Against Conformity

An academic from 'low backgrounds' asserts her claim not to have to adopt the mores that rule in the Ivory Tower.
The image is no longer unsullied simplicity but befouled by bigotry, misogyny and cruelty. This too is a stereotype, and one that, however different, achieves force precisely in its distance. I wrote about this just after the 2016 presidential election, and was surprised by how quickly the contempt directed at the poor rural voter came my way. A friend of mine summed up the new atmosphere: ‘No one wants to read about poor rural people struggling to walk upright.’ This too works to keep the ivory tower pristine, for even fewer now are likely to confess low origins.

Academia’s representations of the poor and rural inspire an oppositional impulse in me – a resistance to seeing people like mine as people like that, as people tidily captured, whether quaint or corrupt, pitiable or pitiless. Assimilation in academia entails the denial of one’s own experience and history. It demands epistemic sacrifice, a willingness to shed complexity and, along with it, possibilities. It’s the possibilities I begrudge the most.


David Foster said...

"contempt directed at the poor rural voter"...I wrote in 2012 about the remarkable level of fear, contempt, and anger that many educated/urban/upper-middle-class people demonstrate toward Christians and rural people (especially southerners, and explored some of the possible reasons:

Grim said...

This problem is closely related to the one you're discussing, but it's a little different. What this author is describing is how brain drain works: migration to the new tribe is permitted, but it requires ritual submission to the mores of the tribe. She can become an academic in good standing only by affecting an end to all these cultural features: the sort of person who wouldn't kill the chickens, nor even think of it.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ David Foster - As I started reading your linked essay, I thought I recognised it, and in fact commented on it there. Apropos here, talking about the disdain for rural, Christian, Southern folks.

“I’d think that one would be a lot more worried about people who want to cut your head off, blow you up…”

The group that feels it should be culturally dominant in America hates its main competitor here. All those events in other parts of the world are unimportant, only targets on the video screen that is played out in DC. They don’t see themselves as in danger from our enemies – they are in danger of losing influence to Christianists here. That is more important to them.

As they tend not to be in the military and are not in international business, they are likely correct that they are not much in direct danger from our enemies. That will come later.

Sgt. Mom – they are World Citizens, which means “a coalition of European and North American liberals.” Thus they are able to define patriotism differently."

As for the Aeon essay, my grandfather was an egg farmer and I hate chickens, so her grandmother's command seems wise to me. Also I hate "Walden," for similar reasons. Did you know that Thoreau set a forest fire so that he could amuse himself watching his neighbors struggle to put it out?

Grim said...

Is that true? I had not heard that.

David Foster said...

"All those events in other parts of the world are unimportant, only targets on the video screen that is played out in DC. They don’t see themselves as in danger from our enemies – they are in danger of losing influence to Christianists here."

There's a lot of truth in this. I remember when Gerstner took over IBM, he was struck that almost everyone there was a lot more concerne with and emotional about their internal rival organizations than about the real, external competition.

Being a highly experienced executive, Gerstner was surely no stranger to company politics, including of the vicious variety, but evidently felt that at IBM it exceeded what he had seen before.

For organizations of many types, the focus on internal vs external competition is probably a good indicator of functionality.

David Foster said...

Also: one of the things Taleb talks about in his new book is the benefit of hiring people who *do not look like what one would expect* for an archetypal person in that role...the benefit being that they probably had to be better than someone who better fits the mold.

Obviously also extendable to speech patterns, chicken-killing, etc.

douglas said...

Oh, that was one of the most enjoyable reads I've had in a while. As someone who has spent only a little time in academia (other than as a student), and felt similarly, her take on it was beautifully wrought and brilliantly wielded. When I was there, I always hoped I could drop a seed of doubt into their casually assumed truths. That's really the only thing I miss about it. Well, and the fact that there was always something new, because every student was different.

Make me want to get a T-shirt that says "Don't kill your chickens".

Christopher B said...

I followed a link to her post election essay. Interesting reads though I kinda had to snort at the coda to the post election one. Liberalism is largely built on white (liberal) supremacy so good luck with that.

All I can adf is a variation on something I've heard several times since Trump's election. If you treat a group of people as The Other long enough, why are you surprised when they return the favor?

raven said...

Growing up in a nice suburban home, going through all the grades, straight into college, always with enough to eat and the surety of a clean bed, then into grad degrees and finally a position as a teacher does not provide many opportunities to put cracks in the smooth assumptions of liberal superiority.
I don't have much contact with those people, being a tradesman, sometimes meet a few "educators" at a party from time to time.

A story comes to mind-at one such party, a well educated guy was going on about his involvement with photo recognition technology, and what a wondrous tool it was. For an example, he went on about this system his company had installed, and how it was instrumental in identifying a man who had kidnapped a young woman. He went on and on about the cameras and the software and police files, so finally I asked him how much the system cost. He shrugged a bit, then said , "well, I'm not sure, maybe a couple million". So I asked another question- "did they ever find the girl?"

"So a $300 handgun would have been more effective at saving her than the expensive surveillance system".
At this point, an "academic" pitched in. "well,....I wouldn't say THAT..." I could almost hear his brain trying to stretch like a balloon around the idea.
Hopefully if not a crack in the smooth assumptions, it was at least a scratch, a stress riser for future strains to enlarge.

Grim said...

I think you're right to point to the seamlessness of the usual pattern of entry. In a way, they're aware it's a problem: this is the very argument they give for diversity in higher education. In another way, they're completely blind to the problem, because they think diversity will be satisfied with racial or ethnic or sexual diversity even if they all come from the same class.

The assumption is that the black person will have had so much worse an experience, even though they also came from a middle class background with enough to eat etc., that they'll bring the missing things. But the person who really brings it is the one who grew up poorer, regardless of skin color.

Of course, it may well be that growing up poor without enough to eat often makes you unfit for higher education. IQ develops in part based on having plenty to eat in childhood. Still, there are clear counterexamples of people who managed to do both.

raven said...

It's not just the level of poverty, ie, missing a meal, but the engagement with reality resulting from even minor things like a car breaking down in a rural area, getting help from a rough looking farmer or logger, (help from the other), all those little interactions that open up the possibility the other may be real people after all. And the cell phone does not help with this, years ago, BCP (before cell phones) I used to stop to see if a stranded motorist needed assistance. Now it is assumed they have already called the correct party who can solve their mechanical woes. One of the "other" will show up no doubt, but a certain accommodation is made with that, because they are "credentialed" with a tow truck, and paid, so the interaction can be done on a purely commercial basis. One of the great benefits of the military draft may have been forcing different backgrounds together , "Gung Ho", as it were ,in the original meaning.

I had the great benefit growing up, of being taught respect and hard work, and in the jobs I took, no one cared a bit what ones background was as long as one pulled their weight. "Weight", though, is a hard commodity to measure in an academic setting. It's not like number of fish unloaded or timber cut or houses framed. Maybe that is why they seem so eager to "prove" their PC credentials by going on the offense over some minor herisy-it's a way to show they are "pulling weight" in the eyes of their peers.

douglas said...

Something popped into my head- what she wants is a refutation of the left's desire to see everything in superficial terms- race, class, etc.

She wishes to be seen (and rightly so) as a philosopher who happens to be from the lower class, as opposed to the left's desire to see things first in class/race terms- therefore they see her as a lower class person who happens to be a philosopher. It's an important distinction, both in view and in how it changes how people interact.

Anonymous said...

The very idea that these people could even frame the phrase "poor rural people struggling to walk upright" offends me, but I have become accustomed to the provincialism of our academia.

Many of these people are untraveled and incurious about this great, big country of ours. Further, an unsettling number take pride in their inability or unwillingness to handle normal household maintenance, or an automobile, or even a computer. Worse, they disdain the basics of intellectual inquiry, failing to read the underlying document and then commenting about its contents based on their own political ideas and imagination.

They have no idea that there are different ways of doing things, and no appreciation whatsoever for the inherent cleverness and intellectual ability of "ordinary" people.

Our academic institutions are capable of remedying this deficiency in their staff. All they have to do is add international travel to their selection criteria for professors.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ Valerie - International travel...and "Junior Year Abroad" doesn't count.

Romania changed everything for me.