Saturday, August 22, 2015

Rule of thumb: avoid insulting that which you have not read

None of us ever fully lives up to our standards of kindness and charity--not always, anyway.*

Last year I wrote a post titled "Polls and Desires." The topic of that piece is rather ancillary here--I was exploring the yawning gap between the conclusions we draw from polls and what polls are actually able to tell us. That reflection was inspired by a highly critical book review published in The American Conservative. In my post, I said some rather unkind things about the book under review--a book I had not read, whose contents I insulted secondhand.

You can imagine my surprise when I came home the other day to find in my inbox an email from Donald Lazere, the author of that book. Professor Lazere's email was unfailingly gracious. He has granted me permission to excerpt it here:
Your analysis of the “unmarked norms” of capitalism and consumerism was right on the mark (or the unmarked) and confirmed that this dimension of political attitudes is almost never directly addressed in either mainstream politics, media or scholarship. In fact, your arguments are much the same as mine throughout the section discussed and the rest of the book, in which I try scrupulously to counter-act the tendentiousness and false dilemmas of most polemics. 
Why, then, did you ridicule and say you didn’t intend to read the book? Weren’t you prejudging it? Why not give it a try?
After receiving his email, I went back and reread my original post. In hindsight, I'm taken aback by the strong language with which I dismissed the book in question--Why Higher Education Should Have a Leftist Bias. Of course, I'm unlikely to agree with the premise of a book with that title, and Jonathan Marks' review reinforced that presupposition.

But I had no business dismissing a book I hadn't read in such a cavalier manner. (It's probably a good rule of thumb not to dismiss anything you haven't read or seen, right?)

After I wrote my post on "Polls and Desires," Professor Lazere responded in the American Conservative to Professor Marks' review, which prompted a somewhat combative conversation between the two. In the comments of the response, I noted that, based on the book's table of contents,
I do get the sense that [Lazere's] book may have a wider range and more compelling points than Marks’ review indicated. Dr. Marks may have engaged in some caricaturing of Lazere’s book to make it seem more ridiculous.
At that point I should have amended my original post or written some kind of follow-up pointing to the discussion between Marks and Lazere. I did not do so and instead let my unfair and presumptuous characterization stand. For that I apologize to Professor Lazere.

In any case, it may be worth your time to read the full exchange--Marks' review and then Lazere's response and the ensuing discussion (which carried into the comments section). Should you find yourself interested in Professor Lazere's book but turned off by the price (which is pretty standard for academic publication these days), do know that Palgrave Macmillan will soon be publishing Why Higher Education Should Have a Leftist Bias in a (presumably more affordable) paperback edition.

*Some of us, of course, have no such standards in the first place. Those whose standards are scorn, indifference, and cruelty seem to do a better job of actualizing them.