I’m just about to assign a bunch of difficult readings to my ENVS 350 Environmental Theory students, and considering how to advise them to read theory. What I immediately recall is a series of experiences I had with a student last spring, whose response to basically every reading we did in class was “Why should we have to read white men all the time?” This student (anecdotally a white man like me) both had it totally right and totally wrong, and I want to explain why, and suggest an alternative, here.
What he had right: theory should expose us to ideas we have never considered, ideas that not only inspire but rattle us, confuse us, until we mentally sweat it out and finally figure out what they are saying and realize that our world has just expanded a bit. This doesn’t happen if you read the same stuff, over and over. That’s one big reason I teach theory, launched the EcoTypes initiative, and otherwise am known as a bit of an environmental provocateur: environmental studies can all too readily succumb to groupthink if we are not constantly engaged across difference.
But what he had wrong was that difference is solely a demographic thing, e.g., it can be reduced to one’s race/ethnicity and gender orientation. He is not alone, and in fact this problem is widespread across the political left and right these days. Another word for it is distrust: you look like such and such, so I won’t listen to you. It’s just that the left and the right distrust a different demographic—say, white men vs. educated women. We shoot the messenger before listening to the message.
Here’s an example: what would environmentalism of the global South look like? To progressive environmentalists, it may involve resistance to the hegemonic North, such as the Chipko movement in India where (according to the standard telling of the story) women led the fight against capitalist destruction of nature. But to think that Indian environmentalism is one thing would be a grave error: witness for instance the longtime spat between Ramachandra Guha and Arundhati Roy, or Siddhartha Shome’s re-telling of the Chipko story—and critique of Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva. Clearly, Indian environmentalists don’t all think the same. Nor do white men. Nor any other demographic, for that matter. So difference cannot necessarily be achieved simply via some sort of salutary demographic mix.
If reading theory optimally involves engaging across difference to encounter ideas we’ve never considered, how then shall we do this? I’ll offer a few brief suggestions:
- Be aware of your baggage. You may be right in your beliefs, or you may be wrong, but you generally will gravitate toward ideas that resonate with those you already have; this is one manifestation of confirmation bias. Our students do this via their EcoTypes survey results.
- Go ahead, challenge yourself. You will grow far more in your intellectual frameworks and your ability to grasp theory if you deliberately take the chilly plunge into ideas that sound foreign, annoying, or downright despicable to you. (These may, or may not, come from a demographic unlike yours.)
- Get help in finding the pearls. One problem is that there is a lot of bad literature and half-baked ideas out there. Ask several specialists for advice—anticipating that they will all make different recommendations. (Vive la différance!) This will make your search for challenging literature more efficient.
- Don’t get lost in the weeds. People who write theory generally don’t write well. They get lost in their ideas, and you will too. Ask yourself: what is the basic point they are making? Most of us don’t have too much to say, actually; we just say it in lots of different ways. Try and find the nugget at the heart of what you are reading.
- Build frameworks to situate what you read. As you read more and more theory, you’ll start to notice patterns. These are often summarized into isms by theorists, say, postcolonialism or positivism. Pay attention to these (always imperfect and overgeneralized) isms, as they may help you get started in not just understanding a reading, but comparing it to others, and ultimately in developing an ecosystem of ideas in which any new idea you encounter can find its place.
Remember that thinking is hard. Just Google brain energy and you’ll see. Reading theory hurts—until it feels great when you’ve finally made a huge ideas breakthrough. It’s just like running, practicing your musical instrument, or anything else of value. Keep it up!
—Featured image: The Theory of Tablet Orientation Relativity.