Meet ‘Most People’

Posted on November 12, 2018 by

We often talk about the need for diversity in philosophy in general, but we also need diversity in our lives. (I know it sounds corny, hear me out.) What I mean is that it’s important to have friends and acquaintances from diverse backgrounds and with varying perspectives. This is important when doing research, thinking about social issues, or discussing political issues.

What I particularly want to emphasize is interacting with non-academics. Yes, it’s important to know people with different ethnic or cultural backgrounds; people with different genders and sexual orientations; and people with different physical and metal capacities. BUT, if most or all of the people you interact with regularly you met through a university, you’re only experiencing a very small subsection of your community. It’s a very particular sort of person who decides to go to grad school, or even has the opportunity.

Sometimes in writing, and often in conversion with other academics, we says things like ‘most people believe X’ or ‘most people could do Y’ (yes, I do this too). Have you met ‘most people’? It may be that, when pressed, ‘most people’ will ascent to X, or easily learn (to) Y, but ‘most people’, in my experience, haven’t given much thought to the question of whether numbers exist (say), and nor do they particularly care. This is not to say that I haven’t had many spirited discussions with non-academic friends about abstract philosophical issues, only that people think deeply about different things, in different ways, and for different reasons.

What this comes down to, at least in part, is the difference between reading about things, and experiencing them (even second hand).

It’s one thing to read accounts of how life is for people living at the poverty line, or dealing with discrimination of one kind or other, it’s another to live those lives. To put it another way, understanding the issues faced by various (groups of) people, and understanding how those people understand the those issues and view the world, are often very different things. And it’s important to remember that most people are ‘most people’, and that includes your students.

People have different knowledge bases, experiences and priorities. These should be embraced; people should not be dismissed because they haven’t read or engaged with ‘foundational’ or ‘central’ authors or theories. You don’t need to have read Cornell West to understand discrimination in America, especially if you have been the target of that discrimination.

This brings me to my core point: Hang out with non-academics. A variety of them.

You may be surprised by the new perspectives you gain in doing so. Of course the key here is not just to meet people from a variety of backgrounds, but to listen to them. Philoso-splaining Beauvoir to a woman you met at a party may may make you feel knowledgeable or even helpful, but the opportunity to integrate a better understanding of women’s experiences into your understanding of feminist theory will be more valuable in the long run. Perhaps more importantly, understanding other peoples experiences first hand may help your students better understand and relate to the theoretical material you teach them.

Ultimately I think that the most fruitful approach to philosophical issues that intersect with societal and political issues (especially) will come from a combination of different perspectives. There is immense value to developing a deep understanding of core concepts and their interrelations, but it is also incredibly important to listen to people who have directly experienced the phenomena we care about. If academics and non-academics can work together, we’ll may find ourselves doing more good than we otherwise could have.

Since there are structural reasons that make it difficult for for certain voices and certain kinds of stories to be heard — by students, by the public, or by academics — by engaging with non-academics, academics can help the bring those voices and stories into the broader narrative.

There’s a hidden personal benefit to all of this too: making non-academic friends can help bring balance to you life, and help you relax and stop thinking about work for a while.

This blog post is a small example of the sort of collaboration I’m encouraging here — it is the product of lots of interesting and productive discussions with Acacia Morales (who’s not an academic). Thanks Acacia!