View from Rue Saint-Georges

Step Aside

Do we really want to live in a society where credentials don’t matter?

By Thomas Chatterton Williams | July 10, 2019
Flickr/Angie Garrett
Flickr/Angie Garrett

Last weekend, in a New York Times op-ed titled “The Dominance of the White Male Critic,” Elizabeth Méndez Berry and Chi-hui Yang, executives at two prominent philanthropic foundations, made the persuasive case that our nation’s mainstream discourse around art and culture is in need of far greater diversification. The argument seems to me unobjectionable, especially if by diversity we mean a variety of thought and perspectives as well as identity markers—if we are seeking to hear the voices of minorities-within-minorities, so to speak.

But toward the end of the essay, they made a further suggestion. “Old-school white critics,” they wrote, “ought to step aside and make room for the emerging and the fully emerged writers of color who have been holding court in small publications and online for years.” This is an extraordinary thing to ask. Who—regardless of their ascribed identity category—would willingly stop working and “step aside” so that a representative of some other identity group could take their place? On a practical level, how would that work? On an existential level, even if someone could (and would) simply resign and donate their office and column space to you, would it not be beyond demoralizing to receive your position this way?

Such questions are beside the point. “We need a rigorous, rollicking culture coverage that’s uncoupled from class and credentials,” the authors continued. This is part of the move toward what the economist Glenn Loury has termed “identity epistemology,” which holds that it’s of little consequence how one secures the position because a universal or transcendentally human perspective is impossible to begin with. Credentials, then, like critical authority, are foremost a matter of identity.

I’m not sure what the perfect diversity solution will be, but one thing is clear: should such a cynical vision of critical discourse (and human nature and possibility) ever really be obtained, access to the conversation will hardly be worth fighting for in the first place.

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