The Backchannel

The core insight -- that people put on a public face different from who they are in confidence -- is so obvious as to be undeniable. Apparently, journalists really don't like to admit it.

And academia:
Since the beginning of my graduate education, I have been someone who other academics feel that they can come to in order to voice their shock and dismay at just how toxic the culture within academia has become. They tell stories about petty witch hunts and show trials within their departments. They share their fear about objecting to arguments they find unfair or unsupported. They say they feel compelled to follow current academic fads for fear of being labeled. They are convinced that stepping out of line with the constant search for offense will render them permanently unemployable, even though they are themselves progressive people. You’ve heard the litany before. They share it with me.

Because they know that they can trust that I won’t ever betray their confidence, and because of my (self-aggrandizing, I admit) indifference to my professional reputation, they email me. They find me at conferences. And they always say the same thing: I could never say this publicly, but…. The Tuvel situation is just one example of a pervasive culture of fear, a feeling that even when one has the strong sense that an injustice is being done, academia is not a place where such reservations can be freely voiced.

Some will insist that this is just the secretly conservative saying what they truly believe, that this is all white men decrying a changing academic world. I suppose on balance the backchannel to me is paler and maler than the academy writ large. But the truth is that all kinds of people discuss this stuff with me: white and black, male and female, trans and cis. And the people who approach me aren’t mostly those rare academic conservatives, who barely exist these days, but rather liberals and leftists who believe in the movement for equality but find that the way that movement operates in the contemporary university has become toxic and unjust.
I've had similar experiences. Not everyone in the academic world is completely sure of gun control; not everyone is committed to abortion rights. Some -- maybe most -- of the women doggedly pursuing academic careers would rather be home with their children.

They just can't admit it, not in public.


David Foster said...

It's not just in academia. I have a friend who is in the corporate world; an excellent professional, manager, and leader. She told me that she wouldn't dare express her real political opinions other than to a few trusted friends, AND the same is true of her high-school age kids.

And no, she's not in Silicon Valley or in Hollywood.

raven said...

I cannot even understand the words they are using anymore. It is gibberish, to my ancient standard. I tried reading the Tuvel article and the impression was the Banality of Evil has been replaced with the banality of idiocy. These people really need to get out of their heads and split some firewood.

Being persecuted by an arch super villain is one thing, but suffering a pack of hysterical fools is another.

David Foster said...

"I cannot even understand the words they are using anymore"

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, on stupidity and the public sphere:

"Upon closer observation, it becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity. … The power of the one needs the stupidity of the other. The process at work here is not that particular human capacities, for instance, the intellect, suddenly atrophy or fail. Instead, it seems that under the overwhelming impact of rising power, humans are deprived of their inner independence and, more or less consciously, give up establishing an autonomous position toward the emerging circumstances. The fact that the stupid person is often stubborn must not blind us to the fact that he is not independent. In conversation with him, one virtually feels that one is dealing not at all with him as a person, but with slogans, catchwords, and the like that have taken possession of him. He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being. Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil. This is where the danger of diabolical misuse lurks, for it is this that can once and for all destroy human beings."

Roy Lofquist said...

Sounds like my bowling league.

Gringo said...

While academia has always leaned liberal, there used to be greater tolerance of dissent. I recall a trio of professor's doors. One professor had an anti-Vietnam War poster on his door. Two doors down, a professor had an American flag on his door. in the middle, a professor had "DMZ" on his door.

Gringo said...

From the link:
Couple years ago I got myself into one of these mini-controversies I’m always stepping in. The New York Times had put together this David Carr Fellowship. Ostensibly, the purpose of this fellowship was to bring a young, early-career journalist with an outsider’s pedigree to the pages of the Times.

This is my recollection of David Carr.Folks with 'low, sloping foreheads'
New York Times columnist David Carr responds to Bill Maher implying Alabama and Kansas are not the "smart states."
David Carr: "If it's Kansas, Missouri, no big deal. You know, that's the dance of the low-sloping foreheads. The middle places, right? [pause] Did I just say that aloud?"

David Carr was a native of the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Floyover people who go to Noo Yawk try to prove to others they have made it in the big city by dissing the place of their origins. Having spent my freshman year at a university with a lot of native New Yorkers, my impression is that New York natives don't diss the sticks as much as New Yorkers who migrated from the sticks.

Back on topic. I am circumspect about discussing politics in person.

raven said...

David Foster-
That is one scary , yet enlightening, quote. Thank you. It is always a pleasure to read posts and comments here, sometimes I think it is like going the University I never attended. Spending a life fishing, logging and woodworking taught some things well, and others, not so much!

E Hines said...

They just can't admit it, not in public.

I don't agree. They--all of them, not just women--choose not to. It's always a choice, however unpleasant.

Eric Hines

Anonymous said...

There are days I do regret not pushing harder to find a tenure-track job and attempting to be a college professor. Then I see things like this, or read the academic journals, and I thank the Lord that I didn't get a university position. Independent scholar and novelist suits me far better than having to watch every single thought all day every day.

For the record, I was 80 and 0 when I gave up. At the time the average number of applications before getting a tenure track position was 120.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

This is why it is important to speak up when we can, even if it is only to create space for others.

Grim said...

You're right, of course.

I'm not afraid to speak, but I like to be left alone. So for a long time I haven't spoken much, except to post this blog on a lonely corner of the internet. But that needs to change. More must be done, because it is warping our society.

I think of that kid who was on television the other day, dancing for some morning talk show in drag, with his parents telling everyone how he goes and dances for gay men. Now, I don't have anything against adults doing what they want to do, but this is a kid. Even ten years ago if a parent admitted they were taking their kids to do sexualized dancing for money at a night club, gay or not, they'd have been thrown in prison.

Now it's celebrated on morning television.

It's well past time to speak up. I can't believe there aren't tens of millions of people who don't agree with this stuff, and are just too afraid to say so out loud.

douglas said...

Living in Los Angeles, and in what is now one of the bluest of blue districts in the country, I've long held my head down, and mostly tried to simply seed a little doubt into peoples minds about what they thought they knew. I justified my hiding the full extent of my positions by figuring that I did more good if they listened to me on small disagreements, than if I contested them on larger ones that I knew I would be unlikely to sway them on. I don't think that's enough anymore.

I think back to when we were children, and you hated the older people who weren't afraid to tell kids they didn't even know to 'knock it off' if they were being overly disruptive or otherwise badly behaved. Now I think those people were courageous and I hold them in deep respect in retrospect. I'm not sure I have it in me- being a by-nature very reserved person- to be one of those people, but I definitely think that you are correct, and we must speak up and contest those who would shift us toward oblivion.

If I can't see that when people are openly speaking approvingly of infanticide, what more would it take? I've been heading this way for a while and taken some steps, but it's been a sobering last day or two.

Texan99 said...

David Foster's quotation puts me in mind of the process I sometimes describe as judging whether someone is for real. Is there really anyone home in there? Sometimes, terrifyingly, there is not--just a piece of fluff in the wind, ready to be someone else's unthinking tool.

When there's someone home, he can still go horribly wrong, but that's a different problem. You can sometimes work with that.

My county is so deep red that you'd be amazed how freely people express all these issues you're used to seeing covered up. My Facebook feed blew up with anti-abortion messages all last week, I suppose because the NY law stirred everyone up. But we have other ugly things hiding under rocks, and other reasons people give for knowing something's wrong but not standing up. I'm trying to learn the courage to stand up. I have to fight a self-doubting suspicion that I'm too given to contrarianism and anti-sociability. I'm hoping that those flaws can be put to good use in my present role. It's not easy to squelch me by threatening me with social or business ostracism. I have independent means and never have placed much stock in casual acquaintances or popularity. What's really important to me is to have credibility when I put out a message about a clear and present danger. Whatever else the people here make think of me, they know I won't lie to them.

Grim said...

Credibility is the currency, I agree. If you can get their attention, and you're a credible messenger, you can do much.

douglas said...

Ah, but there's the conundrum for me at least. If I simply come right out with my rather conservative views, they'll dismiss me offhand without ever really hearing my arguments, because that's what they've been taught to do. If I try to be more subtle and work only on one small corner of the issue, I'm not likely to make enough inroad to really have any effect.

With those you're exposed to longer term, maybe it makes an effect, but even with relatives, I usually can't talk to them in an earnest argument, because they don't want to argue (whereas I enjoy it). How does one get through that?

It's a mystery to me.

E Hines said...

I'm not likely to make enough inroad to really have any effect.
...they don't want to argue (whereas I enjoy it). How does one get through that?

How does water turn a rock to sand? One man might only make a small groove, but follow-ons can work the groove.

That's the speaking up. And it's not just one man convincing the one who won't listen, it's making a small groove in the one(s) overhearing the discussion and others speaking with similar, perhaps equally collateral, effect. It really is a sequential, parallel, generational struggle--just like it's been a sequential, parallel, generational drift to this point.

Eric Hines