Harvard Educational Review
  1. Unmuted

    Conversations on Prejudice, Oppression, and Social Justice

    Myisha Cherry

    New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. 305 pp. $34.00 (paper).

    In 2015, Myisha Cherry launched The UnMute Podcast to amplify “voices and/or topics that are not given much attention in mainstream philosophy” and to make conversations about philosophy accessible and relevant to people outside the field (p. xiv). She sought to interview young, diverse philosophers about their work on contemporary social and political issues, challenging conventional ideas of who philosophers are (read: old white guys) and who their work serves. In creating such a space where “philosophy and real world issues collide” (p. xiv), she hoped the podcast would contribute to “the revolution”—a term she does not define but one clearly guided for her by the values of inclusion, democratic participation, and social justice. As it turned out, a broad audience was hungry for just these kinds of conversations, and the podcast took off.

    Now several seasons in, Cherry has gathered together thirty-one interview transcripts from the podcast in Unmuted: Conversations on Prejudice, Oppression, and Social Justice. As she explains, the book further extends her goals of accessibility by making interviews available to the hearing-impaired and to those who prefer to absorb the content through reading (p. xv). The transcripts are organized into six sections of three to seven interviews: “Politics and Society”; “Language, Knowledge, and Power”; “Social Groups and Activism”; “Race and Economics”; “Gender, Sex, and Love”; and “Emotions and Art in Public Life.” In keeping with Cherry’s initial vision, the group of interviewees are diverse across race, gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, and ability. Many are young and early in their career. Before the transcripts begin, an illustrated “Notes on Contributors” section introduces the guests and their research interests, affiliations, and paths to philosophy. While most are professors of philosophy, the interviewees come from a wide range of institutions and describe very different journeys into the field—from contemplating infinity as a child, to experiencing culture shock as a teenager, to falling in love with someone who was majoring in philosophy as a young adult. This choice reflects Cherry’s goal to humanize philosophers and their professional journeys, perhaps making the role feel more within reach to those least represented in the field. She also includes a “Say What?” glossary to help define specialized terms and support readers’ understanding (p. xv). The message is clear: philosophy can and must be for everyone.

    And the interviews themselves? They are gems. I began reading them, pencil in hand, only to realize that I was underlining most of every interview. This is no doubt due to a combination of the quality of the guests, Cherry’s probing questions, and the dire need for insightful, incisive, and creative ideas about the world’s pressing social and political challenges. For this moment, I found the interviews in the “Politics and Society” section to be particularly revelatory, especially Meena Krishnamurthy’s discussion of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and racial political distrust, José Mendoza’s explanation of the ways US immigration policy created the “undocumented” category, and Wendy Salkin’s analysis of the ethical challenges of representing and speaking for others formally and informally. As an English major in my undergraduate years and a lover of fiction, I also particularly enjoyed the interviews in the closing section, “Emotions and Art in Public Life” (pp. 251–273): exploring Black aesthetics with Paul C. Taylor, the philosophical power and richness of literature (particularly Black literature) with Amir Jaima, and the forms and roles of hope in public discourse with Adrienne Martin. Across all the sections, the interviews offer nuggets of insight for the reflective citizen or aspiring revolutionary alike.

    The transcripts are bookended by a foreword from Cornel West and a brief introduction and conclusion by Cherry. One of the benefits of compiling these transcripts into a book is that it allows Cherry more space than is possible in time-bounded interviews to discuss her aims for the podcast and what she’s learned from engaging in these conversations. Through her introduction we get a clear sense of the intentionality behind each of her decisions as host, scholar, and writer—from the opening music (“I wanted it to sound like they had just turned on an urban radio station” [p. xiv]), to the topics she addresses, to her decision to call her guests by their first names and drop the potentially distancing “Dr.”

    In her conclusion she turns to the art and value of conversations themselves and the lessons she’s learned along the way about how to make hers more meaningful. The attention to the nature and quality of dialogue feels distinct from the topical conversations that make up most of the book. However, her keen analysis of the different kinds of conversations we can engage in, their strengths and limitations, and the virtues that help each of us be better conversation partners is as thought-provoking as any of the discussions she has with fellow scholars. At this time of national conversational failure, I find myself hearing the echoes of her assertion that “we cannot isolate conversations and their content from the people who engage in them” (p. 278) and that if our conversations aren’t working, perhaps the problem is us.

    There are, of course, limitations to publishing a book of interview transcripts. While Unmuted presents a wonderful spread of ideas and conversations, they are all bite-sized, each running about ten pages. One often gets the sense that Cherry and her guests themselves could have kept exchanging thoughts for much longer, if only they had the time. This book is really a tasting menu, exposing readers to a range of voices and insights and enticing those interested to explore further. Additionally, I found myself wishing that Cherry had offered more of her own reflections and commentary on individual or groups of interviews, perhaps at the start or close of each section, and allowed readers to benefit from the threads she saw running between these conversations. We get a sense of how valuable this insight would be when, in the introduction, Cherry notes that chapters can be read in a flexible order and offers a few suggestions for fruitful pairings (read chapter 15 on allies and ally culture with chapter 7 on risky speech, for example). “Yes, say more!” I wanted to implore to the page, but readers are left to do this connecting work ourselves.

    In reflecting on the evolution of the podcast over its growing number of seasons, Cherry writes, “I still do believe UnMute aids in the revolution—even if the revolution is only a revolution of ideas” (p. xv). Reading Cherry’s book, I found myself wondering at this caveat “only.” I read Unmuted in the difficult season following the 2020 US presidential election, making my way through the interviews as the nation weathered new peaks of pandemic loss, a stream of antidemocratic vitriol and lies, an insurrection at the US Capitol by racist extremists, and a presidential inauguration many of us watched on tenterhooks. As we’ve witnessed the nation struggle through profound challenges old and new, it has become clear to many that a revolution of ideas is in fact essential—not as a less-valuable precursor to one of action but as a critical step in identifying and developing the insights, frames, and understandings that can guide and inspire us as we work to carve a way forward. As Cornel West notes in his foreword, the canon of analytic philosophy “falls far short of meeting the challenges” of today, including “wrestling with the realities of empire, capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, homophobia, and transphobia” and more (p. xi)—a critique that can certainly be extended to other fields and domains. To tackle the challenges and injustices of our time, we need new ways to understand these complex and interconnected issues and new visions for how to address them. We need a revolution of ideas. Through the voices Cherry amplifies, the topics she explores, and the questions she asks, Unmuted achieves its aim of aiding such a revolution.

    Cherry writes, “I cannot guarantee that you will agree with everything written in the following pages. But I am certain that the content will encourage you to think more deeply, perhaps even differently about our world” (p. xv). Indeed, this book challenged me to pursue deeper and different thinking about myself, others, and our world. I found it nourishing and inspiring at a time when public discourse can feel scorched and barren and when our civic imaginations are hungry for better ways of envisioning and shaping the future. Unmuted offers readers plenty to feed our social and political imaginations. It is a model of and invitation into the kind of revolutionary inquiry this period of upheaval demands—the kind that can help us realize new ways of making the world a more just and equal place.

    Maya Holden Cohen
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