Recently, Stephen Fry has been criticised for supporting Richard Dawkins on Twitter. For those of you who are unaware, Richard Dawkins is an atheist author who’s known pretty well online for his racism, sexism, and Islamophobia, by believers and non-believers alike. In what seems like a bit of a defence of his actions, Stephen Fry posted this on his Tumblr and linked it on his Twitter:
I wanted to talk about this because, though I responded with a comment, there’s a lot here that I want to address about the problematic nature of individualistic academia/knowledge.
For clarity’s sake, I’ll say that the way I interpret this quote and this understanding is that Kant is attempting to say that it is immature to seek wisdom and guidance of another, that “thinking for ourselves” means that we no longer seek anyone else’s input and instead we supposedly have the courage to plough trough the world ourselves. This pretty much encapsulates individualism within Eurocentric cultures and, in my opinion, is something we preach in many ways and facets through society. But ultimately, I think this line of thinking is kind of ridiculous and misguided and there are several reasons for that.
Firstly, I reject and actually despise the notion that there is something at fault with seeking the council of others. This is something that perhaps I’ve had more of a taste of as American than Stephen Fry has. It smacks of the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality that so often I see means that America will do what America wants to do, and sod anyone else’s advice. Eurocentric cultures like the US and the UK (and very likely Canada & Australia, though I can’t speak with any expertise on that) continue to promote the idea through many institutions that there is something wrong with relying on a group, that individualism is always the best course of action. It’s ironic to me that Kant things going off on your own and not asking for help is the height of maturity when in fact going off on your own without even caring about the wisdom or guidance others can provide you seems the height of teenage immaturity.
Fundamentally, this concept is flawed because it works on the premise that knowledge is something that is like an object, subjective and attainable by everyone. While I do believe that learning is something the vast majority of us have the capacity for in varying ways, I do not believe that there is one objective, true “knowledge” that we all seek in a linear fashion, that we all strive for. I believe in a duplicity of knowledge and that knowledge is something which is entrenched not only in what we learn from books, facts, and figures, but also something that we learn day to day by living in our own specific skins and privileges.
Edward Said once said that you cannot remove an individual from the circumstances of their life and their experience, which I very much agree with. And if that stands to reason, “thinking for ourselves”, or rather, refusing to recognise that others may hold a widsom and knowledge you know nothing about seems anything but courageous. We have set up a schooling system and a society where learning is marked by competitiveness, where being wrong is something to be ashamed of – despite the fact that being wrong is part and parcel of the learning process. We are all wrong at some point our lives about something, and yet, in my experience, most people feel an intense amount of shame for being “wrong” about anything. And that’s because of the tenants that lie behind Kant’s philosophy – that we all ought to go brazen into the future without the help of others, that it is somehow more brave and more honourable to not consider others and believe that you have what it takes to know everything there is to know about the world.
This is, in many ways, the backbone and crux of why privilege is so hard for people to recognise and see – especially very educated individuals. Because we have all been entrenched within a society that encourages us to be so individualistic in our approach to knowledge and understanding that we not only feel a huge amount of shame when we are wrong, despite the fact that everyone is wrong, but that we also refuse to believe that any individual, though they may experience a world of discrimination we know nothing about, other than ourselves should be sought for guidance and understanding.
Now, I recognise that what Stephen Fry is trying to say with this quote is that there is something wrong with consulting a book others claim was written by holy people and following it without question, and I agree. And I wholeheartedly support criticising people who refuse to look critically at their own religious doctrines and consider their own wrong-ness. But let’s not put ourselves under the assumption that religious people are the only ones to do this. Many individuals, so sure of their own creed, their own individualistic sense of understanding, refuse to listen to other perspectives. Even someone God-less and doctrine-less like Dawkins can still be mind-numbingling ignorant and refuse to listen to other people who experience oppressions and situations he knows nothing about. Religious people do not have a monopoly on ignorance or pig-headedness, unfortunately. And indeed it’s those individuals who have been entrenched in competitive and individualistic pedagogy and the false believe in the “objectivity” of Eurocentric cultural perspectives that believe they have nothing to learn from anyone else – not even about sexism or racism. These are the same individuals who are more skeptic about God than they are about why their circles are dominated by white men.
So, while I get what Stephen Fry’s trying to say, I hope he rethinks Kant’s philosophy. While I do believe people should be open to criticism of their beliefs, I do not believe that it is somehow better or more mature to think that there is something wrong with wisdom and guidance from another. I actively seek the wisdom and guidance of people like bell hooks, who understand aspects of life that I do not experience because of my white skin. And likewise, individuals like Dawkins would probably do better if they realised that there is no one single “objectivity” which they can possess, that the circumstances and interpretation of their knowledge has a lot to do with other factors and that they have a lot to learn, even if they know a lot.