Friday, October 30, 2009

Stumbling on Shame

The details are not important, but this week I had a schadenfreude moment. A person I do not care for was in a awkward position that he would have a hard time explaining to himself except to wonder whether his status was as high as he things. In my office while smiling to myself -- only slightly -- I also realized that this feeling of happiness at his misfortune was not such a good thing. I also realized that I finally understood what shame is. It is not taking pleasure from having felt pleasure about something else. If it comes into play when you can control what you do -- stealing a piece of candy, telling a lie -- you may not do whatever it is. (When people lack it we may put them in jail.) In the case of schadenfreude where the good feeling is more or less trust upon you, I am not sure what happens. You feel the shame but you can hardly undo your initial sensation or even change whether you will feel it again.

If I think only about the controllable actions and the role of shame it seems obvious the lack of joy one feels about having felt joy is unequally distributed. (Note that joy here is describe more in absolute terms in that joy may just lowering the level of unhappiness.) Not feeling it at all gives one enormous freedom. This blog is typically about the elite and their sense of entitlement. It seems likely if not dead on true that a sense of entitlement is closely related to the inability to sense that you should not feel joy even though you do.

This a long wind up for noting that many law professors are shameless. Those that are, take all joy at face value. This comes with that sense of entitlement. All joy is deserved to these people. Let give some examples.

This week is the annual AALS beauty contest at which generally privileged people decide which younger, generally privileged people will get to be law teachers. Committees attending the conference pass over hundreds of incredible talented people who are distinguished only by names of the schools they attended. In short, the committees make choices that have more to do with justifying their own status than a serious assessment of the impact on students and others who pay for legal education. This will feel "right" and "good" and this sense of accomplishment will go unquestioned as in "have I taken pleasure in something that is actually quite selfish, even lazy."

Similarly this applies to the all out pursuit of self interest one often sees on law faculties (and maybe others as far as I know). People have to teach only certain days and certain courses and not too many students and at certain times. All of these come without any sense that the outcome may be negative for others. Thus, the shame button, even if it exists for these people, is not pushed.

The "if it gives me pleasure it must be right" mentality explains a great deal of lying or reshaping reality. For example, suppose you feel an obligation to reciprocate when someone has had you to dinner. Not really wanting to have her over, you invite her for a Saturday night when you have a strong hunch she cannot come. You might do this but also feel you are a bit of a louse for experiencing the sense of relief you feel. You feel shame.

Far scarier are the people who do this and feel no shame. A friend tells me this story. At her University two or three professors from each college are given awards based on the Dean's recommendation. There are only two awards. The dean can rank as many people as she likes but only the top two or three will receive the awards. He rated her last of ten and, of course, she did not get the award. Maybe the outcome was the right one maybe it was not. That is not the point. In any case, when they spoke about it later his version of the story was "I recommended your for the award." He forgot to add that he also knew she could not come to dinner that night.

It's clearly one thing to know you are doing something wrong, even if you do it and another to feel no shame at all.

Based on what I have seen in law teaching, the capacity to feel shame is comparable to a disability. It can hold a person back unfairly.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Don Draper

If you watch Mad Men you know that Roger of Stirling and Cooper, described Don as someone he found in "night school." The class implications have been obvious since the beginning of the series but this drove home the point even more. Don is a fish out of water and those around him hate it that he kicks their butts at every turn. (The key to his success is that the clients want results and pedigree is not a substitute.) Elites hate being upstaged by non elites. After all they are "entitled."

I'd like to say Don's character is a perfect portrayal of class struggled when someone is socioeconomically displaced. By that I mean, as a professional matter, he has risen above his class and, consequently, is professional well-placed but socially out of place. I can't really say Don's character is a classic example. Don has . . . well, a fidelity issue and as far as I know that is not a class matter. He also evidently had an abusive childhood and that too may both explain his behavior and is not, as far as I know, a class matter. He is tall, handsome and superbly dressed, all of which can help someone so inclined to pass for elite.

Still there are some wonderful touches that may go right by the audience in terms of their class origins. Don is direct, sometime brutally so. He has not developed the skill of getting what you want without appearing to care if you get it. His vocabulary does not include elite phrases such as "I have concerns," "That gives me pause." Instead he might say, "come back when you have something useful to tell me."
Don's instintively sees himself when encountering someone from the same class. Whether it is Peggy (secretarial school) the or school teacher's brother (janitor), he wants to help but knows there is danger in being entangled in the life he is attempting to escape.
Underneath it all, you have the sense that Don resents the elites and they resent him. And it is not clear that Don would take on the "correct" affectations even if he knew them all. In fact, he may know them all but he will not give in the to pressure to conform. They hate him for it. It's great!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Too Polite?

Oft times in this blog I have discussed the ways collegiality, manners, and civility are used as weapons to protect those in power. Those are the folks who get to decide what is polite or discourteous and by using certain words -- uncollegial, offensive -- rally the rest of the elites. I do not mean they are always wrong, far from it. But let's face it. The collegiality card is often played when people are threatened by the truth.

The other day I heard one of the worse presentations at a faculty talk I think I have ever heard, and that is saying something. As a friend on my faculty said to me, "do you think he over
intellectualized things a bit?" That would be an understatement. Most adults could have told the speaker what his conclusion would be after merely hearing the question and saved 40 minutes of listening to a presentation that seemed more designed to stifle discussion than to encourage it. In fact, efforts to draw the speaker into a discussion of his topic were met with an angry response. It was strange combination of aggressiveness, a voice going up a level, and then quickly retreating into victimhood.

Was the speaker rude to take 40 minutes or so rambling on when the audience was anxious to discuss the topic? Was it uncivil to shut down conversation until he was good and ready? Depends. In the world of elites -- let's call it "elite on elite collegiality" -- the definition of what rudeness or lack of collegiality means is quite different from what it means in the world of non elites.

Thus, despite the performance no one in the audience said:
1. You are using up the time of 30 people.
2. You are not getting to the point.
3. You seem to be purposely discouraging comment.
4. You seemed to have designed a computer to solve a simple problem.
5. It seems like that your computer got it wrong.

No doubt he left feeling he had shown the group a thing or two.

Nothing was said because that would be impolite. Is that harmless? For the sake of appearing polite an elite goes back to his sanctuary thinking wrongly that he is a success, emboldened to carry his manner and message further including to students who will go out into the world thinking they now have the "truth."

What better example of the misuse of collegiality. In fact, right now you might be thinking "this post is really quite rude and has an uncollegial tone. He is really being mean!" If you are thinking that, you might ask for what cause you would risk being labeled uncollegial. Would you turn the other way if a dean were siphoning funds from one part of the law school to a part he will soon move to? Would you vote yes if a colleague proposed a program than only he or she has any interest in? Would you vote yes on a tenure decision and a life time annunity funded by students and taxpayes because to do otherwise would make things socially awkward at your church where the underachieving candidate is also a member? Would you be a courteous -- even butt-kissing -- host to a Supreme Court justice who voted to ratify a possibly incorrect election outcome because she wanted to retire and control who got her spot? If you answered "yes" don't be critical of the speaker after the fact. All the previous audiences who were collegial, just like you were, made his hubris possible. Still, I am wondering what, if anything, in your cost benefit analysis you would put ahead of your desire to be viewed as "good company" by elites?

Yes the photo is the sun setting over Yale.

Friday, October 02, 2009

The Shame Gene

Sometimes I think what separates the elites from others is the shame gene. Maybe through some Darwinian process they simply excluded it. Those people who were capable of feeling shame were stampeded by those unable to feel it themselves. For example how else do you explain:

1. Insisting on teaching a 4 credit hour non skills course in two two hour blocks when there is amble support that it is a dismal thing to do as a pedagogical matter.

2. Sponsoring an professor exchange with a University in a foreign city in a foreign country in which your own school and state has little connection or interest and where you happen -- by coincidence, I guess -- to own apartments, have friends and would like to live.

3. Giving an all multiple choice, machine graded exam when you claim to be teaching the students analysis.

4. Canceling class for any reason or no reason or to accommodate your overseas adventures.

5. Insisting on a cap on the number of students in your class when it is not a skills class (or even when it is and you could just teach two sections).

6. Implying strongly that if the students buy study materials you have authored they will get a better grade in the class.

7. Insisting that your office be repainted in a more soothing hue even though you spend about 8 hours there a week.

8. Play "I am a friend of the students" game to the tune of several thousand dollars a year for free beer.

9. If you are tenured, going to the office of an untenured professor and making sure he knows how he should vote on an issue dear to you.

10. Claiming that applicant for a faculty position is a brilliant scholar when in fact you like his or her gender, politics, race or sexual preference or you know his or her mom, dad, or spouse.

11. Getting the School to pay for a trip to a conference where you plan mainly to hang with your buds.

Sometimes it seems very clear that if they did not get to make the law many elites would be doing time because much of what goes on is just white collar shoplifting.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Velvet Mob

For some reason a characteristic I share with a few friends is the tendency to befriend outcasts. Whether it was Leonard Doddington in elementary school or Anthony Galubo in middle school they were the kids the other kids made fun of. I sincerely hope they both grew up to be happy and their tormentors also finally felt some sense of remorse.

That tendency has fueled my interest in and sensitivity to bullying and mobbing among the elites. I think that the concept of mobbing is not an absolute -- it must exist along a continuum. I think I have see mobbing tendencies -- not the type that drive someone to resign or suicide -- on my own faculty and there is an excellent description of what I would call velvet mobbing in the Introduction to Bill Millers' book, Humiliation.

So what are the signs of nascent mobbing?

1. Social groups that exclude others AND talk about those excluded.

2. Open statements in faculty meetings that ridicule, demean, or marginalize someone not there.

3. Emails to someone criticizing him or her that are copied openly or blindly to a larger group.

4. Different standards for decanal reactions to misbehavior depending on whether the person is well liked or on the outside.

If you are on the job, any job, and see this, there is a budding mob.