“Rational discourse has been rigged in favor of white, capitalist peoples for far too long … The idea that there is a single truth — ‘the Truth’ — is a construct of the Euro-West that is deeply rooted in the Enlightenment … Rationality is a white, masculine construct.”
These are all real quotes, from actual students at elite colleges. When a good friend articulated the last proposition just a few weeks ago, my first reaction was, “Well, that’s dumb.” Then I stopped, thought about it for a moment and formulated a more measured response: “What the hell are you thinking?”
I should not have been so surprised. Historicizing rationality has become something of an intellectual fad in today’s postmodern (post-truth?) academy. Demands for “rational debate,” many allege, invoke a hegemonic concept of reason that excludes marginalized voices from the public sphere. In this view, “rationality” is just one of several rival epistemologies, a self-justifying tool of the ruling class — hence its newfound status as a “Western” value.
Yet for all that, contemporary diatribes against rationality display a profound lack of historical awareness. The link between reason and oppression dates back to the 1930s, when influential voices on the European left began to worry that the Enlightenment was reverting to barbarism. Modern philosophy, they claimed, had tried to cram the chaos of human social reality into neat, tidy webs of conceptual abstraction, without any regard for the historical or the particular. The result was a totalizing politics of administration, in which any person or group that did not conform to the “rational” order of society had to be eliminated. Reason thus became a domineering, repressive force, bending history’s fragile arc toward new modes of despotism. That, the left averred, was the real source of fascism: blind, bloviating faith in Enlightenment.
The current distrust of rationality, then, has its roots in a much larger, much more interesting critique of liberalism’s self-destructive tendencies. Notice, however, that this critique was primarily directed against the West’s overreliance on reason, not against reason itself. Therein lies the crucial distinction. The intellectual progenitors of the modern left never questioned the value of rationality. Their fear, rather, was that modernity’s hyperrational, hypersecularized culture was incompatible with diversity — and that this incompatibility would prove to be the Enlightenment’s ultimate undoing. In divorcing this line of argument from its sociological origins, contemporary progressives misunderstand their own intellectual heritage. For the neo-Marxists of the ’30s and ’40s, the recognition that faith in reason could be irrational did not mean we should give up on reason entirely. On the contrary, it pushed the left to theorize reason’s proper limits, in the hopes of rescuing the Enlightenment.
Today’s assault on reason is all the more strange when viewed in tandem with other PC shibboleths. Last year, many student activists chided “conservatives” for drawing a false dichotomy between reason and emotion. “Experience and politics,” one author claimed, “cannot be uncoupled.” Another insisted: “The ugly truth” is that “the fears of marginalized students are perfectly rational”. If progressives really believe that reason and emotion are complementary, they of all people should resist conflating rational argument with “policing emotion,” as some have done (“Policing emotion,” Nov. 13, 2015).
Yet too often, conservative students at Yale fall into the very same trap, framing the lived experience debate as a conflict between pure Socratic argument on the one hand and raw, unquestionable emotionality on the other. This dichotomy is unhelpful because it sidesteps the most sophisticated anti-Enlightenment charge: Experience does not negate so much as circumscribe reason. There will always be a gap between my mind and the minds of others, one that cannot be bridged by anyone or anything. The question, then, is not whether reason matters — it obviously does — but whose reasons matter, and to which people.
Caricatures of the “lived experience” crowd thereby obfuscate the real stakes of this debate: the human capacity for empathy. The liberal intellectual tradition posits a shared, universal human nature that enables each of us to place ourselves in someone else’s shoes, feeling, if only incompletely, her suffering, her sorrows. That is the crucial assumption of modern democracy — people can understand one another well enough to bargain and compromise. By contrast, the campus left has come to view politics as the clash of rival and incommensurate perspectives, hence the much-repeated apothegm, “but this is my experience.” To cast our current impasse in terms of “reason vs. emotion” is therefore to neglect a far more pressing referendum: Either we are essentially sympathetic beings capable of living in a pluralistic world; or we are not, in which case tribalism has already won.
It should come as no surprise that I am partial to the first conception of human nature. But if liberals persist in their present myopia, I fear the future is grim.
Aaron Sibarium is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .