing. 

What Is Authority? Why Are They Seen As Authorities?

So again, this critique is about an Ivy League professor considered by some to be a super important thinker…But why are this person’s thoughts considered so important? No, really: why?

Ivy League philosophers are people held up as experts and seen as “wise” by those in power. And in case you haven’t noticed, a good portion of folks in power are pretty f*cking exploitative, ruthless and in many ways utterly clueless people…with self anointed gravitas, usually provided by money, who unfortunately have decision making abilities. Look around, they have made decisions which have brought us to this point in time where we are living in. 

And, unless you’ve been under a rock: we are living in unsustainable ways. We are head straight for utter disaster if the people who have been in charge stay in charge. This is reality.

Watch carefully what current “leaders” (almost uniformly STILL making horrific decisions in the US at least) endorse and insist are “natural” tendencies. In case you need starting points, they tend to assume AND repeat that certain things are “human nature”. They will say (without much evidence at all) that greed, hyper competitiveness, a tendency to try to dominate over others, selfishness, violence as endemic, castes, huge levels of stratification are all human nature. .Back in reality, these are often pervasive, and tolerated sick cultural norms. Proof is in all the folks who have been actively rejecting all of these things for centuries.

So people in power tend to heap praise on and elevate folks who spout often just completely fabricated arguments, which are then pushed out onto the wider culture. And unfortunately, far too many laypeople unthinkingly accept them as “truths”.  Completely fabricated? Yeah, well, we’re still living with patriarchy and racism, for starters, right? And both are completely primary grade school level stupid, yet here we are. Still.

When We Assume, We Make An…

It’s not just them. As I mentioned at the beginning of this, we all still have -a lot- of implicit stuff going on. This is a big part of what enculturation is. We are taught to just assimilate TONS of UNEXAMINED ideas, so we don’t have to figure them all out for ourselves. Since basically everything we do and say is a product of the cultures we are born into and have to learn to live within, this is often a helpful thing. It’s great to simply just accept and assimilate ideas like: wearing clothes in public is good, and we should just automatically stop at stop lights that are red, for examples. But when we assimilate other stuff that harms some and elevates others, it is just not good.

And, yeah, it has been going on for centuries, but it’s urgent we begin to get a whole lot better at seeing through the bullshit NOW due to climate change, financial inequities and the way we are allocating resources on a finite planet.

In my view it is imperative that more people truly see through these harmful lies, and find ways to install more appropriate folks (who would be less authoritarian prone).

What has been undervalued for far too long is compassion, equity (it is truly foundational), and relational ways of being ourselves with each other (and the planet) in all sorts of ways.

Plenty of less authoritarian prone folks could and would decide on healthier policies and make decisions about how to more equitably organize our societies. We need to get these folks in power, quickly.

Status And Actual Authority Can Be Very Different

Look, I went to a very prestigious school for undergrad, and I have an advanced degree. I’m not an anti intellectual, at all. My point is that people who are propped up as experts are sometimes (often?) propped up by people who are in it for personal gain, not what is good for the planet. I’m asking readers to make very much more conscious decisions about how you view authority and about who is an authority. Decouple authority from other statuses.

If you think about the cutting edges of knowledge, you have to concede that the edges of knowledge are on the margins. People with perspectives that have been on the margins have incredibly important things to say, and we’ve been saying them for decades if not centuries. We are out of time. It IS time to listen to us a bit more carefully.

So. Full Disclosure again: I’m sure some of what I’ve said is wrong or needs refinement or is debatable, but a lot of it isn’t. Let me spell it out, though, in case there’s any doubt: What I am trying to do is help you decolonize your mind. Peace.

  • *when I’m arguing for ethics based explicitly on compassion I also argue that our emotions -are- what give meaning to social situations…here I’m saying that we also take in these situations and produce emotions from them based on our cultural understandings of what the situations mean. This is not me talking out of both sides of my mouth, it’s because we are both molded by our previous knowledge and experiences, and simultaneously creating our own interpretations of what those experiences mean. A constant interplay and interdependence between a situation, our cultural understandings of it, and our personal reactions are inextricable.