Prof. Charis Thompson

The UC Berkeley Social Science Matrix interviewed Prof. Charis Thompson, a faculty member in Gender & Women’s Studies and a member of the CRG Faculty Advisory Board.  In October 2016, Prof. Thompson wrote the article “Three lessons in gender and sexuality in this election” for the Berkeley Blog, and earlier this year, she presented at the World Economic Forum in Davos. One of her talks, part of the Forum’s IdeaLabs program, addressed the subject “Cultivating appropriate emotions in a time of nationalist populism,” which questioned the popularization of emotions like mindfulness, gratitude, and awe without accompanying introspection on sources of societal inequality.

Below is an excerpt of the interview:

Matrix: What were your thoughts on the recent March for Science?

Thompson: We’ve enjoyed an era in the postwar period in America where the sciences have been very tightly related to governance—until Trump’s presidency and this recent era. For all that I’m excited to march for truth, evidence, and expertise, I also interpret the “March for Science” as protesting a little bit much. We’ve never been in a better era for science and technology than we are today, and Trump’s election has not changed that. What has changed is that tight relation between governance and science.

At the same time that science stands up for scientific evidence and facts, [the field] would do well to acknowledge straightforwardly that it has been complicit in scientific racism, scientific sexism, and homophobia, and in rendering some of its subfields as ones that have a racial and gendered order.

The disciplines I see under the most suppression and repression are Gender Studies, Sexuality Studies, African-American Studies, Ethnic Studies, and Indigenous Studies. They are being de-legitimated from multiple sources, rendered as if they are not composed of expertise and facts, but as if they’re just opinion or political correctness. People who use their knowledge and expertise to point out sexism, racism, etc., are being silenced with claims of free speech that are ultimately attributed to individual rights or to the Constitution. This is profoundly problematic and is the real assault in our moment on expertise and evidence.

I understand the critique of knowledge and expertise in the context of globalization and the idea that “everyday people need to have our cultures and jobs and make a living and be heard.” I also get the critique of political correctness or limits to free speech that is against moral censoring of what other people say and moral centering of what you yourself say: “I know more than you about race, gender, class, sexuality, etc., so you and people like you are racist or sexist or…” The first part of that is probably true when race, class, gender etc. scholars are speaking, but the second part can be what people hear.  But the second part doesn’t necessarily follow from the first part, and when it does follow, it indicates a shared social problem, not a hierarchy of political virtue. I think that you need to call people in, not call them out, though those terms can be tricky, too.

But the idea that you can say what you want about race, gender, class, disability, and so forth, that it’s just opinion and there’s no knowledge or expertise [in these fields], so experts have no right to correct you and no right to refuse to treat you like a scholar at a university where we’re supposed to traffic in knowledge—that feels to me like where we should have the real science march: around the obliteration of recognition of expertise in these fields.

Read the whole interview here.