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.

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  1. Anon.

    Coleridge once said “A philosopher’s ordinary language and admissions, in general conversation or writings ad populum, are as his watch compared with his astronomical timepiece. He sets the former by the town-clock, not because he believes it right, but because his neighbours and his cook go by it.”

    Greater truthseekers than you or I have presented one face to the public and another in their intellectual pursuits. “Whatever is profound loves masks”. You see it as deserting the cause of truth, a hypocrisy. But the fact of the matter is that in your search for truth you need to take into account the wider context. How will losing a cozy uni job affect your quest? Some light esotericism is not a betrayal, it’s simply a pragmatic necessity.

    At the end of the day you can whisper eppur si muove under your breath and keep looking, free from internal constraints.

  2. Southampton Lad

    There was a piece published about you on The Daily Mail Online. It didn’t cast you in a very favourable light. In fact they lifted a fair amount of the article from this blog post. So this seemed like the most relevant place to comment.

    I read the tweet in question. Couldn’t honestly find much wrong with it. Although I did wonder why someone with your particular education would dare to say such a thing given the current political climate on campuses and knowing full well what the end result would be.

    I’m glad I found this post. Most will not. But it provides perfect context for why you would say such a thing. I understand and you have my support.

    Within the last couple of years I’ve found myself feeling a similar way.

    I had two groups of friends. Those I work with, the blue collar kind, and those who stayed and work predominantly in academia. Mostly in the social sciences.

    Over the years I found myself being one person with one group and someone completely different with the other. It wasn’t working for me.

    I’m sure I would have had an easier time coming out as gay. But one day while having drinks with my academic friends I couldn’t take it anymore. I told them that I just didn’t believe that Trump was literally Hitler.

    Now I’m no fan of Trump. But I certainly don’t buy into the mass hysteria that seems to accompany the mere mention of his name. I judge the man by his actions. Not by what’s written about him. And I endeavour as much as possible to seek out both sides of the story.

    Well as you can imagine that, and a whole mass of other thoughts and opinions that I’d kept away from my academic friends, went down as smoothly as drinking a cup of cold vomit. The backlash was frankly traumatic. And this was just a small group of friends. You’ve opened yourself up for far worse. Luckily I had the support of friends who turned out to be far more tolerant than those far better educated.

    I firmly support anyone’s right to say whatever they damn well please. In fact your tweet equating abortion and necrophilia is exactly the sort of thing I’d just throw out as a joke. Nothing wrong with throwing out thoughts and seeing what sticks.

    Normally I wouldn’t go as far as to reach out to a complete stranger. I stay away from social media and I’m no activist. But this happened on my home turf. Staying silent seemed wrong this time. I hope everything works out for you and you get to keep your job, if that’s the outcome you would want now. You have support in Southampton.

    Best wishes.

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