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Refusing to learn
In defence of discourse
One of the accusations frequently leveraged at me is that I have been given ample opportunities to learn, and I have refused to learn. If you’ve spent much time in online, identitarian, “social justice” world, you will be familiar with this accusation. There is a lot of emphasis in “social justice” culture on learning. We are told to educate ourselves. We are told that it’s not other people’s job to educate us. We are told to listen to the voices of various marginalized identity groups, and it is implied that through this listening, we will learn. We are “gently reminded” about the correct way to think about things and the correct way to behave. A “call in” is an opportunity to learn. To be “called in” is a generous act, a belief in our ability to do better, and far better than the alternative — the “call out.” It’s an act of love. Accountability is an opportunity to learn and we should humble ourselves before the generous benefactors who hold us accountable because remember — it’s not their job to educate us.
I can’t count the number of people who have been up in my dms generously offering to educate me. I can’t count the number of call out posts that have declared with perplexed anger that I have, again and again, refused to learn. It seems to me that these people can’t imagine that I have already listened at length to their perspectives, have understood them thoroughly, and actually sincerely disagree. This way of understanding “learning” that has become so common within “social justice” culture is actually fundamentally at odds with everything I consider to be essential to learning, critical thinking, discourse, and the development of ideas. This framing of learning imagines the learner as a passive participant who humbly receives the correct knowledge from the authorities who know. Learning is framed not as curiosity, collaboration, innovation, or creativity, but as the memorization and recitation of the correct “takes.”
It is often stated or implied that these correct takes flow directly from the lived experience of marginalized identity groups and are therefore permanently outside the realm of debate, discussion, or disagreement. The fantasy that marginalized identity groups have unified perspectives has a very strong hold in “social justice” culture. This dehumanizing and condescending fantasy erases political differences and class affiliations within marginalized identity groups. It also implies that marginalized people can’t be intellectuals producing knowledge — their knowledge in this fantasy comes from their lived experience alone, not from their careful consideration of ideas. Members of these identity groups who hold dissident views are ignored, censored, and condescended to. Those not in the identity group who hold dissident views are framed as “refusing to learn” probably due to their fragility or their sense of supremacy. Definitely not because they’ve thought carefully about the ideas, thought carefully about ideas outside of “social justice” orthodoxy as well, and come to their own conclusions.
This passive relationship to learning promoted and enforced in “social justice” culture stifles critical and creative thinking. People passively consume ideas from social media, infographics, listicles, and popular identitarian books, all of which state variations on the same shallow “takes.” People feel like they are responsible political actors because they have memorized the current popular “takes” in “social justice” culture and even feel confident “letting people know.” Any thinkers who come to different conclusions or even ask open ended questions are treated with suspicion or are outright condemned. Learning isn’t about asking open ended questions in this framework, and it certainly isn’t about trying to come to our own conclusions about complex social and political questions. We have become passive consumers of ideas just like we are passive consumers of the endless products capitalism encourages us to pacify ourselves with. We don’t think of ourselves as competent, creative participants in shaping ideas and coming up with solutions to the many pressing problems facing humanity today. Learning isn’t about becoming responsible for our own capacity to think deeply and carefully. It’s about accepting what we are told.
This relationship to learning is disempowering and creates passive consumers rather than engaged participants. This relationship to learning prevents people from feeling responsible for the current state of the world. We no longer believe that we personally could be part of coming up with entirely new ways of thinking about things or doing things. We repeat the doctrine that it isn’t our place to come up with solutions; we must constantly defer to those more marginalized than ourselves, the holders of the sacred “truth.” This relationship to learning mirrors the way the school system teaches children. How many of us remember asking questions of teachers and other authority figures to be answered with “because I said so”? How many of us remember the open ended insatiable curiosity of our youth be crushed into accepting what we are told. “Social justice” culture differentiates itself from other types of authoritarianism by saying that, in this case, it is marginalized people who have been lifted to the position of authority, and so therefore, whatever flows from this arrangement will be liberatory. This is obviously false because 1) it erases political differences and class affiliations within marginalized groups and ignores the reality that people who experience marginalization can also put forth ideas that are oppressive and authoritarian and 2) because it reproduces authoritarianism in its structure and authoritarianism is never liberatory, no matter who is in charge.
Do you read things with an eye for whether it’s “right” or “wrong” or do you approach with open ended curiosity and try to understand what the author is saying before deciding whether or not you agree? When you read something do you feel called to assess its morality, to either co-sign it or denounce it? Do you feel confident in your own capacity to assess ideas? Do you feel entitled to assess ideas? Do you feel excited about ideas? Do you love to linger and think about things at length? Do seemingly contradictory ideas upset you or do you feel called by the generative tension in the contradictions to ask even deeper questions? Do you stay with ideas for any length of time or do you skim and immediately leave a comment “letting the author know” that their ideas are problematic or harmful? Are you threatened by ideas that fall outside of what you have been told is correct? Do you assume that a writer would only ask questions or present different views points because they are secretly supremacist or deeply fragile? Do you assume that writers who try to tackle complicated social and political questions from new angles are grifters stoking controversy for profit? Has your attention span been deeply eroded by social media use? Does this upset you? Do you read books? Where do you get your ideas? When you disagree with something do you feel called to express why or do you try to get the person you disagree with to retract what they said?
Discourse is serious, engaged thinking, discussion, and debate. Discourse is the flow of ideas between intellectuals, scholars, artists, and engaged citizens. Discourse is not a series of “correct takes.” Discourse does not attempt to shut down dissenting views but sees disagreement as inherently generative. Discourse happens when people feel entitled to disagree, when people feel responsible for their own thinking, when people feel like they have something specific and unique to offer to the flow of ideas. Discourse happens when people are creatively and critically engaged, when they feel curious and excited about ideas, when they feel encouraged and allowed to contribute. Discourse is not solely the purview of the wealthy or educated. There is a long and rich history of working class discourse. Complex, serious, and important ideas are generated by regular working people all the time, and this is something we should encourage not punish or deny.
Slandering dissenting thinkers who challenge or stray from “social justice” orthodoxy as harmful, violent, is bigoted is an absolute refusal to engage in discourse. If you disagree with someone’s ideas, it is an opportunity to think deeply about why you disagree, to sharpen your own ideas, and find ways of effectively expressing your disagreement. Engaging deeply and seriously with ideas we disagree with is an important part of discourse. This work can transform our thinking. It can bring us closer to the ideas of the thinker we initially disagreed with because we are spurred to question and think more closely about our own ideas. It can bring us away from the ideas of the thinker we disagree with by deepening and sharpening our own thinking and becoming better at articulating our disagreement. It can even take us in an entirely new directions, by finding some hybrid or synthesis of our ideas and their ideas, or by causing us to ask entirely new questions that lead us in new directions.
There are those who resist discourse by arguing that political questions are not an intellectual game; they are matters of serious material importance, sometimes even questions of life and death. These people retreat to the safety of memorizing and repeating “takes.” They put their faith in the idea that the correct “takes” really are correct and will therefore liberate us from violence and oppression. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be true. If it were true that we have already arrived at the correct answers to the many serious political problems we face, then we would likely have come closer to solving those problems. As it stands, we are in bad shape. A great many people do not have their basic needs met. A great many people experience violence and dehumanization. The cost of living is increasing. Our felt sense of alienation and disconnection is increasing. Extreme weather events are increasing. We have a lot of very serious problems, and serious problems require creative, innovative, and serious thinking to find solutions.
Because we no longer engage in discourse, and instead practice repeating simple “takes”, educating each other about these “takes”, and slandering people who challenge these “takes”, we feel very threatened by innovative, dissident, creative, or unusual thinking. Many of us no longer know how to relate to ideas beyond passively “learning” the “right” ones or condemning the “wrong” ones as “violent.” We don’t know how to think deeply and at length, how to listen carefully and with curiosity, how to pay sustained attention, how to wonder, or how to ask generative questions. We are all definitely capable of developing these skills, and in fact, I believe our retreat from these practices contributes to our deeply felt sense of alienation and dissatisfaction with our lives. Our despair is in part derived from our lack of participation. Since we no longer participate in discourse we no longer feel we have the capacity to be part of the solving of the many problems facing humanity. This feels really bad. As a species I believe that human beings are problem solvers. I believe we have a deep need to be curious and engaged, and I believe that repressing these needs makes us profoundly unhappy while also blocking our best bet at getting out of the mess we are in.
A huge amount of what people now consider to be political action is actually censorship, the promoting of conformity, and the punishment of dissident thinking. Because we have become so unskilled at sincerely engaging with and considering ideas, we react to ideas outside the “social justice” orthodoxy as necessarily violent, oppressive, harmful, bigoted, supremacist, or right wing. A lot of self defined leftists, anarchists, and anti-oppressive activists are in favour of using threats, slander, social pressure, and intimidation to silence unorthodox and dissenting thinking, even when that thinking is explicitly leftist and in favour of the liberation, rights, and dignity of all human beings. I had my tires slashed and shit poured on my car for publicly challenging cancel culture. The people who did this feel so confident that their views are correct and mine are violent that they physically damaged my personal property to attempt to scare me into not speaking. I have received threats to my physical safety, threats on my life, and a huge amount dehumanizing and disrespectful harassment for being a principled and dissident thinker on the left. It is insane to me that these people can convince themselves that they are the ones in favour of liberation and anti-oppression as they attempt to squash discourse and produce conformity through harassment and threats.
I don’t need you to agree with me. I don’t even want you to agree with me. What I want more than anything, is for you to become empowered in your own capacity to think deeply and carefully, and to contribute your own unique thinking to the discourse. I want you to listen and read at length, not to passively “learn”, but to give you many new perspectives to think with. I want you to discuss ideas at length, not in the sense of leaving “call ins” in comments sections, but in the sense of talking to the people in your life about ideas, not to “educate” each other but to think together. I want you to read books and other long form writing, to take back your attention from the prison of surveillance capitalism, and to find your way into lineages of thought. I want you to find thinkers who you deeply respect who disagree with each other and to see what happens for you when you enter into the space of their disagreement. I want you to wonder what we should do about climate change. I want you to ask yourself why so many people are suffering. I want you to be curious about the historical and material conditions that produce the current situation we find ourselves in. I want you to engage seriously with thinkers who have very different backgrounds from yourself, who come from different parts of the world and different time periods in history, who come from different cultures, different frameworks, and different political affiliations. I want you to explore and to trust yourself to think carefully about all of this.
I want you to share your ideas. We live in a time when it is easier than ever to share your ideas with a wide audience. You can share them on social media. You can create your own substack like this one. You can write zines. You can submit your writing to publications. You can create a book club to discuss books you’re reading. You can have dinner parties and have serious political discussion over the dinner table. You can write book reviews. You can start a podcast. You can make posters and put them up in your city. You can make art. You can get involved with organizing and contribute to the shaping of political strategy. I don’t care what form your expression takes. I just want you to feel empowered to be an engaged and responsible participant in the world, not a passive consumer of correct “takes.”
Refuse to learn. Start thinking instead.
Clementine Morrigan is a socialist-feminist writer, educator, and public intellectual based in Montréal, Canada. She writes popular and controversial essays about culture, politics, sexuality, and trauma. A passionate believer in independent media, she’s been making zines since the year 2000 and is the author of several books. She’s known for her iconic white-text-on-a-black-background mini-essays on Instagram. One of the leading voices on the Canadian Left and one half of the Fucking Cancelled podcast, Clementine is an outspoken critic of cancel culture and proponent of building solidarity across difference.
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