Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

why I got it wrong

Obviously it’s good to admit you’re wrong when you’re wrong — because we’re all gonna be wrong, often — but it’s even better to try to understand how you went astray in the first place.

So why did I misinterpret Graeber and Wengrow’s argument? I think I did so because I have seen all too often a series of steps — steps of assumption rather than argument — by which the family is associated with patriarchy and patriarchy with tyranny and oppression, and the very familiarity of this narrative led me to assume that G&W were participating in it. "Oh, that again.” So my awareness of other people’s typical assumptions neatly turned into an assumption of my own.  

Also, even though one of the chief themes of my recent book is the necessity of taking some time before responding to anyone, I plunged right into writing that blog post without pausing to reflect. And I think I did that because I am aware of just how common the anti-family stance is among intellectuals of the past 75 years or so — I was made aware of that some years ago when I read Christopher Lasch’s brilliant (and too-little-read) Haven in a Heartless World, which convincingly traces the emergence of a dominant sociological account of the family and shows how that account eventually generated governmental policies that have done enormous damage to families and the individuals who constitute them.  

So Lasch made me aware of, and sensitive to, certain common presumptions among intellectuals in our time. And I’m glad he did. But that sensitivity made me prone to over-reading G&W's account. “Many intellectuals think this, G&W are intellectuals, therefore G&W think this.” Not my most logical, or charitable, moment. 

I think the lesson here for me is that when I hold a minority position on some issue within a given community of inquiry, and know that it is a minority position, I must remember how easy it is to attribute the majority position  to anyone in that community I happen to come across — even when there is no actual evidence that they hold it. (I emphasize communities of inquiry because a minority view in society as a whole might be a majority one within a particular community, and vice versa.) For those of us who have a good many unpopular opinions, there’s a constant temptation to make the Ah-ha! move, the gotcha move. 

Now, it may turn out that G&W do affirm the critique of the family that Lasch identifies. If they do, and if they do not convince me that that view is correct, then I may well lash them with Lasch. But I promise to wait and see — and then to think it over


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