21 January 2011

Consciousness and Righteous Rage

"Bullsh*t" is a popular card game among college students and high schoolers.

It’s a simple game of one-upmanship and bluffing. The first player announces she has a certain number of cards of a certain value. I have two fives. The next player, if he believes her, must best her with a claim of greater value. I have two sixes. This process continues until a player thinks he has encountered a bluff – I have four Queens – and declares, Bullsh*t!

After the tragic events in Tucson, there has been a similar one-uping game in the media. The cable news version, however, is a moralistic one. Who is to blame? Did talk-show hosts contribute to a hostile environment? Is the left grasping for a chance to discredit the right? Unfortunately, much of this particular outrage feels less than genuine if not outright hypocritical. But glass houses and thrown stones are nothing new in public debate. And I, like many others, accepted this fact a while ago.

Yet, somewhere between the finger-pointing and the cries of Don’t pick on me!, I have grown increasingly tired of the game in all its forms. The shooting in Arizona and the ensuing debate speak for themselves. I have no comment, right now, on either point. At the moment, I’m frustrated with the on-going pissing match in higher education.

Two weeks ago (before Tucson), while blogging for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Diane Auer Jones responded to a series of cranky, immature, and generally obnoxious reader comments regarding the new Chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education. Decrying a lack of respect and thoughtfulness, she wrote, “Despite the academy’s persistent claims that it values free speech, tolerance, and open debate, these comments show a much darker side of the academy—the side that is intolerant, disrespectful, and bigoted. I guess some of you think that only those who agree with you should be granted the rights of free speech.”

Ms. Auer Jones is correct to chastise the oft-anonymous commenters who make no effort to understand the big picture and engage in the “adult equivalent of... ‘Well, your mother wears army boots.’” However, as a person with a history of mean-spiritedness, who has admitted to using her blog for “inappropriately snarky and irrelevant” remarks, Ms. Auer Jones’ indignation at the incivility of others is a poor, poor bluff.

The new Subcommittee Chair deserves a chance to do her job and be heard. She is a duly elected official and a woman with experience in higher education. To dismiss or attack her for ideological reasons is ridiculous. But to come to her defense with a show of personal outrage and the insinuation that the academy is extra guilty of bias and disrespect is equally ridiculous.

Opinions frequently emerge in spite of higher learning rather than because of it – even at a university. I have spent a full decade in higher education as an undergrad, graduate student, and staff member. I have been in the closed-door committee meetings with faculty and trudged past the demonstrations of students’ youthful outrage. And more often than not the most vocal opiner is simply venting personal frustration rather than enlightening the listeners. It is, I agree, a "darker side" of campus life.

This particular shortcoming, however, is not unique to the academy.

Join me, if you will, in the Way Back Machine and let us consider the endless stream of epithets and accusations aimed at America’s “Intellectual Elites.” In fact, let’s go back a full decade…

Where, I’m curious, was Ms. Auer Jones’ exasperation at the intolerance of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni when it tastelessly and spuriously assailed colleges and universities as a whole, suggesting that humanists and social scientists were giving moral support to terrorists after the World Trade Center attacks?

Where was respect for intellect, balanced discussion, and expertise when Lynne Cheney engaged in near-acrobatic feats of logic with the wild claim: “To say that it is more important now [to study Islam] implies that the events of September 11 were our fault, that it was our failure… that led to so many deaths and so much destruction”?

And where was the cry of bigotry when Ms. Cheney, the Council, and their ilk continually made thinly veiled assertions about the supremacy of western civilization?

Make no mistake. Ms. Auer Jones is more thoughtful and reasoned than Ms. Cheney. And she has a right to comment on current events in any way she sees fit. But finger wagging goes both ways, Madam. By engaging in smarmy kvetching followed by a disingenuous game of How dare you!?, you are yet another unjustified, self-righteous voice in higher education doing little to advance policy debates and nothing to advance education.

I claim very little footing on the moral high ground. I do not present myself as categorically better or smarter than those with whom I disagree. But I do accept personal responsibility to be thoughtful and reasoned when publicly commenting on important issues. And, in doing so, I retain my right to call a bullsh*t bluff when I see one.

Image by thms.nl


Bloggers Note: In the interest of complete disclosure, I commented on one of Ms. Auer Jones' blog entries, "It's Lake Wobegon Time Again" (linked above), under a screen name (jedwardc) that I no longer use.

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