Reply to Gerald’s “Twitter discussions, ways of seeing the world, and whiteness” Thread, June 1, 2021

In his June 1st thread of tweets on “Twitter discussions, ways of seeing the world, and whiteness”, Gerald explains why he occaisionally chooses to engage with “certain types” in Twitter scuffles. “These people” (later identified as “status quosaders” – a term coined by Scott Stillar) defend an ideology which, says Gerald, they probably can’t articulate. Specifically, they are unable to see past “How Things Are”. They hold to the concept that there is a binary between order and disorder, with “the latter always lower in the hierarchy”. It’s impossible to argue with these people – they’re so fixed in the fundamental belief in the justness of hierarchies and binaries that they can’t see the inherent value of a paradigm where there is no order and no real hierarchy.

Gerald continues:  

You can use whatever word you want – rigor, logic, evidence, “thin soup” – but basing your ethos on the assumption that there is One True Practice is inherently hostile to innovative ways of knowing, teaching, and languaging. (12)

Ultimately, we don’t know the best way to teach everyone, because we’re all very different, and that’s good!  We just have to keep trying to find ways that connect with and support anyone who wants to learn and be heard. (13)

And ultimately, this sort of fluidity is anathema to the binaries and hierarchies that whiteness would prefer to hold in place. It’s up to you if you want to see something new. The current way only benefits a few people and harms almost everyone else. (14)

So on one side there are people who can’t see past How Things Are and who hold to the concept that there is “a binary between order and disorder”, “with the latter always lower in the hierarchy”. These people use words like rigor, logic, evidence and thin soup; they base their ethos on the assumption that “there is One True Practice”; and they are thus hostile to innovation and to the sort of fluidity in teaching practice that encourages trying out different ways of meeting different learners’ needs.

On the other side are those who embrace the paradigm where there is no order and no real hierarchy, who embrace “fluidity” and seek change

Discussion

I suggest that this amounts to a poorly articulated misrepresentation of the real struggle between those who promote coursebook-driven ELT and those who fight it by promoting alternatives such as Dogme, CBLT and TBLT.  At least we can agree on one thing: binary thinking is faulty – people’s positions on the matters we’re discussing cluster around a non-binary, indeed fluid, range of views. But it’s Gerald who makes the binary distinction between two different, mutually opposed “paradigms”, one bad the other good.

The problem I see (and which I discuss at length in various posts on this blog) is that most teachers, teacher educators, materials writers, and the tens of thousands who work for assessment providers are largely in favour of the commodified ELT that results from its focus on profit. The majority of people involved in the ELT industry embrace the use of coursebooks which serve up what Thornbury (2010) calls ” Grammar McNuggets”, the use of the CEFR which reifies proficiency levels, and the use of high stakes exams which every year ruin hundreds of thousands of people’s lives thanks to their (frequently racist and nearly always class-based) use by university entrance boards and immigration authorities.

The ideology which supports this industry is the ideology of capitalist neoliberalism: free competition is the basis of social interaction; citizens are consumers whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling; everybody aspires to material prosperity, and the play of market forces is the best way to deliver these aspirations.  The “Ulterior motives” section of Gerald’s 2019 article has some good points to make on this.

Do Gerald and his supporters recognise that the current practices of ELT are parts of a status quo which promote a neoliberal capitalist ideology? In their work in ELT, do Gerald and his supporters recognise that the use of synthetic syllabuses facilitates the packaging of English courses, and that proficiency scales facilitate ordering students into convenient consumer groups, and that institutions like the British Council, Cambridge Assessment, TOEFL, and bodies like IATEFL and TESOL are powerful promoters of the status quo?

Gerald poses as a radical crusader, urging his followers on to a brighter future, while scathingly dismissing the reactionary views and practices of his critics. In fact, many of Gerald’s critics voice more radical (and certainly more articulate) views than he does, while he, and many of his supporters, give the impression of limiting themselves to identity politics. These are complicated matters which deserve serious discussion, but it’s unlikely that we’ll get far with Gerald. While he stresses what a waste of time it is to discuss matters with me, because I’m a racist only interested in winning arguments, I suggest that until Gerald gets his ideas sorted out to the point where he can succinctly articulate them, it’s hard to talk to him.    

Gerald makes a distinction between people who believe in the justness of hierarchies and binaries, and people who believe in the inherent value of a paradigm where there is no order and no real hierarchy. The question is: what’s he talking about?  

What are the binaries and hierarchies he refers to?

Take this statement:

 “They hold to the concept that there is a binary between order and disorder, with the latter always lower in the hierarchy. Or, in truth, a set of binaries in the first place.”

Or this:  

I’m staking a claim for the inherent value of a paradigm where there is no order and no real hierarchy. Yes, I focus on racism and language, but it applies to all categories.”

What do tjhey mean?

What “paradigm” bases itself on “no real order and no real hierarchy”?

I can find nothing in any of Gerald’s published texts which answers these questions. Should he not explain, if he wants to be taken seriously?

My guess is that Gerald is basing himself on an epistemological debate among scholars in the field of applied linguistics (AL) and elsewhere who adopt either (1) a realist, critical rationalist approach, or (2) a relativist “postmodern” approach. In the field of AL, those studying psycholinguistics tend to adopt a realist epistemology, which bases the investigation of phenomena on the use of logic, rational argument and empirical evidence to test hypotheses. In a broad sense, this research method can be described as the scientific method. On the other hand, many scholars researching sociolinguistics adopt a relativist epistemology, rejecting the scientific method (which they call “positivism”) and adopting various alternative research methods, such as ethnography. As I say in Jordan (2004), the relativists, mostly sociolinguists, want to throw off the blinkers of modernist rationality, in order to grasp a more complex, subjective reality. They feel that science and its discourse are riddled with a repressive ideology, and they feel it necessary to develop their own language and discourse to combat that ideology. They have every right to express such views, which usuually reflect a radical politcal position.

Science is a social construct, a social institution, and scientists’ goals, their criteria, their decisions and achievements are historically and socially influenced.  And all the terms that scientists use, like “test”, “hypothesis”, “findings”, etc., are invented and given meaning through social interaction.  Of course.  But – and here is the crux – this does not make the results of social interaction (in this case, a scientific theory) an arbitrary consequence of it.  Popper (1975) defends the idea of objective knowledge by arguing that it is precisely through the process of mutual criticism incorporated into the institution of science that the individual shortcomings of its members are largely cancelled out. I discuss all this more fully in my book (Jordan, 2004) and briefly in my post on Positivist and Constructivist Paradigms.

My point here is that Gerald contributes nothing to the interesting debate between those taking different epistemological positions, and fails to appreciate that there are many scholars – including Chomsky, White, Carroll, Doughty, Long, Crookes, Krashen, Gass, Baretta, Robinson and a host of others – who manage to combine a commitment to a realist epistemolgy (using words like rigor, logic, and evidence) with a radical political position.

Conclusion

If Gerald wants to present himself as a serious scholar dedicated to the decentering of Whiteness in ELT, then he needs to do better than this. Gerald’s argument rests on a poorly described and unexplained distinction between people “fixed in the fundamental belief in the justness of hierarchies and binaries” and people who “stake a claim for the inherent value of a paradigm where there is no order and no real hierarchy”. Such a distinction doesn’t stand up to examination and does nothing to promote his cause more widely.

And, just BTW, please note that I’m replying to a further attack on me by Gerald. The moment Gerald stops accusing me of racism, of being an obsolete part of the “statusqusaders”, etc., etc., I’ll stop replying.   

References

Gerald, JPM. (2020) Worth the Risk: Towards DecentringWhiteness in English Language Teaching. BC TEAL Journal, 5, 1, 44–54.

Jordan, G. (2004) Theory Construction in SLA. Amsterdam, Benjamins.

Popper, K.R. (1975). Objective Knowledge. Oxford, Clarendon.

Thornbury, S. (2010) G is for Grammar McNuggets. Retreived, 5th June, 2021, from https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2010/09/18/g-is-for-grammar-mcnuggets/

4 thoughts on “Reply to Gerald’s “Twitter discussions, ways of seeing the world, and whiteness” Thread, June 1, 2021

  1. This is bizarre, dude.

    The second part of our After Whiteness article will be out soon. I look forward to your 500 posts about it, on the Language magazine website, on here, on twitter (where you’re blocked but still read my posts for some reason), and wherever else you show up. And I hope you buy my book when it comes out and give that a negative review too!

  2. Happy with this comment are you dude? Satisfied that it enhances your scholarly reputation, succinctly replying to all the points made in the post? Good job.

  3. Hi Geoff, (only reading this post now) I wanted to pick up on this comment “…give the impression of limiting themselves to identity politics. ” does this mean that you see identity politics as being reducible to class politics?

    if so there is another stream of debate which denies this e.g. Redistribution or Recognition (Fraser & Honneth 2003:5) which discusses 2 views of capitalism:

    “Is capitalism a social system that differentiates an economic order which is not directly regulated by institutionalised patterns of cultural value from other social orders that are directly regulated by institutionalised patterns of cultural value [i.e. Fraser’s view]?
    Or is a capitalistic economic order a consequence of a mode of cultural valuation that is bound up from the very outset with asymmetrical forms of recognition [i.e. Honneth’s view]”

    Honneth has an approach which is called “normative monism” which contrasts with Fraser’s approach called “normative dualism” – maybe Gerald is resonating with this distinction?
    ta
    mura

  4. Hi Mura, No, I don’t see identity politics as being reducible to class politics. That’s its weakness. I agree with Chomsy’s view:

    “Go back to the 1930s. There were mass movements, but they was largely labour-based: the Communist Party and the Socialist Party and other political organisations that were not just organisations which show up every four years and push a button. They were membership-based, activist organisations. That’s pretty much missing now.

    There are an awful lot of people involved [in activism], but it’s very atomised; either you’re doing gay rights or you’re doing environment or you’re doing local agriculture — all fine, but highly atomised and not taking either political power or mass popular organisation, both of which ought to be done and could be done… I think there are things happening, but it should be done on a much bigger scale.”

    I’m afraid I don’t find the debate you refer to interesting – from the quote you give, I don’t think I’d agree with either view of capitalism. And I have no idea whether or not Gerald is resonating with the distinction they make between normative monism & normative dualism. Sorry!

    As I said in the post, the short section in Gerald’s article about “Ulterior motives” makes a couple of good points, this being one of them:

    “Some who support unfettered capitalism would like us to believe it is not based upon racial categorization—i.e., that the only colour it would admit to caring about is green—but this system depends upon the exploitation of those with less power, and the creation of race as we know it today is a construct of power differentials built to justify continued imperialism.” Apart from the fact that “unfettered capitalism” is now “state-supported capitalism”, I think this is correct.

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