A reader writes:
Oh how well do I know this topic. I’ve been thinking about it since my experience at an elite East Coast liberal arts college in the ’80s. One cause of PC attitudes on campus is that professors tend to be the kind of people who take their politics very personally, but who don’t have much of an outlet for actually solving problems. Professors sit around and talk to each other and their students about how awful things are in society. Which we all do in this democracy of course. But professors then pat themselves on the back for being particularly insightful and enlightened, because they, their students, and other professors are telling them that they are very insightful and enlightened.
But few people outside of academia have any interest in listening to them, because 1) they have no solutions to the problems they talk about, or their solutions are not realistic, and 2) they have so convinced themselves of their brilliance that they come across as elitist snobs. So they’re taking themselves incredibly seriously, but no one else is. This creates a vicious circle – the more strident they are, the less anyone else is interested in listening to them, the more frustrated they get, then they get that much more strident.
Professors get paid to pass judgment. That’s a key part of what they do. They pass judgment on each other (“Dr. Smith’s opinion on XYZ in Shakespeare is wrong for reasons ABC”), and they pass judgment on students (giving grades). So when they discuss politics, they pass judgment. What they are not necessarily paid to do is listen to other people so that they can work with them. At the end of the day, politicians and activists have to listen to people who disagree with them, because that’s part of the process of getting things done. Professors, who don’t necessarily have a project that requires the participation of other people, don’t have the same professional incentive to listen to people who disagree with them. So they have lots of reasons to pat themselves on the back for passing judgment on other people, but very little incentive to acknowledge the perspectives of people who disagree with them.
Another difference between politicians/activists on the one hand, and professors on the other, is that politicians and activists have to be prepared to admit it when they are wrong, because inevitably they will be. But professors have tenure, which means that they cannot be held accountable for their mistakes. So they have no incentive or even reason to admit when they are wrong. Lots of incentive to argue and pass judgment, very little incentive to listen or admit mistakes. Is it any surprise that academic discussions of politics are so toxic?
Update from a reader, who responds to the one above:
Look, there are a lot of people in my profession who think they are pretty goddamn smart. Some of them even are pretty goddamn smart. That doesn’t make academia a circle jerk. The whole way we work is by critiquing others and engaging in a conversation about it. We teach, we read, we write, we go to conferences where we talk over our ideas and argue about shit, and then we refine our positions and then we publish and we argue more about it. It’s not just about criticizing other ideas, it’s about improving our own as well … so the opposite of what you just said.
And yeah, the college campus has its special unique kind of pc-isms, and sure, they maybe go too far sometimes. But the reason that I think I am more careful about my language than my peers who don’t work for the academy has first to do with the fact that I am a writer and I am very careful about what my words mean, and it also has a lot to do with my students. I trust my colleagues to engage with me anyway if I am not super careful in my language or my claims. But I don’t necessarily trust my students to do so. I teach kids from all over the world and all over the US, and I model for them how to have respectful conversations with each other. That might not be what they get all the time in the real world, but in the ideal setting of the classroom, I get to teach them what their language means and how careful they ought to be with it, and how to engage with others who aren’t as careful without necessarily jumping to a call of racism. And I get to do that because I am so careful with my own language.
Another reader quotes me:
These new sins of the left can easily become the only sins that really matter (which is ridiculous), and the punishment for those sins can easily morph into an attempt at cultural control and coercion. That’s particularly true, as I found living in New York, when there’s almost no one who disagrees with you.
Allow me to fix that for you.
That’s particularly true, as I found living in the West Village among fellow homosexual (gay/LGBTQ/whatever) leaders and media grandees, when there’s almost no one who disagrees with you.
Look, yes, it’s a minor criticism of a larger and spot-on point. And you’ve gamely hashed over and been lashed over your aversion to New York. But look, again: “New York” as a concept is one of those right-wing shorthands for liberal overreach that badly fails the reality test. Stop using it as a crutch. This is a city of 8-plus-million people, most of whom weren’t born here, millions of whom weren’t even born in this country and share few of its cultural norms. It’s not a monolith. I’d be happy to put you in touch with my co-op president if you’d like the hear from a New Yorker as casually racist and passionately conserva-Catholic as your cherished target Bill Donohue. He also really loves his dogs.