Originally published 11/27/2003. Links were valid at time of publication.
The 2003 National Communication Association Conference is now completed. Like many conferences, the lessons to be taken away often have very little to do with anything that people actually spoke about. In this particular case, one of the lessons to be taken away is how Queer Studies, Gender Studies, and African-American Studies appear to have successfully sealed their own death sentence.
If there is any glaring evidence of a disconnect between “the real world” and “the ivory tower,” it has to be these three completely impractical, useless fields of “study.” These are three “disciplines” that have no value outside of the ever-tightening cocoon that they envelope themselves.
The reason why I place these terms in scare quotes is simply because we should use those terms to define areas of academics that involve a somewhat aggressive process of questions and answers. Speech communication, for instance, can be considered a “discipline” because of the practical goal of improving verbal communication between individuals, a public, or even the self. That goal, improved communication, involves several subordinate fields of inquiry, including communication competence (i.e., how well people communicate), communication apprehension (i.e., getting over shyness), and negotiation/persuasion.
Even though these areas have various approaches, and even some hostility between them as to which are the best, they continue to thrive in the academic communication field because at the debate’s core is the fundamental understanding that a) all participants seek to improve the practical outcome of such research; b) there is a practical outcome for such research; c) the debate itself helps bring to light flaws in logic; and d) the competition of ideas helps strengthen each idea as they are defended in real, empirical terms.
The problems with the above mentioned areas – Feminist Studies, African-American Studies, and Queer Studies – is that they fail to do any of those four things. In fact, built-in to each of these areas is the negation of ideological competition. To bring up arguments against ideas in Feminist Theory is sexist. To do the same in African-American Studies is racist. To address concerns in Queer Theory is Homophobic. In other words, if you don’t agree with whatever these scholars tell you, you have nothing of value to say. This mutual-gratification society constitutes little more than intellectual masturbation: it’s fun only for the participants and ultimately comes to nothing.
A quick perusal of paper and panel topics shows that the panels regarding feminist thought are merely roundtable discussions. While actually attending the panels it became clear that the attendees viewed dissent as merely sexist, racist, or homophobic knee-jerk reactions, rather than entertaining the possibility that there might actually be flaws to address.
Most telling, however, are the perceptions of these panels. Aside from the actual participants, the remainder of the conference attendees appeared to have relegated these sessions to the back burner (or closet, depending on your point of view). Even among the blatantly liberal Academics in the conference (finding a conservative or Libertarian academic is almost like trying to find a feminist with a sense of humor), these disciplines have been all but dismissed as whiners. Instead of “panel sessions,” they’re known as “bitch sessions.”
One of the most blatant examples of this occurred when one of the feminist panelists attended a session on media ownership. Looking through the eyes of feminist thought, the giant media corporations purchase radio and television stations with the goal of maintaining power over women and minorities – so this audience member said. She demanded that one of the panelists of this session – a representative of the National Association of Broadcasters, ironically a black man – defend the lack of diversity of content in smaller urban and even rural areas.
As a member of the NAB, it was an unreasonable position in which to place him; it wasn’t the NAB’s responsibility or “fault” that media ownership in certain areas failed to result in widespread diversity of programming. He handled the demand with what I can assume is characteristic grace: he said that he didn’t know how to address such a monumental issue, but that he (and the NAB) definitely wanted to hear ideas.
Her response? “Oh, I don’t have any answers. It just makes me very angry.”
Thus, in one sentence, she managed to identify the problem with not only her position but also illuminated the reason why these areas of study have been relegated to third-class status. They have no solutions, no ideas for solutions; they merely want to complain.
Fortunately for them, as long as there are people to complain there will be people willing to listen to them. As long as they don’t allow dissent among the ideas, however, they will be permanently dismissed.
In the 1980s, the Communist Soviet Union had found that decades of competitive isolationism was ultimately self-defeatist. Now, in the early part of the 21st Century, these ideologically isolationist fields of study are finding out that they, too, are becoming irreversibly obsolete.
What has already begun to happen, in fact, is that the core group of fanatics has already dwindled. As they have failed to find people willing to be called racist, sexist, and homophobic, they have begun to turn on themselves, forcing an exodus of their own constituency. After all, they are beginning to find out what critics understood long ago: that ad hominem attacks in place of sound arguments doesn’t make for a good time.
Ultimately, whatever valid points Feminist Studies, African-American Studies, or Queer Studies may have will never be addressed as long as their proponents refuse to accept the fallibility of their positions.