[This was written in response to a note by my friend Jeff Koh on Facebook. I’ve appended that note to the end of this post. if you wish to understand this piece, start there.]
Welcome to one end of the Journey.
It’s one end because it reveals that the journey itself is flawed.
Flawed by being a purely monist intellectual voyage through a space where a plurality of factors such as culture, society, history and sociology all have a place. Indeed you can argue that these elements have primacy, the foundational blocks from which all philosophy begins to which in the end it must return.
On a more practical level, which is one of the questions you’re asking I feel, seeking education through the academia of the West doesn’t imply its uncritical acceptance or its internal validation.
For example, acknowledging the primacy of Oxford in law, shows your appreciation of its position, but doesn’t accept or imply its superiority in all fields. If you want the best Textiles course in the world, then the world does come to Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
You can approach any person who puts forward a claim of cultural hegemony as a sceptic, or it can be approached through the lens of your own cultural tradition.
You can investigate the choices that it makes, analyse the options that it represents and decide where in the moral balance that falls for you. Whether it is acceptable or unacceptable. Whether it can be modified to become acceptable.
In one sense the journey you’ve gone through, honing and understanding the meandering of western philosophy, is what has given you the skills to make those evaluations.
You understand the questions that are being asked by philosophy. Any philosophy. You appreciate the responses that are being given. Then you appreciate how intuitive and culture specific those answers are. And then you appreciate that there are many valid answers.
Then, at this stage the mould is broken. No one now can uncritically assert the primacy of any ideology, culture or values. You appreciate their inherent subjectivity, and where and when necessary (not every moment like your teacher seemed to suggest) you can deploy that to your benefit and advantage.
If on the downside of this, you find yourself staring like all who followed Nietzsche at a desolate plane upon which neither philosophy, history, society or culture can lay any real roots, then you come to the real dilemma of reaching an end of the Journey. It’s one where I find myself stuck as well, so if you manage to spot the exit sign, be sure to share.
Are you being elitist when you’re angered by those who Journey to the Ivy League and the Russell Group without understanding this?
I don’t think you’re being elitist.
A bit hypocritical maybe. After all it was being in those environments that accelerated your own rejection of them. It was the challenge to your identity and values that you understood them to (partially) represent that evokes such a strong reaction.
Why do you think those who go won’t come to the same realisation? And what harm does it cause if they don’t? Not every person wants or needs to make the same journeys.
[Attached below is the original note by my friend Jeff, to which this piece is a response. I have reformatted this piece in the course of importing it into this post. Any errors of readability as a result, are mine rather than Jeff’s.]
LPC, Oxford and Cultural Discrimination
Today at 2:06am
my American drama prof:
an excerpt from his final lecture(giving advice on how to use the lessons learnt in his class in real life):
when you think about arguing with folks who are using terms that have double values, so that they have a significance at the level of a conceptual field that is producing the particulars, even as it is claiming to be one particular among many, call them on it. because it’s a double game, that is working in the service of an unacknowledged power.
it’s a point well-taken. but do I ever, ever want to operate on that level of complexity?
the most insidious way I’ve been subjected to racial discrimination, or more appropriately, cultural discrimination, was on student council back in high school with x and y. we got the same grades, had the same positions on campus, and I had even more (debate and MUN) externally that they didn’t have. . . but somehow they’d think they were better, and they’d take pains to make sure you knew it.
they’d run all these philosophy groups (LPCUWC didn’t run a class on philosophy), and I’d try and go and sit amongst the smoke-filled rooms having not read any of the (rich) dead, old, white men with fancy last names that they’d select to discuss. there was no frame of reference, no well of background reading from which to draw even the most preliminary, basic understanding of these texts.
x would throw around terms like postmodernism, and chuckle at my lack of understanding. . . even though I was fully aware it was hocus-pocus. there was no common frame of reference.
yet today, in class, I can discuss the term fully in terms of its contexts, applications, nuances, ambiguities . . . and limitations. suffice to say, it has taken me two and a half years, since getting to Dartmouth and a stint at Oxford, to fully subsume myself within the boundaries of this discussion. I’m not even sure if it’s a good thing.
it’s a prime example of what Professor Pease was saying, in the above.
it’s the white man, using language in a way that makes himself superior. terms that have truth values, beyond their particulars. and whenever anyone uses language in such a charged, loaded way, it’s important for you to call them out on it. because their linguistic choices can set the terms of the debate and load it up in their favor. through discussing these words (words that are defined by the white man) on a playing field which is owned by the white man, where all the rules are set by the white man, all the substantive material is chosen by the white man, you are fully under their control and power.
there are three approaches to take when you find yourself in this situation, each tangentially related to the other. 1) you can feel helpless and inferior, 2) you can be aloof and refuse to subscribe to this game, conceding all your benefits (and embrace your role as the ‘Other’) and 3) you can learn the terms of the discussion, play constant catchup, and eventually best them in their own game. take back the benefits they’ve appropriated in falsely defining the rules of the game in their favour. an immanent, Alan Leong-style political strategy in order to beat them from within their own system with their way of playing.
I’ve chosen, to have to learn. and now I’ve gotten there.
I remember a conversation Annie and Chrys Hill had with me in the wee hours of the morning, how they told me at sixteen, you learn so eagerly to sit on that table, to score an invite. I think it was vastly inappropriate to parade their knowledge of Edward Said, or of Salman Rushdie, to condition a bare (intellectual) child, a baby, in the ideas of postcolonialism so, so soon. the more I think about it, the more offended I am. it’s wrong, to legitimate oneself through an appropriation of a power you ought not to have, an overstepping of the boundaries of your role as a teacher. it’s wrong, to soapbox your hate against the system upon impressionable young minds. I’m sure they thought they were helping me, which makes it all the more despicable. I’m glad they’re not teaching at LPCUWC any more.
because the problem with that, the problem with exposing those that are so so young, too intellectually young, to the ideas of Derrida’s deconstructionism, or a very virulent, specific and particular understanding of Marx that leads to an opting-out of a system seen as unyieldingly capitalist . . . what results is a nihilism, an anarchism. a debilitating nihilism that isn’t productive towards accomplishing anything. and nothing is left to take its place. nobody loves a cynic, and one can hardly be a cynic with anything good to say, before one has gone out and lived.
it’s why Nietzsche’s rejection of all truth and meaning is funny and all, especially given the absolutely dastardly way he does it, but so many philosophers after him have tried to rescue the idea of truth. because all debate, all constructive moves end when you say “there’s nothing that’s worth anything and nothing that means anything” . . . and you go crazy and stop speaking and live in a cave on your own. civil society ends there, and you become Nietzsche.
in a sense, Professor Swaine’s latest book is on this very subject, how full autonomy isn’t always the best thing. because reason taken to its extreme lengths isn’t conducive to a political construction of civil society. we can’t all live in caves like Nietzsche.
it’s why, on a similar note, earlier, so many philosophers after Hume (Kant, for instance) had tried to rescue the province of philosophy (and correspondingly of existence, and life) valiantly from skepticism.
both endeavors feature philosophers trying to save philosophy and the way in which we understand life and existence, philosophers trying to save life from what they see as emptiness and void, a void devoid of hope.
I’m not sure as to the success of their enterprises . . . because like my constant attacks on Rawls, you can attack anything that has a presupposed system of values for having a presupposed system of values (my attack on Rawls, obviously, being that the ‘cat won’t admit to the fact he’s doing this, under the table, and to building his ostensibly non-normative claims on normative bases)
but I think it’s a stand worth making.
I received my invite to the table when I was accepted to Dartmouth. and I’ve made the most use of it.
but how many people from Hong Kong get invited without knowing what it means (econ majors . . . academic “professionals” who go to Oxford and study something like E&M for the sake of the name of the diploma, and not having a bare figment of an idea of what it means [to subscribe to the white man’s doctrines and paradigms, to tacitly perpetuate his domination upon you through ideas of superiority and stereotypes by attending such an institution. . . Oxford is better, etc.])?
am I being elitist when I’m so angry, so angry at this ignorance?