9.29.2009

Confessions, Truth, and Tenure

The other day Wrangler linked me to a story about an academic dean (or something like that) who recommended that male professors "enjoy" looking at their female students--as a kind of job perk, sort of. We started a short dialogue:
Casey: Isn't [the dean's] mistake... only a matter of saying so... ? I mean, was there ever a time when a man didn't look? The last question, "Should Kealy be allowed to have his fun, or..." -- I mean, how are they going to stop him from looking?

Wrangler: Yeah, I hear you. But he has to know better. The social, cultural, and institutional power dynamics in play here just SCREAM "don't press send."

Casey: Definitely.
And it seems the Wrangler is happy to leave it at that. I've got a few more thoughts, tho'. Let's start with defining the "social, cultural, and institutional power dynamics":
Social power dynamics: I assume here Wrangler means things like the consequences that follow when a person refuses to follow well-established social mores. Everything from losing friends to being blacklisted to cold stares and so on.

Cultural power dynamics: it might be okay to ogle your students in Russia, but not here.

Institutional power dynamics: if you want to keep your job and get tenure, and this topic comes up, keep your mouth shut (or agree with whatever your female colleagues are saying).
And I take it that this is a good example of what a good practicing Rhetorician would do. He or she would say all the right things -- would end up making lots of friends and influencing lots of people, and probably even getting promoted a year early. Around these kinds of delicate maneuvers, an academic discipline has organized.

Is it really necessary? FLASHCARD: "You're in a meeting and your boss farts. Do you a) pretend not to hear, b) make a light-hearted joke to help them through the embarrassment, or c) say, "Jeezus, woman -- that is disgusting."

So Rhetoric can give me a sense of what kinds of things I should or shouldn't say given a certain set of social, cultural, and institutional power dynamics.

Anything missing here? Any five-letter word beginning with T, ending with H, and containing "RUT" in the middle?

I'm mildly frustrated by the fact that a Rhetorician looks at an issue like this and simply says, "Well, a good way to avoid negative consequences is to... either lie or shut up." Isn't that so obvious as to not require a discipline?

Let me get to where I'm going. I'm imagining the publication of a popular book in the field of Rhetorical theory in the year 2012 that contains the thesis, "If Jesus would've simply avoided saying he was the Son of God, he probably wouldn't have been crucified."

Really? Isn't that a pretty obvious "duh?" Doesn't that overlook the issue itself, which is whether or not he was the Son of God? Doesn't "negotiating" social, cultural, and institutional pressures without an eye and ear for Truth somewhere between vapid and unethical?

And finally, No, the Rhetorician cannot get him or herself off the hook by deconstructing Truth. I know that Wrangler, at least, has a precise understanding of what I mean by the term in this case--he said as much in our dialog: "I hear you. But he has to know better." So it's as clear to Wrangler as it was to the sketchy professor that men have ogled women since the beginning of time, but Wrangler's essentially willing to pretend that his eye is not attracted to the skirt in the front row... so that he doesn't have to suffer the social, cultural, and institutional pressures. I'm not blaming him or accusing him. I love him for being willing to drag this into the foreground. He's not alone in his playing pretend. But.

What a fucked up life we're all living when we've come to this.

N.B. -- I understand how wildly idealistic this is. I understand that Truth needs to be balanced against discretion. I don't blame those who don't want to be crucified for telling the Truth (I'm with them), but I don't like that we pretend that it's a difficult term or that there's no such thing. There is such a thing, and we all lie about it.

6 comments:

Wishydig said...

this is why i keep telling you to go to comedy.

and the comedian i've been really appreciating lately is marc maron. this post reminds me of this old bit of his.

the bit continues but i couldn't find it. it's basically "that's why there's a law! what? do you think we pulled the number 18 out of a hat?"

he has a podcast called wtf. it's my new gospel.

Casey said...

Yeah that was a good clip... because of the last two seconds. And you're probably right. Comedy.

Unfortunately, I've got to keep lying so I can get tenure. And while I'm lying, I don't want everyone else around me who's lying to talk about "ethics" all the time... because I know they're lying, and they know they're lying. And maybe that's okay (Jesus?) because it's all we have the guts for?

I'll go get the podcast. All of this reminds me of a post I did a while ago about masturbation... about how we all talked about it all the time in 7th grade. It was a right of passage, talking about it. It was like I knew I could trust you because you admitted you jerked it, same as everybody else.

But then in high school or college or somewhere, guys started not talking about it... and so adult women think their husbands don't yank it, and teenage boys think their dads don't, and it's all B.S. And you ARE right: comedians'll say this, but I'll be damned if I've ever heard "C's" conference paper titled, "Why and how I masturbate, and how much."

It's time for a new Augustine to publish his Confessions -- maybe what I'm hoping for is that somebody doing comedy get so truthful that it stops being funny... like that guy in Philly that you showed me last week. That's RAD.

Insignificant Wrangler said...

I would also say that things like "social power dynamics" are an ethical approach to another touched by that power (hostage to it). But to accept that, you'd have to accept that ethics isn't located in the knowledge/action of a self, but the dis.location of another. And I think we know where you stand on this point.

Casey said...

So for you, Ethics is about saying, "That person is being treated unfairly," and not about saying, "I've been treating a number of people unfairly..." ?

Is that right? Your comment was a little elliptical -- not sure I understand.

Monica said...

Regarding so-called "institutional power dynamics, I was once told by a well-respected full professor with an outstanding reputation that, in the future, if I wanted to make sure that I didn't get passed over for tenure, I should be sure to laugh or at least look amused if another tenured professor (male) made a sexist or sexual remark to me or in front of me. In other words, I guess I have to wonder what exactly are the "well-established social mores" of academia.

Casey said...

That's exactly what troubles me, Monica. And if, despite that awful knowledge, we continue to participate in maintaining the system, can speak seriously of ethics and morality? Are we only two steps away from someone advising you that you need to sleep without any higher-ranked colleague who puts in a request?

Isn't it our duty not to laugh at sexist (or in my case--this is the South, after all--racist) jokes? Even if tenure is at stake? Ugh.