This post, containing links to my work, will stay pinned at the top of this blog.
I got into another discussion of trigger warnings last night that really crystallized why that discussion is so immensely frustrating for me.
First is the now-ubiquitous claim that trigger warnings are only warnings, and that they have no connection whatsoever to an actual censorship impulse. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been told, with absolute confidence, that “no one is talking about actually regulating content!” Which just is not true. Again, I’m forced to invoke my greater personal experience and knowledge of actual campus activists, rather than the purely abstract version that so many people in the media embrace. I have spent my entire life in campus lefty circles, was a campus activist when I was on campus, maintain an active network of people involved in campus politics today, and keep my ear to the ground still. And there have always been campus leftists who think that many types of speech that we generally acknowledge as legitimate political expression should be banned. When I was growing up on campus, there was already a robust hate speech discourse in campus activist circles, and they tended to take a very expansive view on what hate speech constitutes. I know campus antifa types myself who think that anti-abortion attitudes should be no platformed as a matter of routine. Stop telling me from the media bubble you live in that these attitudes don’t exist, just because they resemble a conservative stereotype.
Yes, you can articulate a view that trigger warnings are entirely distinct from actual regulation of intellectual content on campus, and you are certainly free to support the former and not the latter. But there is real overlap between the people who push most forcefully for trigger warnings and those who want to push ideas they find offensive off campus. The Laura Kipnis affair was frightening because it was an escalation of a pattern of attempts to regulate ideas on campus, bringing the power of the federal government to bear. But it wasn’t surprising, to me, at all. Again, because I know people who actually want to limit speech in the way that drive-by liberal writers say don’t exist. The University of Michigan American Sniper incident was a minor moment, sure, and the movie was eventually broadcast on campus. But I was just arguing with someone who said that the movie should be banned from campuses because it’s violent propaganda, not legitimate expression. You can call that view fringe. You can claim it doesn’t actually have power on campus. But it exists, and it’s held by many of the same people who push most forcefully (and accusingly) for trigger warnings. To say that there’s no potential connection between these things simply isn’t credible. I don’t understand why people can’t say “I support trigger warnings, but I acknowledge that there are genuinely censorious forces on campus, and I don’t support that.” Why is that so hard?
If you really support trigger warnings on campus but oppose actual regulation of intellectual content on campus, you might get around to saying the latter once in awhile, rather than circling the wagons and insisting that it’s all a conservative conspiracy.
Next, the relationship between PTSD and trigger warnings. There’s absolutely no clarity on a very basic question: are trigger warnings intended to help those who suffer from PTSD? The very notion of a “trigger” comes from discussion of PTSD. And when it suits them, those who aggressively pursue trigger warnings certainly use the weight of medicalization to get what they want. But there is no corresponding claim that only those with PTSD should be invoking triggering. In fact, trigger warning proponents tend to take a very expansive view of who gets to invoke feeling triggered, generally arguing that anyone who claims to be feeling traumatized legitimately is so. But that’s not at all the standard of medical science on PTSD. So the standard seems to be that when it comes time to argue for the righteousness of trigger warnings — and, naturally, the evil of those who oppose them — trigger warnings are a matter of medical necessity. But when it comes to who gets to invoke them, there is no medical standard that needs to be invoked at all.
When we talk about “triggers,” are we talking about PTSD? I have read thousands and thousands of words on this subject, and I have no idea.
Nor is there any notion of how to handle cheating and abuse, because questioning whether someone actually suffered a trauma is considered anathema. This is a constant aspect of contemporary progressive politics: assigning special rights or privileges to groups that have a certain condition, but treating investigating whether someone actually has that condition as the most offensive behavior possible. What are we supposed to do with students who frivolously claim to have suffered trauma? I have been told directly by people who are in favor of trigger warnings that to attempt to determine if someone really has PTSD, or some other, vaguer form of trauma, is to “revictimize” them. So what are educators and institutions supposed to do? The closest thing I get to a response is “no one would do that.” No one would do that? Really? No college student would take advantage of a special dispensation you’ve created that inarguably gives them a certain amount of transactional power in their interactions with an instructor? There are millions of people in college. They come in all different forms. Many of them are great, both honest and ethical. And some of them are very bad people. So what do we do to decide who can fairly claim to have suffered trauma, and access the special dispensation that might come with it?
Then there’s the fact that, in the actual medical literature on PTSD, triggers are discussed not as intellectual subjects like rape or war but as sensorial impressions like a sound or a small or a play of light. Or the fact that there’s no extant medical literature that demonstrates that trigger warnings actually have provide demonstrable relief to the people who suffer PTSD. That stuff isn’t even discussed.
Finally, there’s the rhetorical condition of the discussion we have. I think this piece from Lindy West emblemizes it:
Maybe we can all get flippant and condescending about trigger warnings after we build a world where more than 3% of rapes lead to conviction, where we don’t shame and blame people for their own victimisation, where men don’t feel entitled to women’s bodies, and where millions of people aren’t moving through life yoked with massive, secret traumas.
This strikes me as a classic example of a common progressive category error: this terrible injustice exists (and it does), so therefore you have to get on board with this heavy-handed policy that cannot possibly actually reduce that injustice. I am totally unclear as to how trigger warnings actually combat any of the problems that West identifies in that paragraph.
But more importantly: how exactly is anyone supposed to have a conversation after a statement like that is made? How are we supposed to sort good from better when the rhetorical cudgels of rape, victim blaming, male entitlement, and secret trauma have been deployed? The trigger warning conversation is so impossible precisely because of tactics like this: using the reality of trauma, and the horrors of trauma, as a means of guilt by association and ratcheting up the emotional stakes of the discussion. The whole conversation tends to get dragged down into recrimination and acrimony precisely because of this kind of argument, which seeks to cast people asking questions and raising concerns as apologists for terrible crimes. How can you have a conversation that way?
I don’t think political correctness is ruining campus, no matter how often I am accused of thinking that. In fact I don’t even like the term “political correctness” at all. I don’t think trigger warnings threaten the fabric of our education system. I do think that there are some legitimate problems with them and their use, and more, with the way that people who advocate for them go about arguing in their favor. And unlike so many others, my concerns in this arena come because I want to spend my life on campus and have direct personal stakes in the health of our institutions. I genuinely believe that there is a meaningful common ground that people can find on this issue. But I have no idea how to find it, when as soon as you raise concerns with the practice, you’re relegated to the role of victim blamer and trauma denier. There’s no way to address this issue constructively under those conditions. None. So the question becomes, as it is for so many other issues within the progressive coalition these days: do we really want to be the side of “you’re either with us or against us”?
We’ve entered late August. The days are growing shorter and cooler. Before you know it, the first leaves will start to change, and autumn will be with us. If you’re keeping your ear to the ground, though, you’ll note another season, just as certain and predictable, is coming near: Jonathan Franzen season.
The internet does not like Jonathan Franzen. Jonathan Franzen has a new book coming out. And so it follows, as the night the day, that we’re in for a lot of pro forma Franzen hate pieces. They’ll all be written in the same tired idiom, the worn out snark that you’ve been consuming by the gallon since 2004. They’ll make the same rote claims about privilege and publishing. They’ll play to an audience that is made up largely of people who are expected to dislike Jonathan Franzen and who in fact take disliking Jonathan Franzen as part and parcel of the social culture to which they belong. In other words, there will be no challenge to their presumed readership. These pieces won’t be bad because they’re mean, or because they degrade our capacity for empathy, or because they’re cheap. None of those usual complaints. No, it’ll be bad because they’re boring. Worn out. We’ve all heard it ten thousand times. Whatever about that vocabulary once seemed fresh and cutting now seems rote and predictable. We’re dealing with a class of young writers for whom that style has been the assumed language of the internet since they started reading online, which means that many of them use it not because they want to but because they figure that’s just what you do.
What is the value of writing a piece on the internet about how you don’t like Jonathan Franzen in 2015? What in that genre could be done that hasn’t already been accomplished? Why bother?
You might imagine that I’m a Franzen fan. Well, I thought The Corrections was a good book, it’s true. Didn’t care much for Freedom. His thoughts on contemporary fiction, as epitomized in his essay “Mr. Difficult,” are as offensive and wrong to me as literary opinion can be. Ben Marcus’s takedown of those ideas is one of my favorite magazine pieces ever. The general notion that artists should be elbowless crowdpleasers, eager to flatter their audience, drives me completely insane. I’m not a Franzen partisan. I have no interest in protecting the reputation of a wealthy and successful novelist. I am a partisan, however, for a culture industry that is something more than the endless sifting of personalities — goodies and baddies, the cool and the uncool, the savvy and the chumps, the complimented and the ridiculed.
When the Entourage movie came out, the result was as predictable as you can imagine. The internet hated it, and hated it for perfectly predictable reasons. And you know, if you had forced me at gunpoint to see that movie, I’m sure I would have hated it for the exact same reasons. But I was struck by the utter exhaustion of it all. Everyone knew what the internet would think about the Entourage movie. The tropes were all the same. It felt like everyone, writers and readers alike, was going through the motions, but nobody could just decide to opt out. I guess it’s just another example of the taking of the media, only it’s a matter of style and attitude rather than subject matter. Somehow that makes it so much worse.
Why does the internet bother telling itself the things it already knows about itself?
Complaints about the contemporary economics and culture of online writing are ubiquitous and tiresome. I write more of them than I should. I’d much rather identify what I like than what I don’t. And I’ll tell you: I think there’s more talented writers regularly writing online right now than ever before. It’s just that the economic structure they’re caught in compels them to write the exact same things. So let me identify a piece that I read that avoided all of the things that I’ve grown tired of. This Stassa Edwards piece for the Awl is just a beauty. It’s subtle, deeply researched, quiet. It has no punchline. It teaches you things while avoiding the dulling, clumsy, ham-fisted “A+B=C” school of essaying that editors are infatuated with today. It’s deeply political without seeming to fit into any obvious political lane. It displays loving craft without being crafty. And it deploys irony in the pursuit of sadness rather than comedy. More than anything, it made me say to myself “this is not a feeling I thought I would feel in reading today.”
I’m just a greedy, undeserving reader, and you are free to ignore me. But god, please, stop churning out pieces that fall along the same predictable political lines. No more of the same sarcastic hit pieces. No pieces where, when I see the headline and your name, I can guess every beat you’re going to hit. No more adults complaining about the banal daily indignities of human life that everyone has always had to deal with. Say a thing that another person in your exact position at your exact publication would never say. Surprise me. Challenge me. Make it new.
Sometimes I think the slippery slope fallacy and the strawman fallacy are in a war to be the most misused.
Here’s where a claim of a strawman argument is useful. You and I are arguing. I refute a point you haven’t made and don’t hold. I treat that as evidence that you’re wrong. That’s a strawman.
Here’s what’s not a strawman. I identify an argument that I’ve heard and disagree with. You don’t personally hold that argument that I have disagreed with. You say “that’s a strawman!” and act as though you’ve refuted my argument against this position. That’s not a strawman. The fact that you don’t hold a position, or have not yet heard that position voiced, does not mean that no one holds that position, or that the position doesn’t deserve refuting.
I say this because I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written a piece identifying and disputing an argument, only to have someone who was not the target of my piece say “that’s a strawman, no one believes that.” Saying “no one is arguing X” is almost always wrong, because the world is big and full of a lot of people with a lot of opinions. And it’s not inherently fallacious, at all, to say “some might argue this point this way, but they would be wrong for this reason.” Again: if I claim to have refuted your case for something because I’ve dismissed an argument you haven’t made, that’s a strawman. If I’m just generally addressing an argument you haven’t made, that’s not a strawman, even if you’re sure I’m wrong.
I say this because a few people have come after my Observer piece, claiming that no one is arguing that the Ashley Madison leak is justified, or that people who cheated deserve to be exposed. Well, actually, many people are doing that, most certainly the hackers themselves. And you can find similar sentiments on Facebook, in Tweets, in comments on articles, etc, with minimal effort. This actually highlights the subtle classism of a lot of these strawman complaints. They often aren’t so much “no one is saying that” as “no one who matters is saying that.” But arguments that are popular outside of professional media are important. They say a lot about community morals and norms. I find it perverse to imagine that an argument made by a single columnist in the New York Times requires repeated rebuttal, but arguments made by hundreds of people on social media don’t.
Gawker has just linked to Yasmin Nair’s interesting provocation “Your Sex Is Not Radical.” I’m happy more people will read Yasmin’s piece, as she’s a great writer that everyone should be reading, and that piece is her in fine form. In particular, it demonstrates her absolute refusal to trod a well-worn ideological path. Some have interpreted that piece as a critique of me, because I am named in its first paragraph. But in fact I quite agree with Yasmin. I don’t think that polygamy is radical. Indeed, in my piece for Playboy debunking anti-polygamy arguments, I said
in many ways polygamy is a conservative venture. But just like I must insist on the equality of women in the capitalist workplace, even while I recognize that the workplace is a site of alienation, exploitation and destruction, I have to insist that the conservative structure of marriage must apply equally to all loving relationships.
In similar terms, some people reacted to my Observer piece yesterday by asking if I really think infidelity is a left-wing virtue. To which I reply, of course not; but then, I never said it was. I do believe, however, that the kind of communal shaming of naughty sex-havers for having sex outside of marriage, waged by strangers to both partners in those marriages, is inherently reactionary.
I don’t think legalized polygamy is radical, and I certainly don’t think it will tear down the state/capital/patriarchy. I just think it’s a good idea. Likewise, I don’t think adultery is radical, and never claimed so. I do think the notion that we should all be anti-adultery police is deeply retrograde.
Jordan Weissmann’s piece today, discussing grad student loan debt today, is a bit of a logical pretzel. The piece is set up as a complaint about the fiscal damage grad students are doing to the budget, with a headline reading “The Newest Scourge of the Federal Budget: Graduate Students.” But as Weissmann points out, grad students are a large money maker for the federal government. That’s because the federal government draws huge interest payments off of grad students, as they do off of all students who take advantage of student loans. Weissmann says that “Graduate degree holders are relatively affluent, meaning there isn’t a great argument for heavily subsidizing their educations.” As Mike Konczal has pointed out (I can’t find where right now), if the government is making money off of a financial program, that’s the precise opposite of a subsidy. Would Weissmann say that payday lenders are subsidizing poor people who take out predatory loans to pay for food or the rent?
Now I agree that we should cap the federal loans that a given grad student can take out. I also have written acres of words on why not (and, very rarely, why to) go to grad school, which you can look up. And, of course, that one rare example of the person who apparently went unfunded through a grad program to the tune of a quarter million dollars and will get most of it forgiven looks bad. But most grad students are not using the federal loan system as a source of graft. Most grad students are not living high on the hog on loans. As someone who recently graduated from grad school myself, I would again ask for a little more human sympathy for grad students, who as a group are subject to constant ridicule. The idea that getting more education is a noble path forward is inscribed in our national mythology. Politicians constantly cite a more educated populace as a goal for our government. And I’ll remind you that many of today’s grad students felt forced back to school by an unprecedently terrible job market for recent college graduates, one that left them hopeless. For many of them, the choice was not between grad school and responsible employment but between grad school and unemployment. Now, they’re generating money for the federal loan system, which is not only self-funding, it draws a cool profit. I can’t blame any of them for settling with the government for somewhat less than they originally owed under those circumstances.
Yes, I think it’s in some sense unfortunate that some grad students who are likely to be more affluent are going to take advantage of the system when there are poorer people who won’t be able to. But that’s the reality of the kind of large-scale social engineering that our efforts to educate our populace results in. People will work the system to their advantage, and given all of the other federal spending we could get mad about — enormous bank bailouts, the $1.5 trillion dollar F-35 boondoggle, corporate welfare — well, I just can’t get mad if someone works that system to their advantage. There are much bigger fish to fry than grad students who rake in profit for the federal government for all you fiscal hawks. Particularly in a world where some countries pay for all of their citizens’ higher education. Personally, I don’t think the federal government should be making a profit on student loans at all.
I don’t think Weissmann’s this sloppy. I think, to be frank with you, that he needs to get a little grad student resentment in there because it’s such a reliable generator of attention and hate clicks. I can only imagine what the comments of that piece are like, for example. I’ve said before that the resentment of others, particularly those who remind you too much of yourselves, is a key revenue generator of the contemporary internet. And with the ambient cultural mockery and often outright hatred that grad students engender, I think looking to blame them for one more thing — to call them a scourge of a budget for which they as a class generate large profits — is just too tempting.
Hey guys, I’m in the Observer today, arguing that, rather than being a clear-cut win for social liberalism, today’s sexual culture is at once radical and profoundly conservative. Check it out.
Hello, fellow academic traveler! If you’re like me, you’ve often struggled to know how to format your CV, which as we know is the single most important document of your professional life. So many different people give completely contradictory advice, always expressed as absolute no-exceptions rules that, if broken, will result in potential lawsuit and certain ridicule. It can be hard to know where to begin! But fear not. I’m here to give you the lowdown, after years of reading and synthesizing these rules. With these guidelines, you’ll have a beautiful, professional CV in no time.
- Please, no cliched fonts! There’s nothing search committees hate more than fonts they’ve seen a thousand times. This means no Times, no Garamond, no Cambria, no Calibri, no Helvetica, or anything else that comes prepackaged with Microsoft Word, Adobe InDesign, or any other popular program that you likely have access to. As a good rule of thumb, if members of search committees can read your document without downloading a new font pack, something’s wrong.
- Don’t get gimmicky with your font, though. That screams “amateur.”
- Remember, you want all of your sections to be as self-contained and visually coherent as possible. This means that every heading absolutely must fit on a single page. Keep margins to 3.5 inches on all sides. No lower than 16 point font, please — you don’t want committee members to have to strain to see. Four full carriage returns between each line item; you want them to have room to breathe. Oh, and it should go without saying that you want to have as much listed under each heading as humanly possible if you want to get a job. Good luck.
- The total number of lines in each section must grow according to a mathematical sequence that is intuitively apparent to the committee member. The last thing you want is for a committee member to have to pull out a calculator. Make sure your sequence is classic without being cliched. If you use the Fibonacci, you might as well write “Help, I’m trapped in the 90s!” on the top of your CV. But don’t get fancy; the Padovan sequence will make you look like a showoff. Choose wisely.
- Bold and italics only when necessary. Bolding or italicizing anything that’s not necessary is the kiss of death. Of course, you must bold or italicize when necessary; to fail to do so shows that you have grad student mentality and are not ready to be taken seriously as an academic. The key to recognizing the difference between necessary and unnecessary bolding or italics is
- If you send a CV that’s in a standard International ISO paper size like A4 or a North American paper size like letter size, you might as well slap the chair in the face on your campus visit. Any serious academic knows the only acceptable paper size is Jeppesen Aeronautical Chart standard. It should be from a prewar production run, of course.
- Header should include your name, email address, PIN number, SnapChat handle, cosmological constant, and the phrase “BUSH DID 9/11.” ( STEM applicants may substitute “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams,” if dictated by field-specific convention.)
- If I see a single bullet point on your CV at any time I’ll rip your diploma from your goddamn hands, I swear to god.
- NO WATERMARKS UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES
- A watermark can add a whimsical, personal touch that really makes you stand out from the pack!
- Video CVs are increasingly accepted and, in many fields, required. However, any format other than your unblinking face, holding as still as possible, while an offscreen British man reads the complete content of your paper CV in a droll but sensitive tone, is unacceptable and may result in IRB action against you. Vine is the only acceptable choice for hosting your video CV.
- Using a ruler, compass, and number 3 pencil, find the exact midpoint of each section of your CV. Then, draw a circle that encompasses every word within that section, while intersecting (but not overlapping!) the first letter in the first word and last letter in the last word of each section. The radius of each circle of every section must be a factor of the total number of words in your CV as a whole, including headings but excluding headings.
- Color in your CV is forbidden, except when it is mandatory.
- Confused by how to list work in progress? The conventions are simple. If an article has been submitted but you have not yet heard a response, it should be listed as “not yet denied.” If you have received a revise and resubmit request, it should be listed as “politely denied.” If you have received an acceptance with revisions, it should be listed as “accidentally accepted.” If your work has actually been published, it should be listed as “accepted out of mercy and/or corruption.”
- Double reverse half-chronological order (Mayan calendar format) throughout the document.
- Your CV has to be scannable — research suggests the average search committee member spends 12 seconds rubbing your CV’s paper between their fingers before lighting it on fire.
- Remember, ABC: Always Be Concise.
- Remember, ABC: Always Be Comprehensive.
- Don’t forget to staple a lock of virgin yak hair to the upper right hand corner, or if applying to a British university, the upper left.
- If you find that you keep getting rejected, ask yourself: was that yak really a virgin?
- Make sure to prominently list the name of the Ivy League institution where you got your PhD on every page. If you got your PhD at a non-Ivy League institution and still want a tenure track job, hahahahahahahahahahahaha oh christ that’s hilarious
- Have Steve sign every page of your CV.
- List your first three books prominently near the top of your CV. If you haven’t published three books, seriously, where did your life go wrong?
- For goodness sake’s, proofread! Have at least six graduate students go over your CV in fine detail, looking for the slightest error. Then have a faculty member pretend to do it. Then pay somebody credible to take out all the errors your undermining, jealous grad student friends snuck in there to undermine you.
- Make sure all of your applications are sent within seven (7) days of your dissertation defense. Otherwise, your dissertation has officially gone stale and you are worthless garbage.
- Your university likely has a career counseling department that will help you prepare your CV. Everything they tell you will be the complete opposite of what your advisor told you. Somehow, they’re both completely wrong.
- Ultimately, the goal of your CV is the same as your goal on a job interview: to appear formal but casual, friendly but standoffish, self-aggrandizing but not conceited, teacherly but not didactic, fully formed but moldable, amenable to change but resistant to change, brilliant but dumber than your potential colleagues, and most importantly, nothing at all like the grad student you’ve spent the last 7 years being.
Unless we demand otherwise, that is.
I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: a significant majority of the advice that floats around out there for people on the academic job market — the people who will, someday, make up the professorial class, though more will fail to ever ascend to that rank than will succeed — amounts to “watch what you say.” It’s expressed in countless different terms, but so much of it boils down to telling young academics that they can’t take public stances on issues of controversy, whether political or academic. After all, it only takes one person on a job search committee who didn’t like that essay you wrote….
Part of the reason why I’ve grown so dissatisfied with complaints about “political correctness” on campus, despite being associated with those complaints myself, is that they fail to recognize the self-fulfilling prophecy aspect of all of this. The notion that young academics must watch what they say, for fear of offending students, becomes the tool that accomplishes the effective silencing of young academics itself. I’ve very rarely been told “it was wrong that you wrote that, that argument is unacceptable” by faculty. I have constantly been told “you shouldn’t have written that, because someone out there will find it unacceptable.” I know they mean well. And they may very well be right. But such warnings inevitably become the means through which the conversation is narrowed. Yes, I still maintain worries about the way in which some student activists have attempted to police on-campus expression. But the actual power they have over my own expression has been limited. The power of faculty, who sit on academic job search committees, who work as editors, or who are otherwise in positions of power within academia, is direct and enormous. And while I am confident that the large majority of them believe in and would fight for the concept of intellectual freedom when those conflicts are stark, I also think that as a class many of them are subject to the notion of “baggage,” the vague sense that someone with a public political profile isn’t worth working with when there are so many academics desperate for recognition.
To the degree that I think students do regulate speech on campus, I think it’s through the preemptive fear of adjuncts and grad students. That’s why, when people complain that real examples of student policing of speech are rare, they’re right but somewhat missing the point. What I worry about is the adjuncts and grad students who avoid the potential controversies in the first place.
I wrote a piece in Politico, on polygamy. I thought it was a strong argument on an issue of relevance and importance to our current political situation. I thought my argument was forceful without being at all disrespectful or aggressive. And while I understand that polygamy remains an unusual idea for many, I don’t at all see the notion of legal group marriage as outside of the boundaries of acceptable political opinion for a university employee. I wasn’t, after all, arguing for the inherent inferiority of certain races or denying the Holocaust. The story did remarkably well, in terms of traffic. I believe it got half a million views in something like a day or two. Now I don’t expect to ever get any credit as an academic for that visibility; I long ago gave up on the hope that the average academic would see engaging in that way as worthy of reward. But I maintain a naive belief that this kind of work could at least not actively hurt me. Yet I have heard from several people, always second hand, that some faculty members feel I shouldn’t have published such a thing if I ever want an academic job. Always with that second order remove: why, it’s not that I would forbid you engaging in this way before you’re hired, of course, but some people wouldn’t like it, so….
Like interdisciplinarity, the concept of the public intellectual is beloved in the academy only in theory, not in practice. In theory, interdisciplinarity is seen as the future, as we more and more recognize the artificiality of disciplinary and department lines. In theory, interdisciplinary academics can apply to jobs in a variety of departments. Too often, though, they are people who are looked on as outsiders by everyone. When applying for a job in a department other than the one they got their degree in, their application may very well be shunted immediately into the deny pile for failing to meet minimum qualifications; when applying to a job in their home departments, search committee members may well say “is s/he really one of us?” The pubic intellectual thing seems similar to me, at this point. Everyone likes the idea of public engagement, and most recognize the need to demonstrate to wider audiences the value of our work. But it remains completely unclear to me how young academics are supposed to engage without risking the kind of controversy that, job market advice constantly insists, can torpedo a career before it starts. The best I can come up with is to maintain an active but banal Twitter feed.
Ultimately the story is the same: if you actually care about free expression on campus, you can do far more good by supporting the labor conditions of academic workers than by yelling at undergraduates. Restoring declining tenure track lines will do more to protect free expression on campus than anything else. Supporting adjunct unions will too. Unfortunately, for too many who complain about the real dangers to free expression on campus, support for faculty, union rights, and worker power writ large are ideologically untenable. Which is why we need a left-wing response to illiberal attitudes on campus, to ensure that these issues are confronted in a way that maintains the actual spirit of academic freedom, rather than merely using that spirit as a cudgel with which to beat passionate student activists.
Yesterday turned into yet another Twitter conflagration about how a post of mine is an uncool thing written by an uncool guy. But, you know, I was right.
The thing is, this isn’t really about David Foster Wallace, although I feel like he’s become this locus for weird shit because writer culture is an ostensibly literary culture full of people who don’t read but feel like they should read Infinite Jest and feel weird that they haven’t. (Seriously, just don’t read it, it’s fine.) It’s really about cruelty as a political tool. The thing I was reacting to was over-the-top mean. But it’s allowed to be cruel because its cruelty is directed against a target seen as deserving, the “litbro.” I don’t know what that is; I doubt anybody really does. What matters is that once sorted into that category, we’re meant to believe that there’s no amount of derision too brutal. The same goes for “neckbeards,” or “fedoras,” or “nice guys,” any number of other groups that we’ve decided are OK to treat as poorly as humanly possible. Because of progressive politics, or social justice, somehow or another. Since people enjoy being cruel in this way, the number of these bizarre categories grows and grows, though the people who devise them never seem to place themselves in any. Then you get to treat more and more people terribly. That’s what the fight was about, that concept, the concept that some people deserve limitless cruelty because politics says so. And it’s about the fact that people don’t want to give up that cruelty because they find ladling out that cruelty too much fun.
What sticks with me about the Justine Sacco situation isn’t the question of whether she deserved attack, or how much. It’s the glee people felt. If you dig around enough, you can find them, tweets where people said about that situation, “I hope this never ends.”
For myself, I think that we should fall out of love with cruelty. Not just because these groups are, by design, so shaggy and vague that they inevitably pull in people who aren’t actually sexist or racist or anything else. Instead they’re just uncool. No one would publicly argue that anyone deserves such treatment just for being uncool, of course, but that thin veneer of politics provides plausible deniability. But also because I’m actually more concern with this behavior when it’s against men who are actually sexist, actually bigoted, actually in the wrong wrong. Because even then, in the long run, the gleeful application of personal cruelty will only corrode and poison our political engagement, turn even good intentions into something sick and ugly. I don’t think it does us any good, in the long run, to be cruel, even to bad people. There are political means that by their nature occlude and undermine political ends, and even if they didn’t, those ends can’t justify intentionally inflicting emotional pain. I think cruelty is one of the master’s tools, and our embrace of it has been a terrible mistake.
Here’s how this is going to go, because it’s how this always goes.
A few of my regular readers will retweet and favorite this. A much larger number of people will make fun of it. Tweeters with names like “Stronk Fartbox” and “420 DadJeans VapeKing,” guys who work in advertising or accounting and for whom Twitter is their secret life, will screen cap parts of it, share it with a lol, and get their typical retweets and favorites. People with mean Twitpics (“That’s kind of my thing, I’m mean on Twitter, it’s like my trademark”) will be mean about it. Twitter will snark and snark and snark. A much smaller number of people will, maybe sheepishly, think that I’m right. Because they’ve noticed the cruelty, too, and it’s left them feeling sad and exhausted. And they’ll quietly agree. A small number of them, maybe 5 or 6, will email me to tell me. More will just nod along and say nothing, which is fine too. But enough people will feel this scratchy feeling on the back of their necks, like all of this endless cruelty long ago stopped fulfilling any political function at all, but became just another example of mocking people with the wrong clothes, the wrong attitude, the wrong friends. And they’ll take that feeling with them as they move forward.
Maybe, in time, that sentiment will grow, and we’ll all have had enough of cruelty.