Why Dr Naomi Wolf has the right to be heard, the creation of space

A quick explanation in defence of Dr Naomi Wolf’s engagement with Australia’s political discourse and why I consider her bullied by Australia’s mainstream media.

In seeking to defend Dr Wolf I’m not going to pretend that I formally know her method. I do know it is the antithesis of mine. I further know that similar methods are regularly employed within academia and educational discourse. While I do not embrace this kind of method, I have empathy towards it.

My twitter engagement with Dr Wolf’s defence came in response to a quoted tweet by Laurie Oakes headed “Ignoramus alert” that I considered an insulting slur buttressed by supporting argument from Antony Green. My interest was piqued because the substance of Dr Wolf’s tweet seemed mild and within the bounds of everyday reason. To paraphrase, it stated that a pro-corporate committee was directing Australia’s response to COVID while parliament was disbanded, and that this had no place in a democracy. While colourfully expressed, the sentiment seemed reasonable and was vindicated only few days later when extra sitting days were scheduled for Australia’s parliament. The response by Oakes and Green seemed disproportionate to what Dr Wolf was stating in an aside tweet about American politics.

I was first puzzled by the forcefulness of the attack and it became apparent that it was borne of existing enmity. I became increasingly convinced its vehemence was unwarranted.

When I was alerted to an article in the New York Times titled Naomi Wolf’s Career of Blunders Continues in ‘Outrages’ the penny dropped. The article made clear that there is no formal logic in Dr Wolf’s work, and that it can have a tenuous correspondence to material reality. This reflects well established methods in academia. Methods that I will first describe before explaining why they are used.

An absence of logic emerges from the work of French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard who developed the concept of paralogy and self-legitimation (1). Paralogy is the ongoing creation of meaning in dialogue. Paralogical reasoning does not conform to any rules of logic, and meaning is self-legitimating without recourse to external structures. The prominent French philosopher Michel Foucault employed a similar method of self-writing (2). Derrida is another seminal thinker who developed the concept of arche-writing as writing that precedes speech and where meaning emerges in text before speaking (3). Each of these methods are not based on conventional logic, but neither are they whimsical.

The methods developed by Lyotard, Foucault and Derrida emerged in the 1960s when western countries still colonised much of Africa and Asia, with several western nations still at war with Vietnam. Homosexuality was then a criminal offence in most countries, as was abortion. The sexual liberties afforded by the Pill were only just emerging. The paralogical reasoning afforded by French thinkers provided the means for new words and codes to be playfully, and often painfully, brought into language. It led to new symbols and codes such L, G, B and T and the acronym LGBT. These letters were first self-legitimated before being brought into mainstream discourse and legislative structures. For those of a certain age, it can be hard to remember the time when the term LGBT contained no meaning or logic, and when the logic of the world was forcefully Eurocentric. The methods emerging from Paris May 68 focused on ongoing meaning making and provided a means for developing equity and equality across different logic systems, cultures, sexualities and genders. The methods were effectively employed by Gayatri Spivak to challenge colonial hegemony (4), by Judith Butler to explore construction of gender (5), and by Foucault to expand the logic of sexuality (6,7,8). The method employed by Dr Wolf therefore has deep antecedents.

The world has changed and progressed significantly from the days when paralogical methods were first developed. The methods themselves have similarly evolved and are employed in the corporate sector for ‘blue sky thinking’ to propel startup companies. In politics the method has morphed into rhetorical forms disengaged from reality as employed by Donald Trump. It also propels an entertaining pastiche Marxist logic often found in the work of Guy Rundle and other reactionary progressives. Paralogical reasoning provides for new ways of meaning making, something Dr Wolf seems to pursue.

While I do not find paralogical methods particularly helpful in education, they nevertheless have a role. In education, I consider paralogical methods akin to what the British psychoanalyst Wilfrid Bion described as reverie between mother and baby, as a playful way of getting to know what is in the mind of the other (9). Paralogical thinking requires playful engagement and opens new spaces into which excluded groups, or a child, might be let in.

I found Oakes’ intervention in Dr Wolf’s narrative reminiscent of the misogynistic ditch-the-witch campaigns that emerged after his ambushing of Julia Gillard’s 2010 election campaign. The teaming of Oakes and Green evokes the chilling colonising defence of empire by John Batman and George Robinson described by Bruce Pascoe (10). It’s a kind of logic entrenched in Australia’s colonising culture. Further, Claire Connelly’s call for Australian twitter users to mute Dr Wolf is largely consistent with Australian definitions of covert bullying which includes social media campaigns to promote social exclusion. Green’s intervention is however more fascinating.

Green seemed frustrated by Dr Wolf’s assertions, a frustration often expressed as a failure in himself, or in others, to ‘understand’. This frustration can be explained by psephology not requiring the creation of new meanings. Psephologists are analytic thinkers who interpret what exists and meaningfully convey interpretations of that reality. Analytical thinking is distinct from what the British philosopher Stephen Toulmin described as substantial argument that addresses higher order predicates such as what is true, what is right, and what is beautiful (11). Analytical argument is of course antithetical to paralogical reasoning. Green’s better response might be to avoid Dr Wolf’s style of engagement, embrace a form of substantial argument, or playfully engage in paralogy.

While Green’s preeminent logic as a psephologists is highly valued among Australians, they are also fixed in what is. The logic is fixed in a system that excludes the voice of Indigenous Nations in parliament, and fixed in a system where the highest authority is a foreign national. The vehement psephological defence of the existing structure evokes a reinforcement of the fort walls described by Dwayne Donald as a colonising social dichotomy between settler and Indigenous (12). It’s a circling of the wagons and defence of empire that drove Yassmin Abdel-Magied out of Australia after she too created a wonderful new space for Australian children (13). For mine, the fixed walls need to be brought down, and the kind of method employed by Dr Wolf provides for that, even if it’s not her intent.

My defence of Dr Wolf might not be a defence at all, but just an entry into the space created by her engagement with Australian politics. A space Dr Wolf might be oblivious to, a space in-between where parliament was reopened. Regardless, my personal method requires inter-subjective engagement where everybody be heard in goodwill (14).

I’m sure Dr Wolf can look after herself. Whatever she might be meaning, a failure to understand is simply a failure by the hearer to understand, and not a flaw in a speaker’s intent. Whatever the process, method, or meaning, Dr Wolf’s method is academically established, credentialed and valued. It provides a legitimate perspective that has a right to be heard and respected. Even if the hearer does not understand it.

  1. Lyotard, J.-F. (1984). The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. (Original work published 1979)
  2. Foucault, M. (1997). Self writing (R. Hurley, Trans.). In P. Rabinow (Ed.), Ethics: Subjectivity and truth (pp. 207-222). New York: The New Press.
  3. Derrida, J. (1981). Of Grammatology (G. C. Spivak, Trans. 40th Anniversary, newly revised translation ed.). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. (Original work published 1967)
  4. Spivak, G. C. (2010). Can the subaltern speak? In R. C. Morris (Ed.), Can the subaltern speak?: Reflections on the history of an idea (pp. 21-78). New York: Columbia University Press. (Original work published 1985)
  5. Butler, J. (1988). Performative acts and gender constitution: An essay in phenomenology and feminist theory. Theatre Journal, 40(4), 519-531. https://doi.org/10.2307/3207893
  6. Foucault, M. (1990). The history of sexuality: Volume 1: An introduction (R. Hurley, Trans.). New York: Vintage Books. (Original work published 1976)
  7. Foucault, M. (1990). The use of pleasure: Volume 2 of the history of sexuality (R. Hurley, Trans.). New York: Vintage Books. (Original work published 1984)
  8. Foucault, M. (1988). The care of the self: Volume 3 of the history of sexuality (R. Hurley, Trans.). New York: Vintage Books. (Original work published 1984)
  9. Bion, W. R. (1996). Experiences in groups: and other papers. London: Routledge. (Original work published 1961)
  10. Pascoe, B. (2007). Convincing Ground: Learning to Fall in Love with Your Country: Aboriginal Studies Press.
  11. Toulmin, S. E. (2003). The uses of argument (Updated ed.). New York: Cambridge university press. (Original work published 1958)
  12. Donald, D. (2009). Forts, curriculum, and Indigenous Métissage: Imagining decolonization of Aboriginal-Canadian relations in educational contexts. First Nations Perspectives, 2(1), 1-24.
  13. Abdel-Magied, Y. (2016). Yassmin’s Story: Random House Australia.
  14. Koomen, M. (2019). The method of rational reconstruction for education in the tradition of Habermas. International Journal of Research & Method in Education, 1-20. https://doi.org/10.1080/1743727x.2019.1641795

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