Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Playing too nice

Anne Snyder's post about the blind eye-turning niceness of the networking culture of American policy elites, while only based on a couple of recent anecdotes, reminded me of my own anecdotal experience with the aspirants to this class and the smattering of complaints I've come across in the past few months about the cultural oversupply of shallow nicenesss.* Anne says:
There is often a soft clubbiness that belies the weight of their offices, and I wonder if the country wouldn’t be better served by some rude interruption of the parochial warm and fuzzies, or at least a few more words of honest questioning between members of this tier.
To be sure, I don't think there is any shortage of criticism of people like Petraeus and Broadwell coming from outside this club, but populist resentment against whomever is in power aside, I am, like Anne, skeptical that there is much of it coming from inside. And I'm not sure that this is structurally all that different from anything that's come before it - insiders will always feel some solidarity with one another against the outsiders who can't understand what's really going on in national decision-making and reflexively assume that corruption is afoot. Parallels to this must also exist among literary elites - we are the writers, sayeth the writers, and the mere readers cannot fully understand our vision and our struggles. It's us against them, even though we admit that we also need them to be us. Old story. What seems potentially newer to me is the present basis for this solidarity, which relates back to our ongoing problems of meritocracy lament. Namely, because one's position is so tenuous, there is too much to lose in disagreeing substantively with a fellow member of your club.

At least, that's what I thought I saw at HKS - since everyone must compete individually for every job, career ascent is a precarious process potentially jeopardized by every social interaction. Who knows if that girl in your international human rights class will one day be in a position to hire you? Just in case, let's make sure she leaves the class with warm feelings about you. And nothing chills a warm feeling like publicly disagreeing with what she says - making your own position on immigration reform known to some public policy class is obviously far less valuable to you than landing a desirable policy job later on.

The same thing happened among the undergrads I taught - unlike the hyper-combative high schoolers I taught this summer, very few of my undergrads were willing to argue for any position, in part no doubt because they lacked arguments, but also out of fear of offending classmates by seeming to challenge them. But these are not two different populations - the very same high schoolers who were totally willing to fight will in one or two years become the undergrads who defer to their classmates' feelings. I doubt it will be because they'll fundamentally change their character in that time, but because they'll realize how much is at stake in establishing useful friendships. One result of this is an education that suggests far more concord among students than actually exists. It is easier to think that everyone believes X so X must be the prevailing - if not entirely correct - belief when no one comes forward to register disbelief. This is probably most noticeable with respect to partisan politics, but it also happens with entirely theoretical or academic points. Fellow students are not more eager to disagree with your preposterous reading of Aristotle's Ethics than with your claim that the existence of national borders violates children's right to a unified family. If you say it and you seem to feel at all strongly about it, that's passion, and passion is commendable, even if substantively misguided. Even at political science conferences, we always begin with, "Thank you for this interesting paper," no matter how dull it is and how little gratitude we feel for having been subjected to it.

Other people's feelings must be protected, but not because we are so well-socialized, as the NY Mag piece claims, but because, having no other means of professional advancement besides our reputations with other people, we have so much personally riding on those feelings. This must've been the case at least since Benjamin Franklin advised us to make a big, noisy production of getting to work early so that our neighbors will be more inclined to view us as industrious, but I don't know that it's always been the case in schools, where dispute is more central to the institutional mission. Has it always been true that you could reasonably view your college and professional school classmates as the personal future arbiters of your professional fate? (Granted, public policy school is a recent career pre-requisite in its own right, as is the idea that all educated people aspire to "professional careers.") Probably not at the small rural colleges and state schools from which people afterwards become professionally and geographically dispersed. But even in some caricature of an arch-WASP Ivy League class full of Lowells and Sterlings, isn't part of the idea that your family connections will grease the road ahead for you so that Lowell Jr. doesn't have to personally grovel at the feet of Sterling III for his next job and so can risk alienating him in a Moral Philosophy seminar?

Finally, I wonder how much of this elite back-patting is, in addition to being new, related to the cultural segmentation of higher ed and the sense among college and professional students at top schools that the enemy is ideological and outside - all the hostile rednecks in the heartland who don't attend Swarthmore or HKS - while their friends are those within the quadrangle boundaries. If you believe that you're escaping a benighted world for an enlightened one by going away to college and joining the ranks of the professional elite, or even if you're from the enlightened world but distrust the benighted hinterland, then you'd seemingly be less likely to even want to take issue with the views of first your classmates, then your professional colleagues. After all, whatever slight quibbles you might have with their arguments - should we adopt new gender-neutral pronouns or just be more conscientious about saying "he/she"? - they're nothing compared with the vast ideological distance between you and the partisan political opposition "out there." It should become doubly important to advance through flattery and promotion the careers of your allies so that more of the ruling offices can be filled by right-thinkers rather than going to some enemy of the party.

If that's at all the case, then seemingly the only remaining redoubt of real criticism of those in power by others in power is Congress, where opposition is institutionalized, and perhaps to some degree the courts as well. But in the other spheres of cultural and political influence, the incentive to criticize members of one's own club is much weakened because your ties are no longer only those of co-careerists against suspicious or hostile non-careerists, as in "No, laypeople, we humanities scholars are useful and important! Please don't cut our budgets!" Such clubbiness still leaves space for pointing out that, even though he is a humanist and so on our team, Professor Sterling's history of 3rd Century Christian sexual practices is wrong and stupid. But if you think that your club is a weapon in a broader political battle, that the real force to oppose is not non-humanists and their lack of appreciation for your importance but rather all the people on the other side of the partisan divide, then you can worry that attacking Professor Sterling's work might have the effect of strengthening the enemy outside the gates, or even of displacing him and creating space for one of them inside your sanctuary, and these prospects are much worse than suffering his poor but well-intentioned scholarship to go un-criticized.

*The Slate essay on literary backscratching reminded me a good deal of the small world of academic political science and its endless "thank you for this paper"s tempered only slightly by its entrenched sectarianism, but I have no idea what the NY Mag piece is talking about - the internet as a whole is hardly suffering from too much niceness. It's mean almost all the way down, even when it's claiming to speak benevolently for the oppressed, as practically every post of Phoebe's on YPIS demonstrates.

UPDATE: Withywindle responds. (There has to be some automatic way to note these things.)


alex said...

I only read some of the NYMag article but...

Not the internet as a whole, but social networking. Don't you know people who "like" every status update of every person they know? Because they are so supportive. Or something. Or promote whatever their friends are doing with gushing praise (online)? And in particular, advertise any nice thing their significant other does for them in order to announce they are the "BEST [significant other] EVER!!!!" (At this point, it might be cheaper and more effective for men to just send women pictures of flowers to post on facebook- who needs real ones that will die?)

It does bother me that I feel compelled to "like" status updates that are marginally related to me (about an event I attended for instance) just to make the other person feel like I am engaged in their life.

I take the author's point that this is relating to each other like 6 year-olds.

Miss Self-Important said...

Yeah, that's probably right about social networking, but not about how we are all great people b/c we donated money to the sad bus driver on youtube. It is true that I sometimes feel I should like status updates to show that I am paying attention. But the BEST BF EVAR thing is a little different b/c that's self-promotion, not other-promotion. It reflects a lot on your good judgment that you're dating this great habitual flower-gifter, and no one else can have him while you do, so you're not really promoting him to others in the same way.

But the thing about promoting what your friends are doing is what I'm interested in, and I don't think it's very juvenile. I think it's a form of networking by seeming to do someone whose favor you want a good turn that in fact cost you very little (you just clicked "share"). There are probably some realms where that kind of publicity is essential (maybe theater or the arts generally, b/c no one will go to your show w/o it?). But when someone writes an article in a popular magazine where everyone can see it anyway and that has its own publicity channels, and it is re-posted by 400 of her friends, I suspect that this activity is not simply altruistic.

Also, you know that Julia would just say about these problems that we should quit FB.