The Cult of Kumbaya

By Graham Peterson

Thesis Whisperer has a nice post up on how the culture of assholery gets reproduced in the academy, and that it drives out people who are clever and nice.  The crowd-out leaves people who are high clever but assholes.  Worse, it also leaves people who are just assholes, and only look smart.

Assholery can be a superficial signal that economizes on the time and attention necessary to make a substantive point.  But at the same time, genuinely smart people don’t have time to dally around social graces — they trim the fat and get right to the point.  Smart people ruthlessly subject their own opinions (or at least other people’s opinions) to eviscerating criticism.  Smart people have a love affair with ideas, not with people.

More or less, those things are all true.  And more or less, there are a lot of people who get very good at performing those qualities externally — yet are not very bright.  Many of these people in fact compensate for their lack of intellectual creativity by imposing the haught performance on their peers.

And still, what looks like assholery is an inevitable product of the culture we’ve created in the academy.  The whole reason we exist is to challenge one another.  In the street, it is impolite to challenge people’s beliefs constantly — especially the core of those beliefs.  “John, I thought Suzie was just fantastic at the recital the other night.”

“Hey thanks, Judy!”

“But your idea that the 90 is the fastest way to the studio is ridiculous; let’s start with the driving assumption buried in your logic here.”

“Go away, Judy.”

Groups generally stay glued together because of their commonly held beliefs.  This is not a small point.  It’s fundamental in Durkheim (mechanical solidarity). Aristotle (commonplaces).  That’s common sense.  So you see, academics, by making the one belief that glues us together, that we ought to constantly undermine each other’s beliefs, we make ourselves look inherently anti-social.  We have a radical departure from the informal ethics that make most of society tick.

It’s good that we’re self critical in the academy, of our assholery.  It can go too far.  It can become a posture.  And it can become needlessly abusive.  But the criticism of the assholery can go — and has gone — way too far.  In sociology, a discipline that’s been obsessed with hierarchy and assholery for a great many decades, we have the opposite of asshole culture, and it’s just as invective — we have mamby pamby culture.  Mamby pamby culture, the Cult of Kumbaya, means that any idea which would appear to offend someone’s beliefs too deeply ought to just not come up.

Interestingly, this has the effect of appearing to solve the problem of hurt feelings and anti-sociality in the academy — it even appears to ensure a “safe place” for conversational liberality — but it actually creates an environment that is even more toxic to feelings (to those who don’t make it into the club of protected ideas).  And it ensures that the level of debate over precisely our messiest and often most important ideas stays at the level of basal ethical offense, rather than evolving to a more sophisticated exercise of the evaluation of warranted arguments.

Ad hominem gets legitimated by an elaborate, and frightening body of standpoint theory.   The idea in standpoint theory, bald faced, is that who you are has more to do with what you can know than anything else.  Criticism of, say, someone’s substantive point on gender is open to conjecture about that person’s marriage.   Now, that probably sounds ridiculous: “how could people get away with that type of thing?”  Well, because nobody in sociology says, “you wrote this article because your wife divorced you for being a domineering pig.”

Sociologists only insinuate such personal details, couched in an elaborate and therapeutic sounding social justice language.  The rhetoric, you see, says, “I am a compassionate advocate.”  The substance of the point is often, “you’re a stupid dirt bag and should shut up.”  That is not a safe place for anyone who does not agree with the Academic Safety Committee.

Criticism hurts.  Being wrong is humiliating, often.  And sacrificing ourselves at the altar of those indignities is exactly where we get scholastic honor and integrity from.*  There are greater and lesser things we can do to ease one another along as we go through our debates in the academy, but the Cult of Kumbaya is even more toxic to learning than the assholery so many people are worried about.

In the places where The Cult has taken over, there is no more public trouncing and bullying.  Advocates for academic niceness consider this a success.  But there are more dangerous developments: passive aggressive and disingenuous padding built around criticism — and a whirlwind of invective gossip that results from criticism being driven underground.  People will not allow themselves as much direct and public confrontation of ideas any longer, but they need the catharsis, so to the back office and cocktail party all of the actual criticism and honest evaluation goes.

Call me old fashioned, but I think there is dignity and generosity in criticism, even sharp criticism.  At the very least there is honesty and transparency in it.  And those are all qualities I see diminishing at the hands of a crowd who are convinced that they can improve the rigor of scientific criticism by introducing the ethics of a kindergarten reading circle.

*And no, honor and integrity are not guy things.   I am not here “reproducing” the masculinity of the academy.  Childbirth is an honorable sacrifice; the examples of feminine honor and integrity multiply.

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