how to sip from a poisoned well
October 19, 2016
I’m seeing a friend on tumblr struggle with the reality that they might have to use Andrea Smith in one of their papers. For those who don’t know, Andrea Smith has been accused of faking her indigeniety (for the record: I have no real opinion about this since I don’t know enough about it to have formed one. I’ve seen some Indigenous ppl defend her and some decry her.). As a result, some people think that this Thing has poisoned the well (ie, her body of scholarship). This post is not about whether or not the well is poisoned. But rather exploring some of the ways the Smith situation is different than, for example, Thomas Jefferson (and other enlightenment thinkers). In their cases, yes, I do think the reality of their lives poisons the well, making everything they wrote and said toxic and dangerous. Something to be handled with great care.
To contextualize this post, I need to remind people of some of my positions. First, part of my philosophy surrounding ‘truth’ is coherence: a thing’s truth depends, in part, on its coherence within a larger context. Thus, it isn’t really possible to cherry pick parts of a theory, at least not without great care. This would (on its own) suggest that if one part of the theory is poison, the rest becomes so as well. But this isn’t the totality of how I think truth works, since I’m also a metaphysical realist. Another part is some correspondence theory of truth: ‘grass is green’ if, in actual fact, grass is green. This means that if something is true, in this sense of the word (as in it is a matter of fact) it remains true even if it has been contextualized within a poisoned context.
An example of what I mean, here, is easily seen from historical theories. Take a historical event, say the colonization of the Philippines by the US. There are (at least) two competing theories for what this means and what it represents. In one theory (usually the American one) this is seen as America’s benevolance towards a degenerate people not ready or capable of independence. In another theory, this represents a betrayal and stolen independence. But the fact of the matter is that the US colonized the Philippines. This remains true regardless of which historical theory you interpret the fact, a poisoned theory like the benevolance one doesn’t strip this of its truth.
Okay. That’s out of the way. People who don’t agree with my positions about metaphysics or truth may not get a lot out of this post. You can stop reading here if you want.
With all of this in mind… how is the Smith situation different from the Jefferson situation? Is there any difference?
For me, there is. My main problem with Jefferson and all the other white d00d enlightenment thinkers is that liberty was a foundational concept in their body of work. Not just foundational, mind you, but the core aspect. Everything that they wrote/did radiated from that one value. We know in the case of Jefferson that he was a slave owner (and a child rapist). He penned the declaration of independence where he claimed that liberty was a universal human right. At the same time that he owned other humans. This is a contradiction so deep and fundamental that, yes, it entirely poisons the well of his thought and actions. Any man who enslaved people, who treated human beings like property, cannot have any meaningful insight into liberty. This well is truly and utterly poisoned. Again, because of the coherence. If all his other ideas built on this foundational concept, if you remove it, the entire structure crumbles.
So, to me, the question with Smith is thus: is her claim of being Indigenous central/foundational to her body of work?
I’m leaving this question unaswered (at least by me) since, as noted above, I’m too ignorant about the entire situation to comment further.
One thing that does interest me, is the way that this raises a larger question about what to do about Orientalized scholarship in the white academy. Smith aside, there are many white people actively engaged in scholarship about the Other. Both historically and today. In all of the discussions I’ve seen about Orientalism, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone actually discuss how to actually engage this scholarship (beyond the white academy, not just within). Should all white Orientalist scholarship be disregarded and dismissed? How do we, exactly, engage in inter-community research and scholarship without falling into Orientalism? This latter question has seen more discussion but I haven’t seen any recently and definitely not outside of the academic context.
I’m particularly interested in these questions in the non-academic context. Within the white academy, you can’t really get away with simply dismissing a scholar’s body of work because she might have lied about herself. You can, however, get away with this outside of the academy.
I used to study Chinese philosophy. In the white academy, this automatically makes me complicit within the Orientalism directed towards China. No, I’m not white, but the structure of the white academy and white scholarship itself really forces you to operate within an Orientalist discourse, whether you want to or not. My scholarship also was entirely about challenging a certain white man’s scholarship on Warring States’ Logic. Nonetheless, the context is what it is. My supervisor was a white man and he (and other white scholars) absolutely had an impact on my own work.
So, sure, I have a vested interest in how these questions play out. Because as a curious person who loves to learn (but also who loves to share what I’ve learned), I’d love to have some clear guidelines for how to do inter-community research (in a non-academic context). Part of this is because, yeah, I have some thoughts and ideas for stuff outside of my own bailiwick. I used to share more of these… but the current state of non-academic discourse basically says that you should mind your own business (I’m not necessarily criticizing this view or the people who hold it – my respect for it is why I’ve shut up about several topics I used discuss).
This post was really just an articulation of how I engage ‘problematic’ theory and theorists. This is what I do, not a prescription for how other people should approach anything. If you think that Smith lying means that her entire body of work must be excised? Great. I won’t argue with you or anyone about that. For my part, I would like some ethical guidelines for how to engage stuff outside of my personal experience, since I think there are very real dangers and problems with the ‘everyone mind their own business’ approach to discourse. There must be something between Orientalism and Mind Your Own Business.