Subscribe

RSS Feeds

Archives

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.

How to kill the grump in your head (Deleuzean #NiceRx?)

I can sometimes sense inside of myself, already, the early stirrings of elderly grumpiness. Needless to say, I do not like this, and so at this relatively early stage in my life, I must do everything possible to avert this sad fate.

A few nights ago, I went to my friends’ house to watch Eurovision. I think I was overly negative that evening, criticizing all the acts with a bit too much loathing, to the point that I was perhaps slightly rude to my friends. I don’t mind being slightly rude if I am asserting something important that I believe, during moments that matter, but that’s not what I was doing. I was just counter-signaling, which is contemptible. In my contempt for postmodern pop culture, I fell into its clutches and played its game: vacuous speech and micro-performances motivated only to assert and sustain my own sense of ego and identity, in order to feel proud and be recognized, to feel differentiated and distinguished in the ever continuing mass meltdown of all values and tastes. No matter who you are or what you believe, this mode of being in the world, this defensive ego-maintenance mode, is always contemptible (although it is often forgivable and sometimes unavoidable).

Of course, the solution is perfectly clear, easy, and ancient: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all — unless it’s really important and coming from a place that is non-reactive and affirmative of life in general. But this rule, which well-behaved children can follow, is surprisingly hard to follow for many adults. Why?

One reason this rule is hard to follow is that when you hang-out with friends — in order to be the most fun for them but also for your own enjoyment, the whole point of hanging out – it is necessary to “let oneself go,” at least to some degree. The unique challenge enters when the hangout itself is premised on social signaling games as part of the fun (and this can be a fine source of great fun). The whole point of watching Eurovision with friends is to take turns making all kinds of comments, criticisms, affirmations, oppositions, displays of wit, and gifts of humor — all so many subtle and enjoyable ways to revel in one’s belonging, to the assembled group but also to the larger groups that the assembled group sees itself as belonging to.

The simple truth is that we do live in postmodernity, whether one likes or not. Therefore, if you dislike postmodernist relativism, but you would like to avoid becoming a grumpy person, you must take care not to "let oneself go” in contexts where the normal social behavior presumes alignment with postmodern relativism.

There is an opposite pitfall, however, which is avoiding all contexts were normal social behavior presumes alignment with postmodernism. In postmodernity, avoiding the presumption of postmodernism would mean nothing less than “dropping out” of all social intercourse, generally a direct path to resentful lonerism. This is not the case for everyone, perhaps, and the internet is rapidly increasing the feasibility of unhinging altogether from normal IRL social expectations, but typically “refusing to interact with most people” is a recipe for various forms of disaster.

Ultimately, I think the solution is as follows. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all, but when you do choose to let yourself go — and you must, at times — only do it on a novel plane of your own construction, orthogonal to whatever is the presumed socio-moral playing field. You will be incomprehensible, but that’s fine. In short, if one is to avoid grumpiness, one cannot avoid being a philosopher. Oblique angles always; diverge but never resist.

Stay up to date on all my projects around the web. No spam, don't worry.

This site participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. The Privacy Policy can be found here. The content of this website is licensed under a CREATIVE COMMONS ATTRIBUTION 4.0 INTERNATIONAL LICENSE.

rss-square
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram