On Paul Bali’s “How I Got Fired By The Ryerson Philosophy Department.”

A Conversation Between Robert Whyte and Z


RW: I just read Paul Bali’s “How I Got Fired By The Ryerson Philosophy Department.”

I imagine this situation is all too common and vastly under-reported; most people would be devastated, depressed and cowed and perhaps few would have resisted the process.

I wonder what was the agenda of the instigator of this affair, the de-plumed nom X? Usually people are not motivated by trivialities like the tone of a reference. People are psychological, emotional jellyfish, motivated by fear of hurtful change or greed for selfish gain. I could imagine X might have been discombobulated by a peculiar “paean” in support of a student’s application, then drawn in by a collusion of interests whose concerns about a “radical” professor were waiting for a case to catalyse action. I recall, as a radical student, my “outrageous” but essentially humorous and harmless antics at Art School were celebrated by the administrative and teaching body as an example of the nurturing of creativity and cultural comment in a progressive tertiary institution. Yes, Camelot compared to these days.

When did encouraging a student turn into grooming? Isn’t recognizing, supporting and rewarding excellence part of a teacher’s core roles and duties? Isn’t it irrelevant how a professor chooses to phrase a reference? It’s simply meant to be considered, and the panel deciding on the outcome involving that reference make their decision on the basis of what’s supplied, let the cards fall where they may. Is it permissible, ethical, or even legal to pre-empt that process?

When did celebration of individuality switch to fear of non-conformism? It seems like a big change all of a sudden. I don’t recall anyone mentioned a meeting where we all decided on this.

I worry that this insistence on obedience to an undefined standard of proper behaviour is a purge of once-acceptable radicalism and eccentricity, and indicative not of personal attacks but a purge of free thinking. It presses all within the academy into service for the administration, and makes them oppressors and enforcers of chimeric standards which lead inevitably to obedience for its own sake.

What I am realising in my wizened wisdom and late realisations is that there is good and bad in everyone. It’s often good to “behave” if it’s in the interests of the individuals and the group. It’s not so good if the prevailing culture is confused, dysfunctional, driven by fear, survival or greed, or corrupt. It’s human nature to “fit in” and if a teaching body becomes complicit in reining in freedoms, it turns its professors into prison guards. Punishment for nonconformity becomes the norm, and intolerance a justifiable pragmatism. It’s not going to end well.

Z: I completely agree.

I wonder what is really at the heart of this?

Either the Xs of this world have gone completely mad in their addiction to coercive moralism, which in-&-of-itself would only hurt themselves, by messing up their souls but also fucking up other people’s lives, to their own persistent shame; or are they also victims, swept up by the confused zeal of self-policing?

RW: You argue in your forthcoming book The Mind-Body Politic (co-authored with Michelle Maiese, Palgrave Macmillan, July 2019) that the ideas, attitudes, and practices realized in social institutions literally shape our essentially embodied minds, often without any self-conscious awareness.

Z: Yes. Over time, as essentially embodied minds and rational agents, we gain a feel for the “rules of the game” associated with various social contexts and deepen our understanding of how we are expected to behave.

As institutions evolve, however, they can all-too-easily spiral downwards into reactionary conservatism, coercive authoritarianism, and coercive moralism.

The “new normal” is one of fearfulness, self-protection, addiction to coercive power, and lashing out at perceived enemies inside or outside that social institution, the Others.

If you combine that with self-policing, you get self-fueling collectively sociopathic social institutions–a world filled with Islands of Lost Souls, replete with governmental or administrative clones of Dr Moreau, and their Houses of Pain for vivisecting the Others, as per the embedded video at the top of this conversation.

RW: Were there ever constructive, enabling social institutions that naturally cultivated our capacities for autonomy and empathy, with the capacity to radically liberate us? Or did they just suit us better in our day and now the shoe is on the other foot?

Z: No, emancipatory social institutions were possible and still are.

But they require the guidance of universal ethical principles that require sufficient respect for human dignity to prevent us treating anyone, including ourselves, either as mere instrumental means to self-interested ends or as mere things, hence as non-persons.

This seems to be what has happened to Paul Bali here.

In X’s misplaced, fear-driven zeal for detecting and calling out imagined “transgressional behavior,” Paul has been treated as a non-person, an Other, “half-beast, half-man.”

It is possible what happened is a calculated evil strategy, but more likely it’s the distracted mistake of a confused, fearful, fucked-up person.

This and the rest can be seen as the collective sociopathy of many or even most social institutions in the modern world–Islands of Lost Souls–that literally shape our minds and lives in individually and collectively destructive ways that produce seriously-diminished capacities for autonomous rational agency.

RW: OK, to advocate devil-wise in another way, isn’t it possible that the principles of emancipatory social institutions are just another form of collective sociopathy that we happen to like better?

Z: I don’t think so. For this to be true, not only would the social institution have to be an evil Trojan horse, it would also have to secretly fail all the safeguards for emancipatory practice.

To get to reactionary conservatism, coercive authoritarianism, and coercive moralism from emancipatory principles defies Occam’s Razor, entropy, and the laws of logic that guide conceptual analysis, all at the same time.

RW: If it’s so easy for social institutions to become collectively sociopathic, then what can we do?

Z: We can maintain a critical consciousness about ourselves and our basic relationships to social institutions; a cognitive and practical resistance to destructive, deforming institutions; and a radically enlightened self-education.

RW: Whoa! So, in effect, peace, love, understanding, daring to think for ourselves– Sapere aude!–daring to act for ourselves, and borderless philosophy?

Z: Exactly. I mean, in essentially embodied terms, just like this —



Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Saturday 15 June 2019

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Mr Nemo

Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.