In Praise of Subjectivity
At Christmas Eve mass with my grandmother this year, I watched a priest read the full version of the Gospel of Matthew for the day, which lists in detail the 42 generations between Abraham and Jesus. As he did so, I remember thinking it odd, but not necessarily unusual or suspect. The priest’s homily, which followed, was a more dramatic departure from the spirit of the occasion: he chose to scold all of us for how bored and uninterested we must have been during the reading of these 42 names. The reading of the names of dead veterans and children in Connecticut were invoked as reasons why respect for such name reading is important. The message this priest chose for Christmas, then, was not only one which somehow ignored the spiritual significance of the Christian holiday, but was premised entirely on how he believed a group of people would feel without ever asking them.
As you may know, I’m a graduate student, nurturing a nascent career in qualitative research. I’m also a Christian and, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, in the midst of a transition from Catholic to Episcopalian, having started my adult faith life at Catholic University in Washington, DC. At Catholic, I met some of the smartest people I have ever known, people with deep backgrounds in philosophy and in science, people committed to a life of the mind. Many of those same smart people were the intolerant, judgmental sons of guns you may rightly assume would find themselves attracted to a small, private Catholic college less than a mile and a half from the US Capitol. They had received and developed some of the most complex epistemologies and ethical systems imaginable, yet they had become completely disconnected from the motivations and the limitations of the people those systems ostensibly applied to.
I don’t mean to pick on the religious in general, or Christians in particular. Catholic was also where I met people of great intellect and great compassion, who lived selflessly and integrated a life of the mind with a life of service. Still, as in most other realms of life, they were the exception. This is a danger we run into, I think, when we elevate knowledge over compassion. It’s the mistake people of faith make when they tell us to “love the sinner, and hate the sin,” as though the meaning of the action they call sin was completely unambiguous. It’s the mistake many critics of qualitative research make when they suggest subjective experiences have little to tell us about the nature of truth. It’s the mistake we make countless times in our politics and our culture, when we know people take unemployment because they don’t want to work, when we know video games cause kids to be violent, when we know why a friend or a partner has become so distant from us.
Paradoxically, the action at the center of that mistake–making an assumption in the absence of evidence–is antithetical to the very life of knowledge we believe we’re upholding and protecting. Our lack of knowledge about why people do what they do, why they think what they think, is an opportunity for academics and those in the life of the mind. It’s an opportunity to think about cutting edge forms of evidence. It’s an opportunity to design our inquiries differently. It’s an opportunity to ask questions. Those questions can be, should be, our lifeblood.