Facts once assumed true by everyone are quickly becoming controversial. This is a trend we have all become aware of. There is, for example, increasing pressure to suggest that pregnancy can happen to women and men. People who wish to express that “all lives matter” may now choose to self-censor for fear of reprisal. You may have even heard that the American Cancer Society, well-meaning no doubt, recently called women “individuals with a cervix”.
In the latest development, it’s being suggested that we could be guilty of Western imperialism if we insist that 2+2=4.
In late 2019, Seattle Public Schools released a new draft curriculum aimed at “re-humanising” mathematics. It suggests that “Western” maths has been used to “disenfranchise people and communities of colour” by posing as “the only legitimate expression of mathematical identity and intelligence.” The document goes on to ask, “Who gets to say if an answer is right?”
This draft curriculum builds on the theory of ethnomathematics — the study of intersections between maths and culture — which began in the late 1970s.
While the historical oppression of minorities should by all means be covered in school curricula, using it to dismantle the universal facts of mathematics is highly questionable. But Seattle Public Schools seem quite serious.
So did many Twitter users in the online debate that followed. Nikole Hannah-Jones, founder of The New York Times’ controversial “1619 Project”, weighed into the debate, tweeting,
“I wonder if folks always talking about ‘standards’ ever stop to consider that it’s their so-called standards that are the actual problem.”
A Brooklyn College professor also voiced her view that 2 + 2 = 4 “reeks of White supremacist patriarchy”. Laurie Rubel objected to “the idea that math (or data) is culturally neutral or in any way objective,” claiming that this is a myth. “I’m ready to move on with that understanding. Who’s coming with me?” she added. Several other academics from American universities and colleges went on to retweet and support her views.
It turns out that this is no isolated discussion.
A New York-based group called Abolition Science was formed in 2018. The community produces a regular podcast and describes itself as “an anti-colonial project” with a mission to “undermine the racial capitalist logics of Western Science and Math”. Their vision statement explains that they are “an abolitionist project that envisions a science and math delinked from racial capitalism, imperialism, and oppression”.
In actual fact, key concepts behind mathematics came to the West from non-Western lands. The concept of the number zero — a revolutionary concept for mathematics — has roots in Mesopotamia and India, for example. Al-jabr, or “algebra” as we call it, came to us from the Middle East.
Moreover, mathematics is embraced far beyond the West today as the basis for just about every modern advancement — from smartphones to medical research to skyscrapers.
This is important context before dismissing mathematics, as we have always understood it, as being “oppressive”.
These are ominous signs of our times. For good reason do many describe ours a “post-truth” world. Social theorist Thomas Sowell, who is himself African-American, was sharp in his analysis that “we are living in an era when sanity is controversial and insanity is just another viewpoint”.
English philosopher G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) saw the early signs of the West’s abandonment of objective truth, and in a cheeky tone, he warned:
We shall soon be in a world in which a man may be howled down for saying that two and two make four, in which people will persecute the heresy of calling a triangle a three-sided figure, and hang a man for maddening a mob with the news that grass is green.
But there is another eerie backdrop to these developments.
The phrase “two plus two equals five” was made famous by George Orwell’s dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). In that story, the totalitarian government that ruled Oceania brainwashed its citizens to say and believe absurd things. Under threat of torture, protagonist Winston Smith was forced to declare that two plus two equals five. This was part of the ruling Party’s push to replace “thoughtcrimes” with approved ideas known as “Newspeak”.
Could it be that in coming years, insisting that 2+2=4 will become as risky as saying that there are only two genders?
It is good to question our assumptions and challenge our biases. And yes, let’s continue to root out injustice and oppression if we encounter it. But sometimes fashion goes too far. In the all-consuming desire to critique Western civilisation, we may well end up dispensing with truth itself. That won’t help us — and it’s doubtful that sowing this kind of distrust among the next generation will bode well either.
With so much cultural upheaval that has taken place in recent years, now might be a good time to ask yourself: is 2 + 2 = 4 a hill you’re willing to die on?