Thursday, July 3, 2014

Independence Day: Celebrating Non-Conformity

Names have been omitted to maintain an aura of confidentiality. If you can connect the dots, you know too much. Plausible deniability is truth. If the shoe fits, for God's sake, don't continue running around barefoot over sharp tacks.

At the beginning of this past spring break, I posted a series of remarks on social media about some of my quite recent graduate school and college teaching experiences, as well as some general observations on academia and my chosen discipline. By their very nature, these random and in some cases nearly incoherent remarks neglected to dwell on the many wonderful and positive experiences I have enjoyed over more than a decade of college, and my deep appreciation and gratitude for the opportunity—and amounted to little more than letting off a portion of the steam that had built up over various irritations and perceived injustices I felt during that period of time. Initially, I had only intended to make a single snarky quip or two concerning a recent development that had stuck in my craw; but one remark led to another, and another, and another, and within no time I had compiled myself quite a little diatribe. Since no more than a handful of social media acquaintances (none from my immediate academic environment) had offered their comments on this thread, I convinced myself that the conversation had remained private and of no interest to anyone besides those who had directly participated. In any case my remarks would have made little sense to few outside of an immediate workplace circle, since after all no names had been used, and the situations described could have only been recognized by a handful of coworkers (and perhaps in the abstract by a few outsiders who were in some way acquainted with analogous stresses and irritations of university life). Still, in reading back the postings the following day, I decided that in their rough, stream-of-consciousness form, replete with certain rhetorical exaggerations and more than a few unkind characterizations of the name-withheld variety, were not fit to be left dangling in cyberspace, so I completely deleted them. Having successfully purged myself of a good bit of pent-up negative energy, I promptly forgot the entire incident and enjoyed the rest of my spring break, relaxing and preparing for the final month of school. No harm done—or so I thought.

An irrelevant cartoon from seventeen years ago (my lucky number).

Alas—the following Monday, much to my horror, I learned that some person or persons (whose identity remains both completely unknown and utterly irrelevant to me) had observed the thread, cut, pasted and converted it into a PDF, and circulated it (reportedly) to “everyone” in my department. My remarks, in other words, had gone “viral” among an inconceivably small and inbred group that included friends, colleagues, advisors, and even a teacher’s aide, few of whom hitherto had ever so much as “liked” any of my other social media postings, and none of whom apparently held me in high enough regard to tip me off that my remarks had become the subject of departmental scrutiny and discussion. Imagine Martin Luther’s embarrassment had his rough and nearly incoherent notes for the ninety-nine theses been leaked before he could realize a more refined, final draft and you’ll understand something of my chagrin on stylistic grounds alone. But of course, the story does not end there.

As classes resumed the following week, I was summoned to the department office to be called on the carpet. My ersatz social media musings—which had been made virtually, off-campus, on my own computer and utilizing my own internet connection—had been deemed, quite arbitrarily, an appropriate and material workplace issue (this after a long history of ignoring complaints I had made concerning actual, non-virtual workplace behaviors—observed with my own eyes and experienced first-hand). Options such as mandatorily-sentenced therapy, the withholding of future letters of recommendation (just as I was beginning my crucial post-departmental job search), the launching of personal defamation lawsuits, and even summary firing were all discussed matter-of-factly as very real possibilities, as though any or all of the above (or threats of retaliation in general) would have only been perfectly reasonable and understandable coming from those who presumed to call themselves scholars. Indeed, the only reason I agreed to meet was out of a genuine concern that my 130 undergraduate students would have had to suffer replacement instructors for the last few weeks of class—a reckless and destructive action I was convinced the powers-that-be were in spiteful enough of a mood to take.

“This stuff is out there,” I was told repeatedly, as if the deleted thread contained nuclear secrets that would eventually and inevitably fall into terrorist hands (ironic that those who profess an admiration for Edward Snowden or Julian Assange have a very different take on the free flow of opinion when it concerns far more mundane matters closer to home). My remarks, only briefly posted on the internet, had a life of their own, or so the reasoning went—a trope conveniently denying the willful agency of those who had, for whatever motives, consciously cut, pasted, and circulated those postings to colleagues, who had indeed “pushed” them even to those who were not customarily online nor otherwise paying any attention to my social media persona. To underscore the gravity of my predicament, I was reminded of certain policies prohibiting the use of university equipment and networks to circulate materials that could potentially be, among other things, defamatory or in violation of copyright—a complete irrelevancy since, as I said above, I had used neither university equipment nor networks to offer my remarks, but posted at home using my own personal computer with my own internet connection. On the other hand, the person or persons who had cut and pasted my copyrighted postings, probably with the goal of defaming me (it would not have been the first time such a thing had happened in my experience in this happy, collegial environment) and almost certainly by utilizing university equipment, networks, and email addresses to distribute them, had violated this particular policy on several counts—an irony no doubt completely lost on the powers-that-be.

In point of fact, my original remarks were no longer “out there” at all. Of my own volition, long before I was even aware that any colleague had seen them, I had deleted the thread from my social media page and expunged it entirely from the internet, although presumably the PDF still resides on several offline personal hard drives (I have in my possession only a blurred print-out passed along to me by a fourth or fifth party). Little of the contents of my original remarks bears repeating, least of all verbatim, and I am not going to do so now. Consequently, unless you participated in or happened to have seen the thread when it was live online, you will have to take my word for it when I characterize them as the stuff of typical profane griping of the sort commonly overheard in any after-working-hours bar, all but meaningless outside the context of the long-running private conversations in which they originated. In other words, it is material that could only cause harm if intentionally pirated by tattle-tales and magnified by malice, and then only to the extent to which any given remark may have hit a truthful nerve or two (in other words, if the shoe fits, wear it). On the other hand, if you only happen to have read the pirated PDF or learned of its contents through third parties, please be advised that you are culpable in an extremely tawdry conspiracy and paradoxically cannot admit any acquaintance at all with what I’m talking about—let alone feign outrage—without confessing to your own monumental lapse of ethics. In any case, you hardly count as my friend or colleague any more—but only you would know that, not I. Nota bene.

This Stasi-like behavior—the secret surveillance, informancy, scrutiny of furtively obtained materials, “telling mommy” and bidding her to take action, to say nothing of the subsequent shunning and other career repercussions I have had to endure since—needless to say, is in itself far worse than anything I could have asserted in my initial posted remarks or even have dreamt of alleging. The entire incident—from the oppressive environment prohibiting any form of criticism to the repressive actions taken as a consequence—speaks to the dysfunctional and poisonous culture that prompted their expression in an uncontrollable and unconstructive outburst in the first place. Although these actions do not retroactively affirm any of my individual complaints explicitly, they certainly do nothing to dispel them, and tend rather to generally confirm their validity—at least as topics that should be discussed and debated among fair-minded friends. In any case, it is utterly reprehensible behavior, especially coming from a group of individuals who presume to call themselves educators, and most of whom, individually if not collectively, I continue to hold in high esteem (including those who, it pains me to think, conferred upon me my degrees). It speaks volumes about the curious phenomenon in which erudite and enlightened individuals—in this case those of whom in their own scholarship, classroom teaching, and committee advising demonstrate openness, honesty, collaboration, and a willingness to transgress almost any boundary for the sake of critical inquiry—can devolve collectively into an expedient affiliation based on little more than careerism and self-seeking: autocratic, authoritarian, intolerant of dissent, demanding of absolute conformity at all costs, to say nothing of the blatant violations of university policy, principles of academic freedom, and simple human decency that are in abundant evidence here.

I alluded to this matter in another posting on this blog, and was reminded of it recently when I came across this commentary on the I Ching reading, number 13 (a fateful number for me), T’ung Jên/Fellowship with Men, in which the six in the second place reads, “Fellowship with men in the clan. Humiliation.” Of this, Wilhelm Baynes remarks,

There is a danger here of formation of a separate faction on the basis of personal and egotistic interests. Such factions, which are exclusive and, instead of welcoming all men, must condemn one group in order to unite the others originate from low motives and therefore lead in the course of time to humiliation.*

The “one group” in this case are the dissenters, non-conformists, and heretics who cannot keep their mouths shut, some of whom have been among our most valuable educators.

*Wilhelm Baynes, The I Ching or Book of Changes, trans. Cary F. Banes (Princeton University Press, 1950/1967), p. 57.

1 comment:

  1. You just don't know when to stop, don't you? You just keep digging and digging yourself deeper into the hole you've gotten yourself into.
    Jokes aside, what you're complaining about doesn't just apply to academia, but to ALL human organizations. The only difference is that with corporations, there's a financial incentive to listen to criticism but they only do so out of desperation.