If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance . . .


A note on epistemology. In our previous post about Melissa Harris-Perry, I offered this quote from her work:

But the responses to this recent article have been revealing in ways that I find typical of our contemporary epistemology of race….

Can someone please explain what that phrase means?

Yes, I know what “epistemology” is: The study of knowledge. How do we know what we know about reality? How do we define knowing and how do we define reality? Those are epistemological questions.

I understand the meaning of that word. What I don’t understand is how there can be an “epistemology of race” or of anything else.

A little googling reveals that academics make frequent reference to “the epistemology of” this or that. There is even a webpage devoted to something called “the espitemology of modality.” Sounds scary.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about an eccentric genius named Richard Mitchell. (His works are here.) I spent three hours talking to him back in my college days; he got goofy toward the end and started singing Mahler in German. We corresponded a bit afterwards. I had long hoped to meet up with him again — a hope which ended with his death in 2002. In his veneration of the classics and of “old school” intellectual standards, he was something of a Tory. Although he called himself the Underground Grammarian, the target of his crusade was not so much sloppy grammar as sloppy thinking. He didn’t like jargon. He didn’t like bureaucratese. He didn’t like showy, empty language.

Does “the epistemology of race” mean something? Or is the phrase showy and empty?

I stand ready to be educated.

Joseph Cannon has touched on one of my pet peeves. I despise people who use what my grandma used to call “ten dollar words” to try to impress and confuse people.

I discussed it in an old post titled “Trolls and Other Internet Vermin.

The Bully is not always abusive and/or insulting, it may attempt to dominate threads by using “word fogs.” A word fog is a long comment filled with jargon and terms unknown to the average person. Outside of the blogosphere word-fogs are used by bad academicians, pseudo-intellectuals and con-men. The Bully troll hopes that others will be confused and intimidated by the flowery phrasing and excessive verbiage. Here is an example of a word fog:

“Why? Because it’s turned out that meta matters. The American public is by and large in favour of a social-democratic policy consensus. But that doesn’t necessarily effect how things go at the ballot box. How things go at the ballot box is related to all kinds of meta issues. And the meta that matters now is that, regardless of the truth of the matter, it is widely held that Obama is winning on a populist platform. That perception is the 0.0001% margin you get out of the elections, even if it is very likely that you’ll get nothing else.”

That paragraph is completely meaningless. “Meta” is either a prefix to another word or an adjective that modifies a noun. Here is another word fog:

In a nutshell, even if we assume that Liebowitz’s numbers are all correct, you still have to accept his ideological assumptions in order to agree that his data allows him to lay the blame where it does. His ideological assumptions are inserted via a certain amount of familiar slight-of-hand. They’re standard glibertarian cant. Need I explain what that is?

I believe that the predictable and observed consequence of that form of libertarianism is a preservation of racially-biased economic hierarchies.

So that is my objection to Liebowitz.

The Bully knows that many people are afraid to admit they don’t understand something and will shut up, giving the appearance that The Bully has “won” the argument. But it doesn’t work on everyone, some will demand explanations or persist in pointing out that the Emperor has no clothes. When a word fog is questioned or confronted is where The Bully can be distinguished from a real person.

The purpose of communication is to express our thoughts and ideas to others in a way that can be understood. This is especially true when we engage in persuasive argument. Typically, if the speaker or writer knows they are not being understood they explain themselves in simpler terms rather than using even more complex terminology.

For example, if I were to use the term “double jeopardy” and the other person didn’t understand what I was talking about I wouldn’t tell them it was similar to the principles of res judicata and collateral estoppel, I would tell them it meant they could not be put on trial twice for the same crime.

The Bully, on the other hand, will do exactly the opposite and if the person persists in questioning or challenging them it will typically dismiss the person as ignorant and inferior to itself and then flee the scene claiming it has to leave. (“You obviously don’t know what you’re talking about and I don’t have time for this.“)

When dealing with an internet troll you can simply ignore them. But it is troubling when you see the same behavior from someone whose profession is teaching.

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24 Responses to If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance . . .

  1. HELENK says:

    this is off topic, it was just on breaking news

    BOA to start charging $5 monthly fee for using debit card starting in 2012.
    Has anyone noticed that in many gas stations there is one price for using debit card and another price for paying cash?


    • Dario says:

      Maybe Bank of America customers should start writing checks. The Fed made checks to be the same as cash and exempt from fees, but now it refuses to make ATM cards to be the same as cash.

  2. madazhel says:

    Honk, honk, honk!

  3. jjmtacoma says:

    I would never use “epistemology”, it is too easy to confuse with “episiotomy” – a $1 word that most people are familiar with.

  4. murphy says:

    I guess “epistemology of race” could be,

    “how do we know what we know about race?”

    “how did we acquire the knowledge we have about race?”

    “what do we know about race?”

    All of these are interesting and valid questions for people who are interested in them. Perhaps everything I know about race I learned in a gated community upper class private school setting. Perhaps I learned it in a diverse state college system in an African American studies class. Perhaps I learned it as a cop on the streets in Baltimore. All of these ways of learning, ways of knowing, will result in slightly (or greatly) differing types and intensities of knowledge. It’s a meaningful inquiry, in my opinion.

    For example, what does the term “welfare queen” mean? Obviously it doesn’t mean a literal queen. But we all kinda know what it means, or at least we know what it’s supposed to mean. Sort of. If you’re a black woman on welfare you know what that term means differently from how a middle class white guy from a rural area does. Good questions and ideas imo.

    But it’s also deeply academic. My main objection is the assumption that professors like Harris-Perry, and her political supporters, make the leap from “this is a potentially meaningful academic discussion that can perhaps be brought to bear in real life,” to “Anyone opposed to obama is a racist who doesn’t know about the epistemology of race.”

    Baloney. Also, I think there are lots of people like me who could be interested in discussions of racial “knowledge” and how what we know informs what we think often without us really thinking about HOW we came to know what we think we know, but …

    Whatever — after 2008, if the most important political discussion regarding epistemology in politics is not about the epistemology of sexism/misogyny in politics I am not friggin interested.

    • yttik says:

      When they start talking about the “epistemology of race” I think, wow, could you distance yourself any farther from real people’s lives? Now I understand why they call it an “Ivory” tower.

      People are way up there in that thing, using language that puts as much distance as possible between them and the people they claim to be so concerned about.

    • myiq2xu says:

      What about the epistemology of epistemology?

      • murphy says:

        Right– when epistemological knowledge becomes conventional wisdom or received knowledge then people sincerely interested in understanding the study of knowledge should hear warning bells. Once epistemology becomes tainted by ideology (ie, lazy thinking) it has, by definition, failed.

        There is a strong argument that the epistemology of race, as it’s practiced in the mainstream media by people like Harris-Perry, has been hopelessly compromised by ideology.

        Also, when arguments can very easily be understood and/or dismantled using straightforward logic, there really is NO reason to bring in epistemology, other than to create a fog, as you point out.

        Harris-Perry says that a white liberal dem who voted to reelect Bill Clinton is a racist if he/she doesnt vote to re-elect obama, because Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are pretty much the same.

        Uh, what!?

        Epistemology is never a substitute for basic logic.

        • yttik says:

          “Uh, what!?”

          LOL, I know! Harris-Perry tried to use all this fancy language to hide that little lie in there. Since Obama has done just as well as Clinton, it would be racist to vote for one and not the other. What? Say what?? Who are you trying to fool here? Clinton delivered economic stability, peace and prosperity. We’re engaged in 3-4 wars and the economy is crashing. This doesn’t look anything like a Clinton presidency.

      • Mimi says:

        I have an uncle who refers to such things as the bullshit of horseshit. He is a forensic auditor.

    • Three Wickets says:

      Melissa has a strong stake in Obama’s political campaigns, she’s shown that many times over. She has a very active presence online with progressive activists for instance. When Melissa says epistemology of race, I think she means a person’s “knowledge of race issues” which segways nicely into “you don’t know race issues like I know race issues” which in the context of a political dialogue puts anyone who wants to debate her on the defensive.

  5. Valhalla says:

    Ok, so first, it’s “doesn’t necessarily affect” not “effect.

    Second, it’s “sleight of hand” not “slight-of-hand.”

    Third, in the words of Inigo Montoya, on “meta” — “I do not think it means what you think it means.”

    And fourth, the fogginess of that fog example was so bad I couldn’t make it through the whole thing. Did I miss anything? Perhaps the author snapped out of it in the last para or something?

  6. gxm17 says:

    Let me add that the irony of Harris-Perry trotting out the “epistemology of race” big money word hash is that, as an African American woman, she presumes to “know” why Obama’s white supporters are criticizing him and/or withdrawing their support.

    Now that they’ve painted themselves into the corner, ObamaNation goes into meltdown and shamelessly reveals that the only thing they care about is Obama’s skin color. Issues, job performance, the freakin’ shit economy, none of it matters cuz Clinton got re-elected so Obama should be re-elected. There’s even some idjit on another blog making the same comparison except it’s Dubya and Obama. For real! This fool doesn’t even realize, or care, that they are admitting that Bush = Obama.

    These folks have lost their freakin’ minds! We’ll have had 12 years of Bush, Bush, and More Bush and we’re supposed to sign up for another disastrous 4 years just because Obama is biracial? No. No. No. And. No. I’m not voting for Obama even if he’s the only one on the ballot. Better yet, if the Republicans run a black guy or a woman (of any hue), I’m gonna vote for them just for the hell of it. And if the Republicans run just another white guy, I’ll vote third party. You can have your tantrum, ObamaNation. But you can’t have my vote.

  7. ralphb says:

    Bank of America isn’t alone

    The other majors are all trying to get around the “per swipe” max set by the Fed for debit cards, just business as usual.

    Bank of America customers with basic checking accounts will be hit with a $5 monthly fee in order to use a debit card for purchases, the bank announced Thursday.

    Banks and card companies have been aggressively establishing and raising fees in recent weeks as banks plan for new rules taking effect Saturday that limit the amount they can charge retailers for each debit card purchase.

    JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo are testing $3 fees for debit cards in select areas, and Citibank recently announced it is raising its fees for checking accounts. Janney Montgomery Scott analyst Thomas McCrohan said last week that Visa and MasterCard, the top two debit card companies, may increase drastically increase fees on small purchases to offset the losses.

    SunTrust, a regional bank based in Atlanta, began charging a $5 debit card fee on its basic checking accounts this summer. Regions Financial, which is based in Birmingham, Ala., notified customers this summer that it will charge a $4 monthly fee starting next month.
    The Federal Reserve ruled in late June that fees for debit card purchases could not exceed 21 cents per swipe, with a small amount tacked on based on the amount of the purchase. Previously, banks and card companies charged retailers an average of 44 cents, using a formula of 1.14 percent of each transaction.

    There is no similar cap for the fees that banks can collect from merchants when customers use their credit cards, however. That means banks may increasingly encourage customers to reach for their credit cards, reversing a trend toward debit card usage in the past several years.

  8. jackyt says:

    “word fog” is just a more polite term for “bullsh*t baffles brains”.

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