Monday, September 16, 2013

I Am Clicheoclast, Hear Me Roar

LISA: You shouldn't make generalizations about people who live in places you've never been.

BART: Yeah, Dad. That's what they do in Russia.

Ah, if only the problem were limited to places people have never been. A story has hit concerning 2 Russians in their 20's arguing about Kant, an argument which escalated from words to fists to gunfire.

Predictably, and sadly, some people are responding to the story with cliches, such as: "This would never happen in the US, because you'd have to search far and wide before finding 2 Americans in their 20's who know who Kant is."

Not if you searched in university philosophy departments, that much is certain.

But of course you wouldn't have to resort to going to the nearest university.

It's typical -- sadly typical -- that such remarks are routinely made in the midst of Americans who are not asking questions such as, "Who is Kant?" because they already know who Kant is, but that doesn't stop the people who are delivering the cliches from considering themselves to be wise, nor does it stop many many people -- Americans, mostly -- from chiming in and agreeing, and somehow failing to see, although it's hard to see how anything could be much clearer, that they themselves are a refutation of the cliches with which they are agreeing.

Sadly typical as well is how few people seem to grasp that this particular cliche about Americans never having heard of Kant is nonsense. So far I've seen just one person challenge it. Me.

This is a particularly striking example of the power of cliches to blind people and switch their brains off.

PS: There may be one way in which Russians actually have an advantage over Americans when it comes to studying Kant, a significant advantage: it may be that more Russians than Americans have read Kant untranslated. That's just a guess on my part, but it rests partly on the sad fact that the cliche about proud smug American monoligualism is not entirely unfounded, and partly on the rather large physical presence of German scholars in Russia going back to before Kant's time, and a correspondingly large knowledge of the German language among Russian academics. And, well, #3: Karl Marx.

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