Anti-Intellectualism vs. Accessibility: Who's a Part of the Conversation?

This week, my Ethics professor assigned us a section from Judith Butler’s Undoing Gender. Though it’s week nine of the quarter and I’ve read my fair share of dense texts (from Kant to bell hooks), this one could’ve been the one that finally killed me.

If you haven’t heard of her, Butler is a queer and feminist theorist. According to my professor, she’s one of the world’s most famous living philosophers. Her work is renowned as feminist Canon and every real academic has read Undoing Gender. Here’s a passage from the section we read:

“Here I contravene Foucault in some respects. For if the Foucaultian wisdom seems to consist in the insight that regulatory power has certain broad historical characteristics, and that it operates on gender as well as on other kinds of social and cultural norms, then it seems that gender is but the instance of a larger regulatory operation of power. I would argue against this subsumption of gender to regulatory power that the regulatory apparatus that governs gender is one that is itself gender-specific.”

After an hour and a half of muddling through this passage (and other passages like it) my class determined that this means that gender is not something you’re born with, but something you develop through social interactions. It’s a dense text, to say the least. This continues on for pages and pages without many breaks or asides from the academic language. Sure, it didn’t help that I started my reading a little later than I should have, but even now as I turn those words over in my head, it’s a long process to decode the complex language in the text. Though I have a very general understanding of the text, I don’t think I’ll ever have the brainpower it takes to fully decipher the meaning.

The next day in class, as we discussed the meanings of important terms and themes, a couple of us wondered if this text posed a question of accessibility. With terms like “Foucaultian wisdom” and “regulatory power” infused with such an essential idea of gender identity, are we leaving behind the people who don’t have access to this language? While Judith Butler is praised for her work in understanding the dimensions of gender, many who don’t have access to higher education (and even some who do) won’t be able to join the conversation because of the academic language.

My professor, however, pushed back. While, no, not everyone can immediately follow the language, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying to understand. Judith Butler speaks at multiple levels of complexities, from colloquial to scholarly. Sure, it’s an issue of accessibility but we––as university students––have access to these high-level texts. Refusing to attempt to uncover meaning in these texts can fall into the idea of anti-intellectualism.

Of course, this made me stop and think. Nobody wants to be called an “anti-intellectual.” I associate the word not only with someone who is, well, not intellectual but also with the populist movement. The word carries the weight of fascism and has elected dictators in the past. Rejecting scholars isn’t the only reason we’ve had regressive regimes, but I suppose it was part of the problem. I still didn’t think I was totally wrong, but it did make me challenge my thinking.

My professor directed me toward a section of queer theorist Eve Sedgwick that dealt with the idea of anti-intellectualism. In her book Tendencies, Sedgwick explains:

"It's hard to tell which assumption is more insultingly wrong: that the people (always considered, of course, as a monolithic unit) have no need and no faculty for engaging with work that is untransparent; or that the work most genuinely expressive of the people would be so univocal and limpidly vacant as quite to obviate the labors and pleasures of interpretation.”

This is something I hadn’t considered. By advocating for the inclusion of marginalized groups, did I jump to the conclusion that these groups were incapable of comprehending high-level texts? Though not immediately clear, these groups (who are most highly at risk) might be just as willing to dive into texts as any scholar––their lives could depend on it.

Furthermore, concepts concerning gender identity and intersectionality (though not necessarily born in the academic community) were legitimized by the constant and thorough work of black, brown and/or queer theorists. Without the presence of theorists from all backgrounds, we are left with white men shouting into the void and dictating what will be read by students and the general “educated” public. Representation matters, even if the system of academia still favors the dominant group.

I don’t think I was fully wrong to be skeptical, though.

The idea of gender, for example, impacts everyone. Judith Butler’s notion of gender is that it is learned through a social process––we aren’t born with it one way or another. I hadn’t heard many of the high-level terms she used, but I have heard of this idea. Maybe I wouldn’t want this on a résumé, but I was taught to deconstruct the way I saw gender through Twitter and other forms of social media. Trans activists used the platform to explain in simple language the idea of being transgender and how gender is a construct. Though I like to think I’m fairly open-minded, I don’t think I would’ve grasped this concept through scholarly articles alone; I needed to make the connections in real life.

Academia has a way of putting up walls between the reader and the real world. Through annotating, asking questions, and vigorous research, I can deconstruct these ideas. But topics like gender (as well as race and sexual orientation) are intimately ingrained in the human experience. Though I see the value in struggling through a text, every person should be allowed the tools to understand their gender identity. Even a person who is unable (or unwilling) to comprehend scholarly works should have the means to take ownership of their gender.

We all could be doing more. As someone who has access to these texts and the means to understand them (in theory at least), it is my job to struggle through dense works like Judith Butler’s Undoing Gender. Though it might cause a headache or two, these scholarly ideas––especially coming from philosophers from marginalized backgrounds––are essential to progress. Giving up because I don’t immediately understand something is succumbing to populism. I am capable of understanding, so I should make an effort.

Theorists, on the other hand, have the responsibility to speak to people of all levels of education. Having conversations solely with other people they deem worthy won’t provide the desired change. We must continue to think about complex topics and continue to make them more accessible to people from all walks of life.