Over the last decade or so I’ve seen a very strange pattern that was once at the margins, but is now at the center of culture. Take something banal, such as literacy or war, and claim that it was invented and perpetuated by heterosexual white men. In the late 2000s, this started happening in academic and para-academic circles, and usually, I would laugh because the assertions were ludicrous on the face of them to anyone who knew people from various cultures (I’m the child of immigrants from Bangladesh) or who read history (I do). In fact, at the time I assumed most people were engaging in rhetorical flourish and signaling. They couldn’t actually believe these things, right?
Things have changed in 2020. What was once a source of amusement is now part of the cultural script. White heterosexual males are now seen to the Prime Mover in human history. Or perhaps evil demiurges responsible for our fallen world? There are young people who I have talked to who are amazed to learn that white males did not invent oppression. The first time I experienced this a few years ago I still laughed and found it strange, but now I’m rather alarmed. It’s ubiquitous. A fair number of young people who see through the mirror of lies reach out to me alarmed and disturbed once they know the “truth.”
What was once useless signaling is now taken as a deep insight into the structure of reality. Here is an NPR interview with James Hamblin, M.D., a writer at The Atlantic who is promoting a new book, Clean: The New Science of Skin:
How did your identity as a cisgendered white male influence your reporting on this subject?
Probably one of the main reasons I’ve been able to go so long without using [shampoo and deodorant] is because of the privilege of my position in American society. To the degree that these standards are culturally determined, I am coming from the group that has created these norms. That is why I believe I was able to push against them without more discriminatory consequences. I mean, people call me “gross.” But I didn’t suffer professionally to my knowledge. And other people would have.
Shampoo is originally a Hindi word. Even if Hamblin is thinking narrowly about the particular cultural details of American consumer capitalism which promotes a “hygiene script”, many younger people reading or listening to him won’t pick up on that. Rather, they will take him seriously and literally. They’ll think shampoo was invented by white males to oppress non-whites.
This is a small detail that illustrates a broader cultural problem: the abolition of knowledge independent from ideology. I am pretty much without hope that this can be generally turned around. Most people listen to what the elites tell them, and our cultural elites now turn all factual claims explicitly into instruments of ideology. Facts are always vetted based on their ideological utility. This is, I think, a fact of life itself. To some extent, it was always like this, but in 2010 elites might express some chagrin at their behavior. Today there is no shame.
Those of us who are not happy with this situation need to figure out how to survive, persevere, and find others who don’t enjoy lying constantly and effortlessly.
Addendum: the reflex to think your own culture/group “invented everything” is pretty normal. Afrocentrists, Indian nationalists, and Chinese chauvinists, all engage in this. The curious thing about the modern West is that people of white European descent also make this claim…but they think that their inventions were bad! One prediction I would make is that once this normal way of thinking, where the ends justify the means, is embraced, it won’t be hard for many to default back to pride in the white European invention of literacy, logic, and rationality. Retribalizing white people in the ends of social justice may have unintended consequences. But then again, ideas like “unintended consequences” requires some understanding of history, which the youth do not need.