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Is parental social status a mixed blessing? On toleration for occupational drudgery

Many people assume that coming from parents with high social status is an advantage, because it would appear to increase the probability of gaining high social status for oneself. But what if parental social status is more like a weight on one's shoulders, an obligation heavy enough that, in some cases, it might even be a losing ticket in the lottery of life?

My parents have very low social status. I am a statistical oddity for having become a tenured academic, which is a relatively high status position (although I wager it's falling in the ranks as academia becomes discredited).

But I've been an academic for five years now, and with every passing year it gets harder and harder to understand why my job is worth doing. The volume of patently nonsensical and often ethically dubious make-work is so high that one of the chief intellectual puzzles I've become the most fascinated by is simply why everyone around me (myself included) is willing to work this job. And people are not just willing to work this job, they even continue to eagerly compete for it. That this has become a puzzle to me suggests that something about me is losing the capacity to do it, and yet for the moment at least — I'm still doing it.

In other occupations, the answer to such a question is obvious: people put up with all the nonsense either because they have no other choice, or because the money is worth it. But what is peculiar about academia is that most academics are skilled and connected enough to do many other things,  and the money is usually better in private-sector versions of academic fields. So if I am right that academia is becoming less and less worth it, given increasing loads of nonsense, I do think that the continuing passionate interest in either obtaining or maintaining academic careers is indeed a puzzling instance of lemming-like, behavioral inertia. But to call it herd behavior is too easy and not really satisfying. How or why does this particular herd dynamic hang together? A good theory would explain why academic investment varies across individuals (e.g., why is it becoming weaker in me, but not others?).

One possible explanation is the drive to meet parental expectations. The rationale is simple. If both of your parents were professors, or they had some other high-status occupation, you'll have a higher tolerance for nonsensical make-work, because you don't want to fail in the eyes of your parents. Quitting because of a too-high volume of nonsense would be existentially much more difficult than it would be for me, as their parents would view it more negatively than mine. Plus, they would feel their parents' judgment more because their parents' status gives their judgments greater credence. My parents, on the other hand, basically think I'm a highly-successful genius no matter what I do, and if for some reason they were to downgrade their opinion of me, my superior education would blunt the effects of that downgrading on me. Therefore, for an academic from high-status parents, maintaining their academic position is more rewarding than it is for me. They feel like they are representing something larger and historical and their parents actually follow what they do. I am doing something that most of my family does not really understand or care about.

For the moment, I'm carrying on. The big question is whether I am carrying on for the right reasons or the wrong reasons. My statistically improbable status background could give me a valuable edge in clarity, allowing me to see things that others can't see and act on them with a greater daring that others cannot access (namely, that perhaps academia is a sinking ship from which one should jump sooner than later). Or, my statistically improbable status background could just make long-term success in a high-status career more difficult, and the correct attitude and behavioral adaptation would be to suck it up and stop rationalizing my weaknesses. I still don't know the answer to this question, but I believe my basic observation about the causal role of parental status may be correct.

What am I doing?

Many different people are asking me what's going on with me. In different languages, sometimes gleefully and sometimes worriedly, I have been asked some variant of "what are you doing?" so many times in the past couple of weeks that I figure I should just write one thing that I can give to anyone who asks. The chorus seems to be approaching a crescendo at the moment, with friends, strangers, coworkers, and now even students, and therefore bosses (that was quick!) joining in. So here's what I'm doing, as succinctly as I can put it.

It's not complicated. It's not profound. It’s not heroic or impressive. In fact, it's possibly the simplest decision I've made, or action I've taken, in the past eight years. It's very important to me personally, but it's something anyone can do, something many people should do, and something countless people do every day, with no fanfare.

I've never liked carving myself into separate sections, and strategically presenting myself to one audience here and one over there. People will say, "But of course, everyone has to do that!" Maybe that's correct, but maybe it's just a useful fiction for people who have made their life about optimizing something other than the truth (how they are perceived, their status, their income or financial stability, etc.). For my part, I believe that any mature adult who claims to be an intellectual must insist upon the widest possible latitude to think and speak in their own tongue — in a way that they are content to let stand for any interested party. Comfortably accepting any latitude less than the greatest latitude they can force open for themselves is fine — it just means you are living a different kind of life than the intellectual life. To think one thing and say another, or to say one thing to your peers and another thing to your students and another thing to the public, is — I believe — a truly abominable, cardinal sin for anyone who says to the public that they are in the business of truth-seeking. I understand that some people must live like this, because of their own unique web of obligations, which is why I am not judging others — but it doesn't mean I must like it, or live my own life that way. I am relatively young (32) and highly skilled; I don't have kids yet; my wife is even younger, and she supports me 100% in saying and doing whatever I need to do. One reason she supports and even encourages my freedom is because, over the past few years of being a tight-lipped, well-behaved prestigious professional, I have been a boring, stressed, shell of myself. If my vision of the intellectual life is impossible or "impractical," so be it. For the moment, I can afford to take my chances, and so what I am doing now is taking my chances, because it is my honest view that continuing life as a normal, respectable academic feels like a much bigger risk to me. I have also been delighted and emboldened by those who value my work enough to throw me money on a monthly basis. It doesn't match my salary from academia, but it's certainly enough to make me wonder what would happen if I pulled out all the stops.

People will think I am being ridiculous because, of course, what I am criticizing is the norm in academia and the intelligentsia more generally. First of all, it is exactly the normalcy of deceptiveness in academia that makes the stakes feel so high to me. Maybe, just maybe, this has something to do with the large-scale semi-international backlash of right-wing populists. Gee, I wonder [scratches head]. Additionally, in the contemporary fragmented media environment, trying to think and write honestly while also pleasing your family, bosses, students, and the public is just prohibitively energy consuming. As an academic, you can easily spend most of your days strategizing how to present yourself in different spaces, and never get around to thinking or saying anything worthwhile. If you want to seek the truth, as a life project, you must at nearly all cost find your own language that you can speak to all comers. Or else, you'll never get around to finding out anything interesting, let alone sharing it. I'm aware that all of these patterns I'm enumerating here are utterly banal to observe. As I said, I'm not making a genius argument, I am just explaining why I am now refusing to behave as I have behaved in the past few years.

What I am doing is simple. I am just thinking and saying whatever I feel like. I'm no hero and I'm certainly no martyr (academia looks much more vulnerable than I feel). I'm not asking for anyone's permission, I'm not asking for sympathy, and I'm not asking for more freedom. I'm not even defending myself on the grounds that I have something especially valuable or important to say. I am taking what belongs to me, for the trivial and even frivolous reason that I want to enjoy the right to make mistakes, to be rude, to occasionally overshoot and occasionally undershoot, perhaps even wildly — to try different ideas and performances on for size, sometimes for the sheer pleasure of doing so. I believe that such irresponsible leisure is a truly necessary, if not sufficient, condition for the more important forms of intellectual liberty that are easier to market. But I refuse even the obligation to market my liberty-taking as something more noble than it is. I don't want to justify what I'm doing with reference to these larger values, because my whole point is that I don't want to be constantly playing this rearguard game of having always to justify my own freedom. I did not get a PhD to live my life trembling at what a student or bureaucrat might think or feel about whatever it is I feel like saying. My mother always taught me that as long as I'm not hurting anyone, then I should do what I want.

Now that I've mentioned it, my family looms large in what I'm doing now. The bastard brat of an Irish-American roofer, I was never supposed to enter the official cosmopolitan intelligentsia — and when you sneak into a place, it looks very different than it does to those who are supposed to be there. I'm only here because I learned early how to hack social firewalls and I made up for my modest IQ with extra piss and vinegar (two things I did inherit amply). My dad and brother both have what the DSM calls Oppositional Defiance Disorder; I'm pretty sure I'm on that spectrum too, but I was blessed with enough self-control to sublimate my rebelliousness into a patient, longer game. Through intellectual work I could eventually prove that all those institutional authority figures were wrong, so I would do that instead of acting out and getting punished. My dad never finished high school, running away to hitchhike and eventually join the Marines. My mom, also Irish-American, also had no education and little earning power, but that didn't stop them from having four kids. Two of my siblings are recovering heroin addicts.

That's who I am, I am these people — and I'm quite tired of acting like I'm exactly the same as every other rootless hyper-educated citizen of the world. The typical cosmopolitan professor today — if she was giving my mother personal advice in 1986 — would have advised my parents to abort me. She would be disgusted by the latent racism and sexism she would have found embedded unconsciously in their vernacular. If my parents were "smart," they probably would have divorced each other at some point, in search of greener pastures. But they didn't abort me, and they spoke how they spoke, and they didn't break the family, all for reasons I have been too educated to understand. Until lately. The last time I visited my family was in the run-up to the US Presidential election. My grandmother, a former teacher who is educated and fiercely intelligent (and disagreeable), told me she was going to vote for Trump. I articulated my reasons for why that upset me, and she looked me in the eyes like she never had before, with a coldness unlike her, and she said, "I do not care what anybody thinks." I was horrified and upset at the time, but this was one of my best friends growing up, and I never, ever would have become a successful academic without her. I didn't vote for Trump and I'm still no fan, but her words on that day have been echoing in my head like crazy since then. I may have recalled these words every single day since then. All of my own traits and accomplishments that I like and value the most about myself, I got from my family. They have backbones far stronger than most people I've met in my extensive travels among the international intellectual class. I haven't yet made sense of all this, but sometimes life forces you to make broad wagers, on ill-defined questions you don't fully understand. I needed to give you all of this background, but in conclusion, all I can really say is that I have already invested far too much into academic respectability, and not enough into honoring my family. And I've never been good at half measures, so now I'm going to see what happens if I bet the farm on "I do not care what anybody thinks."

If my bosses think that any of this is inconsistent with my employment, then I will just infer that their employment is inconsistent with a real intellectual life. I am a highly skilled researcher and lecturer, with good publications, and a fine track record in every aspect of my academic career thus far. If the person I truly am, and aspire to become, does not fit into academia, I would much prefer to learn this now rather than later. In fact, it would be a most profound discovery regarding the real limits of higher education today. That would give me something to think and study and write about for years. For intellectuals, huge surprises are hugely valuable;  they're good news, exciting.

If academia can tolerate me, that would also be good to know. But if I can't be truly free to think and say what I want right now, while I have more respectable prestige points than perhaps I ever will, and while I have tenure (the British version, anyway), then I'll certainly never be granted such liberty in the future. I am just going to cease calculating, as much as possible anyway. Sometimes that will mean saying the smartest thing I can think of, sometimes that will mean saying the funniest thing I can think of, and maybe sometimes it will mean saying the dumbest thing I can think of, if in that moment I feel like not bearing the burden of sophistication. As I said, I don't need you to like this, or even understand it, let alone praise or forgive it. But you asked, so here is my answer for now.

Eichmann in Oxford

I have recently been assigned to an Ethics Reviewer position, and I just had my first training. One of the lecture slides for this training was quite audacious: It placed the UK's current academic ethics initiatives in a glorious history, beginning with the Nuremberg Code of 1947. The Nuremberg code came after the famous Nuremberg trials; it sought to codify ethical research guidelines, in response to the atrocities carried out as "research" by Nazi doctors. It was thrilling to learn that my new administrative position was only the latest episode in a grand story of moral enlightenment. I thought I was just taking on a new bureaucratic responsibility, so I was relieved and quite inspired to learn that I would really be fighting fascism.

The reason I describe this particular lecture slide as audacious is because — although my excellent training leader forgot to mention this — the Nazi doctors had been subject to an ethics code from the beginning: the 1931 Guidelines for Human Experimentation (see this 2011 article in Perspectives in Clinical Research, which argues that the Nuremberg Code plagiarized the 1931 Guidelines). When the doctors were later tried in the Nuremberg Trials, one of the defenses put forward by the doctors' lawyers was that the doctors were acting in accordance with the guidelines!

There is little doubt, then, that contemporary academic ethics review systems have some kind of relationship with the horrors of mid-twentieth century fascist totalitarianism. The only question is whether we are the good guys or the bad guys. Is the Ethics Review System (henceforth ERS) of the modern university a 180-degree turn away from the Third Reich's fake, evil system of research ethics, now functioning to protect people from harm? Or is the Ethics Review System of the modern university like the ethics system of the Third Reich, in a more sophisticated form, functioning primarily to protect the interests of research institutions while harming some other subpopulation?

To figure that out, we need to ask what exactly this system is doing. Is it doing something that looks more like "preventing horrific behaviors" or does it look more like "a state-sponsored system to promote a certain group of humans over others?" I will submit that it looks much more like a state-sponsored system to promote some humans over others. But I should admit that I am biased. If I chose the first option, that would not make for a very good blog post.

First, the reasons why it doesn't look like a system dedicated to preventing harm.

For starters, I've not been made aware of any cases in which some horror was prevented by the ERS. That doesn't mean much, because of course the ERS might have stopped some horrible researchers from even attempting to conduct some evil research they would have otherwise conducted. Still, even granting some effect here, my sense is that this counterfactual quantity of prevented harm is very small as a percentage of total research activity, if only because I've met a lot of academics. Most of them don't even do the types of research that can really hurt people. Most of the ethics approval applications are from undergraduate students, and most of those students are seeking to do the easiest and simplest research they can get away with. They want good grades, often in a short time frame, so typically they steer away from elaborate experiments injecting racial minorities with strange chemicals or whatever. It's just not really in their wheelhouse. Even social scientists analyzing public, secondary datasets are now being asked to submit ethics applications. When was the last time that harmed someone?

The really dangerous types of research, on the other hand, such as biomedical research, are not even strongly constrained by the ERS because if the ERS says no to anything, that research will just be conducted in the private sector. I don't know the details so I can't confirm this, but I've been told — in my initial training session, as a matter of fact — that the Cambridge lecturer who created the psycho-graphic Facebook app that would later be used by Cambridge Analytica to force the victory of Trump and Brexit (lol), was denied academic ethics approval. So then he just went the commercial route. The second to last reason I doubt the ERS prevents harm is that, even when ethics reviewers identify potential "ethical problems," the result is usually nothing more than some superficial language changes. Then it's approved. The ERS rarely gives a verdict of "you are absolutely not allowed to do anything like this, do not even try to reapply;" they usually just command linguistic modifications to how people frame their research plans. Finally, there's no actual enforcement of the research conduct itself, so this is a huge reason I doubt the ERS prevents harm. If I'm evil enough to conduct an experiment, say, covertly injecting a novel synthetic hormone into the testicles of non-consenting senior citizens, I'm probably evil enough to obtain ethics approval by simply omitting the part where I plan to secretly stab senior citizens in the balls.

Next, the reasons why the ERS looks more like a state-sponsored system to promote some human lives over others.

The key thing to understand is that — and you'd be amazed how quickly and frankly they will admit this explicitly, if you ask them, as I did! — "ethics" really means a kind of "quality control" for the purpose of university image-maintenance, in order to ensure the flow of money from government research councils. My trainer told me that, straight up.

The examples they gave us of ethics violations that have actually occurred recently under our system's monitoring — rather than legendary historical cases like the Stanford Prison Experiment — are not primarily ethical violations. They are intellectual 'quality' violations. For instance, one case was of a student who emailed out a bunch of survey questions written with very poor grammar. This was brought to the attention of the university because it reflected poorly on the university's brand as an education provider. This could lower the status of the university, which could lower the likelihood of government councils giving money to our university instead of others. Now it starts to make sense why so much time, energy, and manpower are invested in these "ethics" review systems. Is it well known that this is the real purpose of these systems? I have not read this anywhere else...

Another case they gave us was a case where a student sent their survey to the email address of someone who is now deceased. The wife of the deceased man was upset that a student would send an email to her deceased husband. Is it an ethical violation to send a letter to someone who you did not realize is now dead? Could anyone say with a straight face that this is an example of unethical research practice? I don't think so. The only problem here is that someone in the public was upset about something they associated with the university. It's a PR problem, and that's about it. There was no principle given for what would distinguish a case of mere subjective dislike of the study from an unethical study. This isn't even seen as a relevant question, and I'm afraid to say that the appearance of unquestioning conformity in this system does not bode well for the ERS's promise that it is totally not the Third Reich.

Therefore, ethics review bureaucracies in contemporary universities are systems the primary purpose of which is to keep money pumping from taxpayers into the coffers of high-IQ people shielding themselves from economic competition. It is the PR wing of a massive fleecing system.

This also reminds one how education, manners, and aesthetic refinement (e.g. the grammar in a research survey questionnaire) are moral performances. And moral performance is essentially status competition, and money flows to the winners of status competitions.

In other words, the relationship between the state-sponsored genocidal research systems of the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century and the state-sponsored research systems of the liberal democracies in the 21st century is more like a parent-child relationship than an ethically-enlightened-opposition relationship.

Anyone who's ever been to an administrative meeting in a contemporary university will likely find my interpretation to have much more face validity than the other one...

Socialism and Campus Politics with Sean Trainor

Sean Trainor (@ess_trainor) is an historian, educator, writer, and podcaster. Sean has written for The Atlantic, TIME, Salon, and many other venues popular and academic. He is a professor at the University of Florida, where he is currently writing a book about beards in the nineteenth century. Sean co-hosts his own podcast, Impolitic. You can find more about Sean's work at his website, seantrainor.org.

Sean is a socialist activist so we had some interesting debates about the prospects for activism today, and we covered just about all of the hot-button, culture-war topics of the moment: campus politics, trigger warnings, free speech, etc., including many observations from our personal experiences moving through left-wing circles and academia. We also talked about some more obscure topics such as Catholic anti-capitalism, the pleasures and pains of our respective podcasts, and why beards became so fashionable among men in the nineteenth century.

#4 - Jonathan Havercroft

Dr. Jonathan Havercroft is Associate Professor of International Political Theory at the University of Southampton. He has published work on the historical development and transformation of state sovereignty, 17th century and 20th century political philosophy, space weaponization and security, global dimensions of indigenous politics and hermeneutics. He is currently working on the ethical dimensions of international norms, theories of political affect, and the role of agreement in democratic theory and practice. His book Captives of Sovereignty (Cambridge University Press, 2011) looks at the historical origins of state sovereignty, critiques its philosophical assumptions and offers a way to move contemporary critiques of sovereignty beyond their current impasse.

Notes

Why Jonathan loves betting on the ponies (00:06). I'm cool with eating animals because animals eat animals and would eat me (00:14). Academics who sell-out their expertise are pretty lame, but I have a plan (00:24). Why self-help gurus are usually full of shit but sometimes useful (00:40). Academic efficiency stuff (47:00). What Jonathan learned from hiring a personal trainer (00:55). Jonathan's kettlebell routines (00:59). Running and high-intensity intervals, pros and cons regarding stress (1:12). Jonathan's proposal for a national house-cleaning service to overthrow the patriarchy; fully automated luxury communism, etc. (1:35).

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