The “Academic We” again

From a brief interview with Martha Nussbaum on The Nation‘s website.  Speaking of various things people say when they are trying to come up with arguments against same-sex marriage, Nussbaum says:

Then there’s finally the argument that legalizing same-sex marriage will degrade or defile straight marriage. What’s that about? It looks something like the claim that admitting all these baseball players who use steroids to the Hall of Fame would degrade the achievements of the genuine competitors. It taints the achievement. But what can that be about? We don’t think that heterosexuals who are flaky, silly or awful, Britney Spears marrying on a whim and then divorcing almost immediately, we don’t think that that taints the institution of heterosexual marriage.

I share Nussbaum’s puzzlement that opponents of same-sex marriage have offered such a poor array of arguments to defend their stand.  You’d think that with all the financial and political resources on their side they might have come up with something that at least took some work to disprove, yet what they’ve come up with is simply preposterous.  My quarrel is not with Nussbaum’s position on this issue, but with the last sentence of the section I’ve quoted. 

That sentence here features what I like to call “the Academic We.”  I suppose everyone is familiar with the Royal “We“, first-person plural pronouns monarchs use to refer to themselves when they are speaking in their official capacity.  And there is the Editorial “We,”  which editorialists use when expressing the official position of their publications.  In a case of the Academic “We,” a college professor uses first person plural pronouns when characterizing the current state of knowledge or opinion among some unspecified group of people. 

Who exactly is in Nussbaum’s “we”?  Nussbaum gives so little detail about Britney Spears and her marriage that it is clear she expects the reader to know who Britney Spears is and to know the story of her marriage.  Moreover, her flat conjunction of  the words “silly, flaky, or awful” with her reference to Spears shows that she does not expect to hear from anyone who approves of what Spears did.  If everyone can be expected to know a story and no one can be expected to defend the behavior of one figure in it, clearly that story must have some moral force in the community where it is told.  To me, it would seem that the likeliest moral for a story in which a person who takes marriage lightly is represented as “silly, flaky, or awful” is that taking marriage lightly is an abuse of a valuable institution. 

Nussbaum says that when we hear arguments about institutions being debased, “We can’t understand what’s being said without going back to some kind of magical idea about stigma or taint.”  While the antigay statements Nussbaum is considering may well be examples of magical thinking, no such thinking is on display in the debate about whether to include steroid users and other notorious cheaters in the  Baseball Hall of Fame.   To people who respect baseball and who see their values reflected in its rules, excellence in baseball can be a point of pride or a source of legends.  To those for whom baseball is a foolish activity and who find its rules alien to their culture, excellence in baseball will count for nothing.  Therefore, to admit known juicers to the Hall of Fame is to cheapen the achievements of clean players. 

Baseball is a very strange example for Nussbaum to choose to illustrate her point.  One might say that there are actions that have value in themselves, apart from any particular social institution.  Perhaps the creation of a monogamous sexual relationship between people who share property and a common social identity may be such an action.  Maybe there’s something inherent in the nature of things that ordains such relationships as a telos of human virtue.  In that case, even if the people who enact such a relationship are entirely isolated from any broader community, a self-sufficient entity called “honor” might still inhere in it.  Hey, for all I know, that could be true. 

But I do know that no action performed in a baseball game is of any value apart from the rules, traditions, and social standing of baseball.  The honor that baseball players earn is solely a function of baseball as an institution.   A swing of the bat that sends a ball to one side of the foul line may be an achievement; a swing that sends it to the other side is not.  Had the institution of baseball evolved to draw the line in a different place, swings that now mean nothing would become the stuff of legend, while swings that made history would have passed unnoticed.  Indeed, the idea that honor could inhere in the achievements of Satchel Paige or Babe Ruth even in a society where the institution of baseball had lost its moral salience is a pure example of magical thinking.

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  1. Baseball and marriage aside, my least favorite academy- speak phrase is “the ways in which.” God how I hate that. What’s wrong with saying “how.” Why use four words when one is perfectly adequate?

  2. acilius

     /  March 5, 2010

    At this point in time, I deem it necessary to task myself with the operationalizing objective to deaccession the phrase “the ways in which” from my working vocabulary.

  3. Lead the way, brother.

  4. lefalcon

     /  March 7, 2010

    I cannot adequately express the various ways in which I detest that phrase.

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