Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Upside Down World and Jeremy Bentham

Three things hit me the other day when I drove to Home Depot on a too hot for March afternoon. First there was the 35-40ish looking woman coming out of Domino's pizza with a stack of pizzas and getting into a rusted heap of a car. It was a delivery car and she was at least 8 months pregnant.

Across the street from the Home Depot a middle aged guy was sitting in the front of a dirty pick up truck. He was on the passenger side with the door open and his feet dangling out. His tool belt was hanging on the door and on the windshield was a hand-written sign "Will do electrical work $35."

Inside Home Depot was a man trying to sell A/C inspections in hopes that, if you got one and found out how much energy you were wasting you would buy a new unit. He looked like a moonlighting high school teacher. He also looked tired. No one paid any attention to him. In fact, there was hardly anyone in the store.

If you are a Law Professor, like I am, after seeing these things you may go to work and find:
1. Elitist A is all up set because another law professor wrote an email he did not like.
2. Privileged person B (employed for life, like A) is all torn up because her favorite faculty (also privileged) candidate did not get a positive vote for what in all likelihood would become a forever job.
2. And then there is over-affirmed C going office to office to gossip about a student who was not properly submissive in class because C is always looking for something to stress about.

These are all examples of the upside down world of the privileged. The pregnant pizza delivery person, the out of work electrician, and the moonlight school teacher probably sensed less than a tenth of the misery and injustice as privileged professors who have everything they do not -- a steady and relative easy job, a good salary, infinite flexibility, etc. The have-nots seem also to be the want nots. The haves seem distressed over things that would not even register with the have nots. If anyone thinks the theory of relative deprivation does not explain elitist angst, think again. And if there are any utilitarians still out there, think again about whether the disutility some people feel has any moral importance. What the have nots do not feel seems infinitely more important.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Class Priming

Priming is an interesting, mysterious process. For example, in one experiment subjects were asked to write a description of either soccer hooligans or professors. Afterward they played a game of trivial pursuit. Those asked to describe professors out performed those asked to describe hooligans. In another people were asked to unscramble letters. Afterward they reported the result to those conducting the experiment who (as prearranged) were then talking to someone else. Those who had unscrambled words that concerned aggression or rudeness tended to interrupt the conversation while those whose words were more passive were less likely to.

I think it is likely that priming has a class component. In other words, in real life, subconscious influences probably differ by class. Where this goes, however, I am not sure. The impact of being over affirmed, as so many children of the elite are, works at a more obvious level and leads to a sense of entitlement. Priming, on the other hand seems more subtle and affects not just attitudes but actual performance. As the two examples here suggest, it is not clear that the resulting behavior is admirable or beneficial.

Here is a little experiment. You may have noticed the photo of an elderly person above. Since seeing it, have you been moving slower. Do your aches and pains seem a little more severe?

Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Thin Ivy Line

When I wrote about faculty gangs last week, I did not fully comprehend the sociology of faculties until talking to a friend's 10 year old. She told me of cliques, cruelty, gossip, and the type of piling on that I described last week in the context of faculties. Then I understood. Many faculty behaviors are slightly cleaned up versions of the typical interpersonal cruelties that start with 3 year olds. I wonder if today's cowards were cowards then. Are the gossips and bullies the same too? (I also wonder if today's people who object, refuse to take part, just do their jobs and are empathetic are also just continuing their own childhood behavior.)

The most frightening aspect of it to me is the pack mentality. Last week's example was based on an actual incident of open disparagement. The same target I now learn frequently has things ripped from the bulletin board by the same crew of cowards who are part of the schoolyard gang. This is only a little short of lying in wait after school to administer the type of beatings that ten year olds (hopefully) used to do. Yet, other faculty with more acceptable political messages have doors and bulletin boards that remain untouched and, by the way, are sufficiently trite to be better suited for a teenager's dorm room.

The pack mentality is not frightening because someone reads another person's email to the faculty with a disparaging tone or that someone else makes a nasty remark or another writes a public email bullying the person. The frightening part of it is that every one of those cowards correctly assumes there is a receptive audience. After all, it would not be a pack without the implicit permission of those who snicker or look the other way. Going against the grain by questioning authority is just not in the cards for these folks.

The pack does not stop with faculty. A student may be viewed as overly aggressive in class. One professor talks to another and that one agrees his or her behavior is odd. Another is drawn into the mix and with each added person the story grows from an impolite student to a psychopath. Just as the rumors about a fifteen year old girl might grow from "seen kissing Tommy" to being pregnant.

There is some good new here. I was discussing this all with a couple of understanding colleagues. They assured me that it is much worse in other departments.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Faculty Gangs

I never read much about the sociology of gangs but I did attend the types of school where people were picked on, outed and beaten up. Once the tide turned on these people I saw the worse instincts of others appear. Otherwise gutless people all of a sudden got the courage to belittle others.

It can happen on a law school faculty. For example, suppose someone on the faculty has beliefs that are not consistent with prevailing views of a faculty and that the person is a little different in other ways. At some point it evidently becomes permissible to ridicule the person. I've seen in manifested in a couple of ways. For example, at a faculty meeting which the "target" is unable to attend, he or she asks that his or her views be read to the group. One of the gutless ones in the meeting makes a snide, sarcastic remark and number of others snicker.

Or, the same target sends an email taking a position the majority does not like. For example it could be political but no less political than the vast majority of hiring and tenure decisions faculties make. One of "tough guys," not privately, but publicly, sends and email telling the "target" to shut up and stop interrupting his work (yes, the email interruption that is so dreaded). I have to concede I have never been interrupted by an email. I mean could someone tell me how that happens?)

In neither case does anyone say a word about basic respect or decency because they might be eliminated from the gang.

When the bullies actually say something out loud or in public email that takes on the administration or a member of the faculty ruling class, it may makes sense to listen but it is so sad to see adults engage in playground antics. And, more often that not the cowardly behavior comes from the children of privilege.