In a famous passage from the book Microcosmographia Academia, the anonymous author points out that, ‘there is only one argument for doing something, the rest are arguments for doing nothing.’ Arguments for doing nothing are commonplace in politics. They are a specialty of reactionaries and conservatives, but are also found across the political spectrum. They are often heard from non-political bodies such as universities and media organisations, particularly when that body is being criticised online.
In recent years an especially insidious argument for doing nothing has been appearing across Twitter timelines. It occurs whenever an institution is criticized for being classist or racist in its admissions policy. This is typically due to the publication of statistics that display an institution is favouring people of high class or ethnically white backgrounds. A critic will point out that this is wrong, that these prestigious schools, magazines, reviews, etc., should do more to tackle the issue, and that they are currently unwelcoming to disadvantaged groups.
A member of said institution will then respond to the critic, and say that efforts are in fact already being taken (ones that the critic is not aware of apparently). The defender will then point out, and this is the real innovation in the argument for doing nothing, that by being critical the critic is actually worsening the problem of privilege, because ‘you are discouraging individuals who are from said disadvantaged backgrounds from applying.’
Forms of this argument have existed for a long time. It is famously captured by a GIF of Marge Simpson remarking, ‘it’s true, but he shouldn’t say it’. This argument is an interesting defence of elite institutions, for it accepts social mobility and anti-elitism as a premise. The charge made towards critics is that such critics are harming the shared goal of changing the un-representative and privileged character of elite institutions.
The argument also maintains the posture of effortless superiority that is crucial to the survival of the establishment. It allows the defender to assume a lofty posture; ‘we are already taking measures, and in difficult circumstances, and our effort isn’t helped by the snide sniping of certain critics.’ It is telling that the things being done are rarely specified. This is not because there is nothing at all being done, but rather because the methods employed are usually not adequate, and on a subconscious level the person making the defence is aware that their policies will not be received well by the general public. The posture simply implies privileged knowledge, and that critics are under-informed or sour outsiders. These are classic establishment tropes dressed up with the garnish of social mobility.
What I find especially insidious about this argument is how it inverts moral responsibility. The institution that is failing to be fair in its admissions manages to escape blame. The argument implies that the person really at fault is the one making the criticism. They are outside the system; they do not understand it and they’re actually harming the cause of social mobility. It is a quite ingenious rhetorical strategy for defenders of elite institutions to adopt. They become the ones who are really doing something, critics are doing worse than nothing; ergo the elite institution itself is really the praiseworthy body.
I see no evidence that this particular argument for doing nothing is correct. I think that ambitious and talented people of disadvantaged backgrounds are going to try hard to enter elite institutions no matter what. I think that they understand how difficult it is to enter these schools and jobs, but are determined to try anyway. I think the real issue is the many social and economic disadvantages placed in their way. To be sure, media and educational institutions do not create these inequalities by themselves, but they do play a part in perpetuating them.
The critic of the institution is not asking for no one to apply to it, and they’re not insinuating that those do who apply are in some way evil class or race traitors. To draw a connection between criticism and the unfair nature of admissions (i.e the thing being bloody criticised), is an absurd piece of moral reasoning.
Even if we accept the highly dubious premise of the argument, that being critical of unfair admissions discourages some people from applying, it does not follow from this that one ought not to be critical. Criticism is a method of achieving social change. Institutions like magazines or universities, particularly those with a large amount of social capital and a good reputation, care about what people think of them. Criticism online, on Twitter, in magazine columns, hopefully even in blogs, can move powerful institutions to make change. The critic is attempting to push an institution to take more effective action. It is therefore not at all morally unreasonable to accept a short-term decline in the number of disadvantaged people who apply these institutions, if the end result will be a longer-lasting and more broad -reaching change in the conduct of the elite.
The mechanisms by which elites propagate their privilege do not require the individuals engaged in those mechanisms to be bad people, to be acting in bad faith, or to be attempting to keep the proles down under their heel. People do not need to be conscious agents of elite power to be involved in the maintenance of that power and the structures that support it.
It is incumbent upon all those who work in the public sphere to be aware of the potential pitfalls of defending one’s own workplace. We must always be mindful of when we are making arguments for doing nothing, and be open to the idea that criticism, no matter how unwelcome it is on a personal level, can aid us in promoting meaningful institutional change. The alternative is to be the unconscious agent of privilege.