Saturday, February 28, 2009

Social Networking, the Ivory Tower, and "Friend"-ly Disagreement

There is an old, well-worn and tired stereotype of academics that figures them/us as people who restrict their/our lives to the Ivory Tower, engaged in intellectual pursuits and disengaged from the practical concerns of everyday life. (Incidentally, the "tower" pictured to the left really is one of the towers on my campus.) I suppose that there are academics who revel in this stereotype, but for the most part I think we all understand it as a pejorative and, hence, we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to disprove it. The idea is that Ivory-Tower-Existence amounts to little more than a giant echo-chamber in which smart people say esoteric, generally "relativistic" (ethical and political) things to one another upon which they all agree, or else they say esoteric, generally abstruse or arcane (scholarly) things to one another upon which they may disagree but about which the disagreements matter very, very little. I really hate this stereotype and vociferously disavow it at every opportunity... but every now and then, something happens that makes me stop and seriously reconsider both the homogeneity of the people that I am around every day and the ease with which I am able to avoid people with radically different world-views from mine. Here is one of those stories.

As everyone knows, Facebook is a social networking site with over 175 million active users. And as every Facebook user knows, you only have to be on Facebook for about 15 seconds before people you haven't spoken to in years find you again. As a rule, I'm pretty liberal about who I accept as "friends" on Facebook. My general parameters for deciding whether or not to accept a friend request is just whether or not I actually know the person (would I recognize him or her on the street? could I tell you something about him or her besides their name? have we ever had a real conversation?). If you've lived in more than one town, attended more than one school, worked at more than one job, or if you're a teacher, you find that "friends" accumulate very quickly. Some of them, inevitably, will be people that you knew back-in-the-day when you had something or another in common, but who in the intervening years have taken life-roads that widely diverge from yours, often in ways that you cannot possibly know. All that is just to say that many of us have Facebook "friends" that we may not count as "friends" in our average-everyday sense of that term.

Recently, I posted a link on my Facebook page to Senator Patrick Leahy's petition to create a truth and reconciliation commission to address the abuses (including torture) of the Bush administration. Shortly after I posted the link, the comments section to my link got some action. Here's a snapshot of the beginning of the conversation. I've blacked out the names for anonymity's sake. (You can click on the picture below to see a clearer image.):

If I were being completely honest, I would have to admit that my very first thought upon reading this exchange was that I was utterly embarrassed to have Friend #1 as a "friend," and for about a second I considered simply deleting his comments from my page. Then, my inner professor kicked in, and I decided that it was better to see this as what folks in my profession call a "teachable moment." Maybe I could enlighten what was obviously (to me) a matter of gross misinformation, so I posted several links verifying the fact that torture DID take place under the watch of the Bush administration, including a link to the excellent documentary (which you can watch online) Torturing Democracy. But I cannot say in good faith that I didn't really want to just write-off Friend #1 as an ignorant and ignorantly partisan representative of everything that is wrong with this country. I mean, who really thinks that? Is it even worth the wasted breath to have this conversation out? Is there even a conversation to be had there?

Alas, but there I go authenticating exactly the stereotype of Ivory Tower academics that I hate so very much. And there's the rub. The truth is that I hardly ever run into anyone who would say out loud that torture is justifiable. Maybe people don't say that to me because they all agree with me, maybe they don't say that because they already know where I stand on the issue and they don't want to bother disagreeing with me... but, either way, I think it's safe to say that ALL of the "social networks" that I run in are, in fact, echo-chambers of deafening consensus on this issue. That should seem odd to me, given that the moral and political permissability of torture is one of the hot-button issues in American public discourse right now. And it ought to seem odd to me, I suspect, that I can so easily avoid ever having exchanges like the one taking place on my Facebook page right now.

Anyone who has ever taught an intro-level course knows the challenge of confronting opinions and positions that are dogmatic and uninformed, which always require an extra measure of clarity, patience, generosity and respect. Of course, those virtues are easier to summon in the classroom, because (as a teacher) one already enjoys the privilege and confidence of the "authority" position. This is harder to do in conversations that occur in relationships with less structural asymmetry. Unfortunately, we academics too quickly excuse ourselves from conversations with what we too haughtily consider the hoi polloi, which amounts to avoiding the most difficult tests of our (presumed) skills. I'm going to work harder on resisting that temptation.

Thanks, Friend #2, for the healthy reminder that we owe it to ourselves and our profession to keep entering the fray.


Courtney said...

Hi Dr. J,

I came to reading your blog after one of your colleagues sent a link to one of your entries and I've greatly enjoyed it ever since. I'm also an alumna of the college and I wish I had the opportunity to take Philosophy of Race. Oh and just to let you know, one of the names on the snapshot of FB that you included is not blacked out.

DOCTOR J said...

Thanks for reading, Courtney. Btw, were you a Philosophy major?

emma b. said...

As someone who spends way too much of her time arguing with right-wingnuts online... I'm not sure "entering the fray" - especially with online anonymity - is such a productive use of one's time.

I sort of see myself less as a benevolent pedagogue (especially with grown-ups whose views tend to be more brittle and entrenched) than as a streetcleaner... going in and regularly trying to hose down as much of the BS as I can.


John said...

Interesting take on the ivory tower and its ever-present Other or exterior. This post also ventures into the question of what the ivory tower is, hinting at the question of how and even whether it exists.

Well, disclosure, confession, or "circumfession": I am, if I really reflect on it, speaking objectively enough not a part of this tower or this Academy even if I can say I have been before, and even if I admire it, and perhaps admire it more for being distant from it.

The question "what is philosophy" (to try to take a
"central" example) takes on a different aspect when one is far outside the classroom, than when one is teaching or studying, does it not? One speaks then rather naively, or perhaps is only playing at naivete, but in any case the question sounds naive to the initiate. Under these circumstances one cannot make any claim about (turning the question into an answer) what philosophy is. Alas, we have centers for research and institutional centers but there is no research on the center, nothing ultimately extra-institutional (besides the trivial, the "extracurricular"). As Derrida put it, "how can one not be a public intellectual?"

One can claim next that there is an entire unwritten history of these extra-institutional forays, these vast margins that one does not write on with pens, but then, what is the "unwritten" until one writes it down? Is there an unwritten at all? Sartre would seem to claim there is not, there is no use talking about the books one could have written, and hence there is really no distinction between contingent and necessary writing...

But old habits, including the habit ingrained from public education on, of attention, of study, of writing, these habits die hard, and so one is, or really I myself am, rather narcissistically claiming that "study habits" have some value or some purchase entirely outside the academy, but that is an impossible argument is it not?

As precarious, furtive, and impossible as the individual in Kafka's Castle applying for the post of land-surveyor? Why, who does he think he is, to push on, to make his case to known and unknown levels of bureaucracy, reaching into the celestial heights, as when he hears a sound like choirs of angels when picking up a telephone in an office somewhere. But in Kafka's tale the impossible becomes possible, he is finally given the post of land-surveyor.

As faithful land-surveyor of the University, but understanding as little (or as much) as an ordinary, somewhat invisible maintenance man, I ask this question, not fully caring if anyone cares, or if anyone is listening: can there be study of the Academy, as there is study in the Academy? Who would do the studying?

O philosophy, I admire your sphinxes and pyramids, but I no longer understand you!

John said...

i.e. "Letter to an Egyptian Friend", in a neo-Egyptian themed capital city, etc. etc.

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

As much as I love the Facebook, there has been more than one time that I've seen some nimwitted (should be a word) comment from some yahoo I knew from high school and thought to myself, "Must I put up with this? Isn't this why I joined the Ivory Tower in the first place?"

Courtney said...

Dr J,

No I was an Anthropology and Sociology major.

John said...

Shorter question: Does the ivory tower exist? Is it perhaps all that exists?

If so what is the ontology of the ivory tower?

Curry O'Day said...

Just got around to reading this one, Dr. J.

Personally I think that the reason torture is such a hot button issue in the public discourse is not because a number of people think torture is "permissible" but because those who advocate its use have redefined what it is so it will fit their code of morality. That's why we see rhetoric such as "enhanced interrogation techniques" and justifications such as we should do anything to protect ourselves from an impending threat or that saving one American life is worth any cost. They convince themselves that these factors mitigate what almost everyone agrees is immoral.

So, in many cases it is good to engage those who disagree with you (as long as it is productive) but in this case in particular, I think that there is widespread agreement regarding the immorality of torture, and Friend #1 really is a nut.