Cops and Philosophers: In Conversation with Maya Dukmasova

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Portrait by Meera Joshi

The Review recently sat down with Maya Dukmasova, staff writer at the Chicago Reader, the city’s alternative weekly newspaper, to talk about the ethics of journalism, the similarities between academic philosophers and cops, and expanding the philosophical canon, all while dissecting everything from epistemology to Kwame Anthony Appiah. Maya’s academic background includes a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Rochester and a master’s in art history from the University of Cambridge. You can find her personal website here and an archive of her writing for the Reader here. The following conversation has been lightly edited by approval.

DAVID: I guess the obvious first question is what got you into philosophy as an undergrad?

MAYA: Well, the reason I became a philosophy major is because, in high school, I went to France as an exchange student, where everyone was required to take philosophy classes in school. It was very intensive, five to six hours every week with philosophy, maybe even more. Over there was my first introduction to philosophy. We studied the great books and contemporary stuff, but mostly we read continental authors like Barthes and Kirkegaard. It was really engaging because it felt like we were actively thinking about the world around us and analyzing things. I liked that about it.

The class wasn’t so much about studying philosophy as much as it was learning how to write an argument. I remember the teacher telling us we couldn’t write until we could organize our thoughts. So, the writing part was important for talking about philosophy.

Then, when I came to the University of Rochester, I expected to be reading and thinking about the same stuff, but I ended up reading almost what I would call mathematical or scientific writing on metaphysics and epistemology, which all felt very removed since it wasn’t at all like what I read in France. So, I basically focussed on studying ethics while I was there, and also filling in the degree requirements for logic and other supremely uninteresting subjects.

DAVID: This is pretty common from what I understand. A lot of people find analytic philosophy writing either extremely sanitized or removed from ordinary experience.

MAYA: It wasn’t even so much that the writing was removed, but the questions that were being asked and the subject of analysis — what is Being? and what is knowledge? — was nowhere near as exciting as talking about phallic subliminal imagery in advertising or something like that. It wasn’t an analysis of the world we live in.

I’m somebody who, at the end of the day, is interested in what’s going on in the world right now. What I learned in my ethics classes was more engaging for that reason. I ended up going back to France for a study abroad program to study philosophy in college. For a semester we read all the big French philosophers like Deleuze and Guattari, those kinds of people. I also took a class with one of Levinas’ students. It was a really intense class. The guy would just sit there and talk at us. I don’t even think we made it through the introduction of Totality and Infinity because he would have to stop and discuss what each sentence meant.

When I came back, I went to talk to the chair of the department, Earl Conee, who’s a big deal in epistemology, about transferring the credits from this class in France and he basically told me “this isn’t philosophy.” I don’t remember getting the credits, they might’ve counted as French electives, but it was difficult because I thought I had finally gotten to do philosophy, but apparently I really hadn’t. At least according to the University of Rochester I hadn’t.

DAVID: So, from the very beginning your interest in philosophy was essentially political, or at least concerned with the present. Now that you’re a big time Chicago journalist, do you think there’s a straight line that connects that philosophical interest with your writing?

MAYA: I don’t know about “big time,” but in a way, yes. In some sense, philosophy is about interrogating reality. So is journalism: asking questions and figuring out what’s going on. I had always been interested in journalism, doing internships in the summer, but I knew I didn’t want to be a tv reporter, so it took me a while to figure out what I wanted to write. I knew I wanted to go to graduate school, but not for philosophy, since everyone I knew doing that was going for metaphysics or epistemology.

By the point I finished my masters in art history, I met people doing freelance work for magazines, which helped me find what I wanted to do for a living, the kind of writer I wanted to be. So, that’s how that happened.

DAVID: Even though we can connect those two interests, it sounds like there’s something missing: you couldn’t do the work you do now, writing about oppression and police brutality, had you been a professional philosopher. Otherwise you would’ve continued with school, right?  

MAYA: Maybe. I find it disturbing that most American academic philosophy is separate from politics. And I don’t mean electioneering. I mean the fact that there’s no politics or any analysis of power even in ethics. That’s what I’m really interested in. And it’s probably the biggest difference between continental and analytic philosophy for me. But that’s what everything boils down to: power. The kind of journalism I want to do is an analysis of power in one way or another. I want to properly describe how power works for those who don’t have it.

DAVID: And that’s something you found missing from academic philosophy?

MAYA: Yes, or at least politics isn’t the first thing philosophers think about. I remember talking to some of my activist friends in undergrad when Kwame Anthony Appiah was coming to campus. They were incredibly derisive toward him and his whole cosmopolitanism. It was really surprising. It took me some time later in life to understand why they were rubbed the wrong way by him. I only had a feeble grasp of the criticisms against his work when I met him, but I wanted to engage with the critique. When I talked to him about it, he told me “not everyone has to think about power.”

DAVID: Something you can probably only say from the perspective of power.

MAYA: Right, and since more time has passed, I look back and think “what a laughable answer.” Even though at the time I thought “oh that’s a valid way of looking at things,” it’s a fucking joke. Now, every time I see his column in the New York Times magazine, I’m reminded of that moment. It’s ridiculous how much of a platform he has, but it’s precisely because he’s palitible to people who subscribe to the New York Times. He won’t force them to think about their position. He’s verging on pop philosophy.

I think good journalism, like good philosophy, is engaged with an analysis of power. The philosophy that engages me is firmly rooted in a pursuit to understand inequalities caused by oppression.

DAVID: I think philosophers are blind in certain ways to things like the oppression around them. Hegel, though a crazy racist-

MAYA: There’d be no Marx without him, or socialism for that matter.

DAVID: Right, he was something of a radical. And some non-philosophers have said that because he was writing for these radical free presses of the time, reading about anti-colonialism and revolution in Haiti, that his master-slave dialectic is really an articulation of what he was seeing in his time. Of course, philosophers hate this kind of talk, that the genius of Hegel could have come from simply looking at the world. This gets worked out in a few ways by Susan Buck-Morss, who I’m sympathetic to, but I’ll just say those philosophers are wrong, and this distortion, or blindness to that fact about Hegel, is really just another way of being wrong in an argument. There’s an even more general point that someone isn’t ever simply wrong. What someone thinks is non-accidentally related to how someone thinks. And when someone is so bogged in perverse and abstract thoughts about Hegel and Haiti that they can’t see the obvious connection right in front of them, who knows what they’ll believe.

MAYA: I think about this a lot in the context of police. I spend a lot of time with cops when I write on the communities affected by policing. When I engage with cops, even though what I’m writing about is police violence, or injustice perpetrated by the police, my job is to get the most accurate picture of what they’re thinking. They have to feel like I’m hearing what they have to say otherwise the journalist-subject relationship can’t exist. It needs to be a good faith engagement. But the more time you spend with them, the more you start to realize that everything immoral they say is, on the one hand, rooted in their experience, but that experience is often the product of an oppressive system in which they benefit. These people are living in a different mental universe. They have a different logic. You could try to spend time changing their mind, but the vastness of our moral differences is reinforced by their lifestyle and interactions with people thinking the same way. You won’t get anywhere arguing with them. You can only take it in. As a journalist, I have to accurately describe what people say to me. But because of how different the logics of our morals are, how wrong they are isn’t relevant.

DAVID: This is probably one of the failings of philosophy as well — it’s rare for philosophers to concede a position. It’s never really the aim of philosophy to change minds let alone the world. There’s the fact that academic philosophy is obscure and rarefied and so no one reads it along with the institutional stubborness of practicing philosophy. Philosophy is usually incapable of getting others to see things from a new perspective.

MAYA: Though you can’t separate it from the broader American sociocultural context of philosophy. In America, philosophy is not supposed to be for everyone — it was an intellectual culture in America (and Britain) that not everyone was allowed to join. Like the cops. Philosophers and cops are similar in that funny way. Journalists and cops too.

DAVID: Well, despite the similarities, I’ve noticed an antipathy between journalists and philosophers, where philosophers use journalists as an example of someone who is not thinking very deeply. As an example, Aristotle thinks journalism (what I think he probably meant by “history” in Poetics) is just a record of things happening one after another, whereas philosophy takes into account hypotheticals and necessity, making it more intellectual, at least for Aristotle.

MAYA: I don’t think that journalists think about philosophers at all; philosophers have an antipathy to journalists but not the other way around. Now, most people in this business who pay attention to philosophers would probably not be comfortable with the label of “journalist.” They would think of themselves as writers or critics rather than journalists. I think of myself as a reporter before I think of myself as a writer, even though I aspire to be a writer – and my job title says staff writer. I think I inhabit my identity as a reporter most. And most reporters, especially in news media, so excluding literary establishments, don’t think about philosophers or philosophy at all.

DAVID: That’s part of my point, the difference between news writing and what you do. To me there is a huge difference between The Reader and Reuters. Reuters probably is just the record of one thing happening after the other with no commentary. There’s almost no writer there at all. Though that’s probably the point. Then there’s a continuum that goes all the way up to academic philosophy with the Reader somewhere in that trajectory. And it’s strange for philosophers to have this antipathy because most of the philosophy happening in the academy is similar to the work in the Reader.

MAYA: Yeah, writing about ideas is not too big of a step from discussing what is the mechanics of those ideas.

DAVID: Switching topics a bit, it seems important for there to be journalists of all different kinds of backgrounds writing about audiences of those backgrounds. In philosophy there’s a large problem of people coming from one background and writing from one perspective. I wonder what the effects would be of diversifying the backgrounds of philosophers.

MAYA: I think you would have a much richer scope of philosophy. There are avenues in philosophical thinking that we don’t even know exist – much less explored – because people with lived experiences who could ask the kinds of questions and think about these things do not have access to a world in which you have time to do so. To philosophize, you have to be able to subsist materially in a way that you have time to think about stuff, and write, and engage in conversations – and usually it’s almost only white dudes who have this kind of time. Philosophy, just like any other field, is extremely impoverished by a lack of access to it by a broader array of people.

Both journalism and philosophy in this country anyway stand to improve on themselves by incorporating more analysis of power into themselves. You are seeing more of it in journalism now, and maybe more in philosophy too.

I think about how much suffering and oppression there is going on in the world. The most transformative thing I experienced in college was learning about redlining in an American history class I took in the fall of my Freshman year. That class was the inflection point of my life. There are other classes that had a strong impact on me – none of them philosophy classes by the way – but that class fundamentally changed the course of my life. I moved to Chicago because this is the place that speaks to why evil things happen in this country.

So, yeah, power is functioning all around us at all times. You don’t have to go far and transport yourself into some other plane of existence, like becoming some kind of abstracted savior who goes to talk about the starving children in Yemen. It’s literally happening around you in your community all the time. And it behooves everyone to be concerned about it, especially journalists and philosophers, because they are supposedly documentors and analysts of reality. So, how can you calmly assert that you don’t think about power – especially as one of the most influential philosophers of your generation thinking today? What kind of world are we living in that this is considered a successful way to be a philosopher?

DAVID: Yeah, if philosophers and journalists either think that they report the world or they examine and try to find solutions in the world, for them to not appreciate the kinds of problems going on in front of them is a huge blindness.

MAYA: Yeah. Purporting to understand something deeper about reality but not yourself wearing the glasses that show everything through a basic kind of power analysis – I don’t know how you can be doing the work that you claim you are doing.

DAVID: And I think that probably even examinations of power have implications on philosophy and journalism that some don’t think are directly connected to the world in front of them. People writing about metaphysics tend not to think of their work as connected to issues of power – but it is! There have been lots of feminist interventions in metaphysics and epistemology that gets to exactly this point. There have been exclusionary and limited ways of thinking about metaphysics and epistemology that miss certain options and perspectives.

MAYA: Yes, one of my close friends is a practicing philosopher, Raff Donelson. He was Brian Leiter’s student and recently finished his PhD in philosophy at Northwestern. He does moral philosophy and got a job down at LSU. Even though the questions he asks are very much grounded in a certain kind of analytical tradition and analysis, and the questions he asks come from the language of traditional analytic approaches to ethics and morality, what he talks about are literally the problems that exist in the world around us.

One of his papers is about whether there is a state of nature that exists between cops and black communities. There are myriad analyses of police that are more traditional, from a Marxist tradition – that police exist to protect capital – and as long as capitalism is the status quo, then the police will continue to engage in illicit behavior. So what my friend Raff was doing with this project had nothing directly to do with that kind of analysis, but it was interrogating something that is real and relevant in the world, and the questions he asks and the answers he came up with have a moral relevance to them.

I also think people of an older generation today think that the younger generation is too obsessed with morality. We don’t forgive lapses, we couch everything in moral terms, are too willing to shout and exile people who don’t conform, and so on.

DAVID: But it seems like a virtue to be obsessed with morality.

MAYA: There is an obsession with punishment that runs through as an undercurrent. It’s like call-out culture. On the one hand it’s a good progressive direction in which communities are moving. On the other hand, there is a process of exile of the people who are called out that also has moral consequences. Its essentially a dynamic of punishment. So to me, the people who are most deeply engaged in active philosophy and doing interesting philosophy are police and prison abolitionists: people coming from a black feminist tradition of abolition that are constantly interrogating how we can avoid perpetuating oppression when we are trying to root it out. That fundamental question is one of the most basic things in philosophy – what is justice? and what is punishment? – and I don’t know what people in academic philosophy are doing, but my friend Raff and some non-philosophers are thinking about these issues. So maybe philosophy has seeped out of academia and so maybe philosophy is doing fine – but I think it risks being  sterile in the academic world.

DAVID: So who gets to dictate where the designation of “philosopher” starts and ends? Is it Earl Conee?

MAYA: It’s an interesting question. What does it mean to tell a student  – a little undergrad – that this cannot be accepted as a credit in philosophy? Is it a threat to his understanding or the institution’s understanding of philosophy? Something about it shows that you are threatened – that it questions your views in a way. I hope for a “big tent” philosophy. One that includes French continentals as well as police abolitionists.

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