Saturday, July 16, 2005

Anyone else see a pattern here?

I admit it, I get all my news of the world over at Bitch, PhD. these days. I find the world's weirdness more palatable filtered through her justifiably outraged feminist lens. So forgive my lazy ass when I link to her post on the current nanny-dust-up as published in the New York Times. The Times essay features the employer's side of the story, Dr. B's post thoughtfully links us to former nanny Tessa's blog. Reading this story, I was reminded of the recent outrage with which this post in the Chronicle was met.

What struck me is not merely their cautionary tone with respect to blogging. And I think the pseudonymous "Ivan Tribble" issues more than a cautionary note; he makes it pretty clear that whatever weight he has as a tenured faculty member will be used to prevent any blogging PhD from darkening the gothic archways of his ivory-covered tower. Even more than that, though, I noticed how both pieces rely on the apparently impenetrable armor of "The Appropriate." Both suggest that in these days of at-will employment (meaning, in practice, that one's continued employment is "at the will" of the employer, although on paper it can work both ways), the dogma of "Appropriateness" has assumed a kind of quasi-religious authority. It's a slippery technique, such reference to what's appropriate. On the one hand, it suggests an ironic disdain for the artificiality of the belief (i.e., that nannies shouldn't drink even when off work, or presume to write better than their [published] employers, or have the audacity to believe, as most ambitious 20-something women do, briefly, that they might be wasted in more traditional feminine roles).

Taking recourse in "appropriateness" allows the person passing judgment to preserve the veneer of postmodern sophistication in these kinds of rants; "See, look at me, I know that monitoring my nanny's sexual fantasies/my job candidate's penchant for Star Trek reruns is actually beneath me, and that it should probably have no bearing on my position as an employer." At the same time, of course, the judgment is clearly being passed, and the blogger is found to be beyond the pale.

"Appropriate" has such a nice, commonsensical ring to it. Of course you wouldn't want a drug-crazed nymphomaniac taking care of your children, right? Or a Star Trek conventioneer at your department meetings? But the tyranny of appropriateness seems to go more and more unnoticed in society, so that it works as a kind of de facto Truth, a kind of everyman's litmus test for behavior. In practice, of course, it's anything but benign, and anything but "common" in the universal sense. Instead, it elevates various socially and economically and politically specific beliefs to the status of inarguable fact, while appearing instead to reduce them to "choices" that are clearly within the individual's control. All the nanny would have had to do to keep her job, we argue, is to avoid the stupid mistake of giving her weblog URL to her insecure and bitchy boss. And why, for heaven's sake, we cry, would any job candidate in this horrific market send prospective employers to the website where she wrestles with her secret problems with self-mutilation and affection for the paintings of Thomas Kincaide?

No one is savvier about this truth than my students. They know that conformity is ALWAYS the right choice, and few of them can imagine feeling strongly enough about any issue of personal expression--sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion--to risk being "inappropriate." They know that all of our talk about the death of Truth is total b.s., and that in place of a hierarchy based on white patriarchal and economic power, we have instead a hierarchy based on "appropriateness" [as determined within white patriarchal and economic power]. They are scornful of students whose desire for personal adornment leads them to body art that the Fortune 500 would disapprove. They know better than to stand up to injustice, if doing so would require raising their voices.

I chose academia in part because my fellow academics seemed to me to hold their liberal politics longer than those in other fields, who eventually bought better cars and homes with more than one bathroom. My academic friends lived on into their 40s and beyond dressing, talking, and feeling inappropriately for the tenor of the times. They railed against injustice and attempts to enforce the status quo, and weren't afraid to spray spittle on those in the front rows. I think blogging has become a kind of underground for such political passion and energy; a way for those of us disheartened by the malls, wars, greed, and ruthless patriotism of contemporary American life. So at their best, blogs are fundamentally and by definition inappropriate--they say the things that people don't want to hear, and raise the issues that we as a society resist confronting. So when Helaine Olen and Ivan Tribble tell us that we should be careful what we write in our blogs, because our employers "might not like it," they are nonetheless enforcing what is and is not appropriate--in our writing and in our lives. In both cases, these writers acknowledge their discomfort with what they see in their (prospective) employees' blogs. Both then proceed to explain how that discomfort is ultimately Not Their Fault, but that of the blogger, for crossing the line of appropriateness. Much easier for Olen to fire her nanny (even worse, to let her husband do it) than to come to any real terms with her discomfort with this "younger version" of herself, whose very presence makes her ambivalent about her life. And far easier for Tribble to write off job applicants whose blogs don't conform to "refereed" status than to consider why so many academics now produce more (and more happily) online than through the self-important and bloated academic presses.

25 Comments:

At 4:12 PM , Blogger Persephone said...

The tyranny of the "appropriate" is, as you say, alive and well and living in suburbia. I've long struggled with what I refer to as "emperor's new clothes syndrome" wherein I'm inclined to be the one to point out that the "appropriate" person is, in fact an ass. Or a jerk. Or whatever. Not directly, usually, but by refusing to go along with that person's decision to pretend like there's nothing amiss in the world.

Personally I think that being "appropriate" is a disease of a country that no longer values freedom or integrity or independence of any kind. I'm not suprised that in post 9/11 days we are worried about being appropriate because it is, in fact, a way for people to feel like they're in control of an uncontrollable world. Sad, sad, sad and another sign in my mind of the fact that we are a nation in decline. As soon as we start worrying about the appropriate, we are no longer worrying about what's "right," which too often is completely inappropriate to the powers that be.

OK--end rant. And thanks for noticing the pattern.

 
At 5:21 PM , Blogger Badger said...

great post. is this notion of what's appropriate tied to "taste," "distinction" and class, i wonder?

you know, i meant to comment on your blog last week as the whole Tribble-gate saga unfolded about how risky and *gasp* inappropriate your Foreigner/Tijuana Brass comments were. ;)

 
At 7:10 PM , Blogger bitchphd said...

It's totally about class: I'd argue that "appropriate" is the new "respectable."

What never ceases to irritate me about these things is how many intelligent people will just fall back on the "well, she should have known she could be fired" response, as if that's the entire point. When the fact is, we can *all* be fired pretty much for whatever whim our employers come up with--so that makes it okay? It's shocking to me how many educated, supposedly liberal, open-minded people seem to accept the idea that one's job performance is *not* the only factor an employer should take into account.

On the other hand, maybe we *are* the new Victorians, and what's really going on is that we're bringing down the idiotic veneer of "appropriateness" ("appropriate" to what? In what way is it inappropriate to have sex??), and this is just the dying throes of the current incarnation of the bourgeoisie...

 
At 10:54 AM , Blogger Dorcasina said...

Absolutely it's about "class"--or, I would argue, about what has become a more politically-acceptable way for used-to-be leftists to engage in class discrimination. Olen doesn't want to see her nanny as anything more than an always lesser version of herself, hence her deceptively self-aware mention of her need to feel superior. I think it's also about the commodification of the maternal--that is, that even a woman like Olen, who clearly prides herself in part on being one of the "new generation" of mothers who also have prestigious intellectual jobs, believes that in order for her nanny to take care of the kids, she (the nanny) has to love the kids *and* their parents with a kind of mute and transcendent affection--no room for criticism in surrogate motherlove.
I've read a bunch more of the comments at BPhD since I posted this, and I see the creeping "the boss is always right" showing up in several comments over there; that is what scares the crap out of me. Our society is so very willing to accept the new elitism of "appropriateness" as determined, basically, by those with more economic power (and thus status). And since "appropriateness" has that slippery status as something quasi-learnable, it seems less insidious than, say, racism. What if the nanny were a woman of color, writing about the racial elitism of her employers? Would we be so quick (as a society) to condemn her for her lack of "appropriateness," and would the stakes seem any higher?
All this seems complicated by the fact that (I think?) Tessa's blog was anonymous; so except for outing herself to employers, it wouldn't necessarily be recognizable to their friends or other contacts whose opinion Olen might be concerned about. This just makes it all the more apparent that the conflict is really Olen's personal ire (which is, of course, profoundly political in how it affects another person's wage earning and right to free expression) at the "ingratitude" of the lesser being she chose to allow into the bosom of her family...

 
At 9:17 AM , Blogger Scott Lemieux said...

This is exactly what was so frustrating about the "oh, she was stupid to do it" reaction. If you blame somebody on the wrong end of a power imbalance for getting screwed for completely irrational reasons, you may be many things but you're certainly not on the political left in any meaninfgul sense.

 
At 9:37 AM , Blogger Ken Houghton said...

Nor, in fairness to Scott, are you on the conservative side of the spectrum, in the traditional sense of the Ancestral Party, which never cared what you did in your (or someone else's) bedroom or other free time, so long as you (a) took responsibility for those actions and (b) didn't let them directly affect your work. (Fantasize about Tucker Carlson all you want, so long as the kids are fed, rested, busy, and doing well.)

(And, yes, there is an ugly s.q. side to [a], but that is manageable, and all indications are that everyone in both articles managed it fine.)

 
At 9:46 AM , Anonymous longdaysjourney said...

When the fact is, we can *all* be fired pretty much for whatever whim our employers come up with--so that makes it okay?

Interesting that you choose to blog anonymously given your thoughts on this matter. If it's OK to -not- be circumspect while blogging, to own your own opinions and words, then why are you blogging anonymously? Shouldn't you be practicing what you preach?

 
At 11:44 AM , Blogger Dorcasina said...

Scott and Ken: I think you are exactly right--the deceptive power of appropriateness is that it allows one to maintain the veneer of "liberal" politics (or, we might say, it provides a way for one to be simultaneously smugly "liberal" and nastily elitist--I don't think either side of the political spectrum has a lock on self-righteousness, although I clearly object to one brand more than the other...)

Longdaysjourney: I don't know that by weighing in on what has become a public topic, I am necessarily "preaching" self-revelation for all bloggers. I think there's a big difference between taking steps (i.e., using a pseudonym) that allow me to be as honest and forthright as possible in stating my opinions while still feeding my family. I have simultaneous obligations: to continue to care for my own husband and children; to say what I think is true in the most honest way I can in any public forum, including this one and my classroom, among others; to preserve the privacy of those I might choose to write about who have no interest in becoming recognizably public figures, in however minuscule a way; to shake my tiny fists at the injustices I happen to come across in the hopes that others who are out there can identify and, perhaps, keep the faith in what seem to me like very dark times.

Saying that I believe employers in general have too much power and discretion over their employees does not obligate me to make myself a test case for that power by using my real name. In fact, it's possible that the increasing numbers of academic bloggers who blog anonymously could lead administrations to start thinking self-critically, and could lead to public discussions of some of these issues (academic freedom, the limits of personal expression, the relationship between what we do inside and outside of the classroom) on all kinds of campuses, even those without bloggers lurking in their midsts.

One of the most disturbing elements of the original scenario (Olen/Tessa) is the way Olen takes both of their real identities public in such a spectacular way. While online bloggers may garner a few hundred readers, a NYT piece is still "public" in a way that most personal bloggers can only potentially achieve. So here again, Olen is (mis)using her social, professional, economic status to abused someone she views as an audacious underling. So no, I don't think I'm being in any way hypocritical. For my political purposes, I'd be far more effective if everyone who likes some of what I have to say thought I was really a member of their own department.

 
At 8:18 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I might add a thread to the tapestry of this conversation.

I agree: appropriateness is about class, class is about tribal membership, and "in-groups" and "out-groups" are about control of same. Which makes appropriateness substantively about power -- who will be allowed to share it and wield it. If you're in my in-group we collude to keep the others out. Members must act in certain "appropriate" ways to not dilute it (by diluting our credibility). Unwritten dogma becomes the rule of the day.

Biologically, we're a tribal species, determined to want closeness and openness and "in-groupness" with about 40-60 people. It turns out this grouping is sociologically more stable and demanding than even the religious right's imaginary notion of "the nuclear family." We'll always need to work diligently and consciously to overcome the horrible limitations of this -- the constant inner desire to split apart into gangs, create limited "in" languages that exclude others, and hoard power over out-groups (or obliterate them). If you want a reason not to believe in creationism, this is it.

Psychologically, from individual to individual, this is about self and the world, and in my mind this conversation is inextricably linked to B.PhD's conversation on "blogging / identity / privacy" and the attendant spiritual qualities of openness, honesty, authenticity, wholeness, and yes ... conscious acceptance of calculated and acceptable risk. Can I live without imaginary boundaries and walls? If I can, will I be allowed to or will I be destroyed?

Our many mythologies suggest the lone prophet doesn't do well. She's always right, but it's hard slogging. I think it's the only choice, and the only life.

Determining who we are and choosing our identity (our sub-tribe) is perhaps the hardest task of 14-24 year-olds (who can, for a time at least, imagine themselves choosing almost any sub-tribe – ballet dancer, architect, piano player, writer, physicist). The tribe does not always accept them. Changing tribes as we grow older is probably rarely accomplished gracefully. I think to some extent this is Olen's real problem; she isn’t successfully moving “into” her chosen tribe, but still clings to the plasticity of Tessa’s transitional place of experimentation -- in-between the open possibility of youth and specific occupational-tribe.

Most people seem to identify with a tribe, ignore and repress the parts of themselves that don't fit with their chosen tribe, and get stuck as dogmatic members of an artificial creed. Creationists tend to stay creationists. Racism is simply execrable tribalism. Nationalism and jingoism are "stretched" super-tribes, driven at bottom by the same idiotic impulse (something akin to fear) that operates in lemmings.

Fundamentally, B.PhD is right. There are no real borders (show me the line on the ground), there are no real tribes (we all share some 99.9% of the same DNA), and we all have to keep pressing forever against the invisible walls the people around us keep imagining are there. We have to keep showing them the invisible walls are a crutch, what they use them for is power, and if they were as secure and confident in their views as they claim, they could share power more equitably.

Carl Jung expressed this perfectly, “Where there is power, there is not love.”

The only certainty is change, the status quo is always wrong, and I will always side with wholeness.

/e

 
At 9:32 PM , Anonymous ehj2 said...

You posted this over at B.PhD ... and I’m copying it here because I love these words so much ...

“I was trying to get at that a bit in my discussion of my students; it depresses me no end that they are so accepting of the constant misuse and abuse of power from above, and so willing to assume a detached self-interest that mitigates against any kind of positive social change. I mean, what's the point of trying to unionize, organize, advocate for greater fairness, equality, etc.? "The Man" isn't gonna like it, and frankly, you knew he wouldn't, so you only got what you asked for. This attitude, to me, is the crux of the social crisis I see around me: a cynical acceptance of the capitalist status quo absolves us of any responsibility to make the world a better place for anyone other than ourselves (or maybe our immediate families). Any suggestion that power is being misused reverts to the "common-sense" truth that we should have Expected It to be that way. I try to introduce my students to the idea that the Humanities offers them a chance to think about how the world might be, might have been, could be--which most of them think is a b.s. liberal fantasy. Clearly, Olen holds the social and economic reins in this dispute. Perhaps the one weapon we have is the kind of accountability she is finding not in the 'real world' of the NYT, but here in the blogosphere ...”

I think you’ve framed this perfectly ... and the frame is indeed very depressing: “detached self-interest that mitigates against ... social change.”

The “machinery” of corporatism is now no longer viewed as subject to emendation. So why try to do more than be a “stepford” part?

I’m going to change subjects here and return to your other reference: the blogosphere.

This is just thinking out loud. I’ve only been dreaming and intuiting about these notions for a fear years so I’m still watching for more conclusive data points.

But here goes: I think the culture is between pulses, between ways of operating, ways of being, ways of participating.

You and I would probably both agree that the political party structure is just not working. Money and corporate advertising in politics is corrosive. Who wants to be involved in that? On either side? Perhaps the young are not apathetic ... perhaps they just don’t see these as the tools of change that will work ... they're the tools of the status quo.

Yes, the younger generation doesn’t “act” out there. It doesn’t like bumper stickers or carrying signs in crowds or getting tear-gassed in parks. It will give a few bucks for the hungry in Africa but it won’t march to stop a war.

Maybe we’re missing something in the larger picture. And Tessa is a part of that something.

The younger generation is -- incredibly -- for more “in here” authenticity and risk-tasking and openness. That’s huge. Publishing personal blogs is like sharing diaries with everyone in the world – in an attempt to learn what the world is like, and sometimes talking about what it should be like.

The blogosphere is an “in here” phenomenon and it is incredibly supportive of something that tribes will not support -- the recognition through open and honest revelation that we all share the same flaws, weaknesses, fears, insecurities, hopes, power drives, aches, and pains. And that, at bottom, we all really want the same things in the world.

Most people think, and fear, they are vastly different from other people. Tribes (and all dogmatic structures) “out there” encourage that sense of difference and promote hostility and conflict.

The blogosphere melts through all of that. And maybe it’s just building, just getting going, just finding itself. The 20-somethings of the world are finding each other in groups and various technological venues. And in time they’ll reach a tipping point and change everything. Why shouldn’t they? The world is theirs.

And why should they trust us and our ways and our tools? We exhausted the planet. We’ve left them huge debts. We make me depressed so I expect we make them depressed.

I don’t think they know what they want to do or how they are going to use emergent tools and their shared knowledge to change things. But I think they will. I think there will be a tipping point. And change will occur suddenly as they “realize” the model they want, support it en masse, and take history into their hands.

I am cautiously hopeful.

/e

 
At 9:39 AM , Blogger Dorcasina said...

/e,
thank you! what thoughtful, interesting ways of addressing the issues that we are both concerned about. at this point i can only say that i agree with both your discussion of tribalism _and_ your cautious optimism. in my thinking about my students/tessa's generation, i was initially considering the forces that work against them (or us) creating a world that we want. but i think you are absolutely correct in identifying blogs as part of a kind of inner or personal revolution, a way to act politically without the stale trappings of previous generations. that doesn't mean i don't worry--finding community electronically, even though the community is emotionally genuine, is not necessarily going to offer the immediate practical benefits that i think our world so desperately needs. but i'm certainly not saying that this next generation (or are they now "this" generation? anyway, they are not my generation...) won't find a way to parlay their personal revolutions into a better society at large...
thank you for the wonderful responses.

 
At 11:01 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

The tribal comments bring to mind my objection to the right-wing complaints about liberal bias on campus. I think there in fact is a tendency for adolescents to aquire political stances as a way of bonding to the group, not going against authority figures, and so on. For four years or so these generally used to be liberal or radical politics; that might not be true now, but in any event, for the rest of their lives, the safe and acceptable attitude will be one form or another of don't-rock-the-boat-ism. The Wall Street Journal's version is triumphalist; NPR's allows that there are problems around the edges, but everything is fundamentally o.k..

Maybe the Liberal Professor (who somehow tends to be bearded and hook-nosed, at least in "Mallard Fillmore") will influence the youngster for a few years...but The Boss (look to Rove and Cheney for semi-animated caricatures, in my biased mind) will get them for the next forty.

 
At 6:53 PM , Anonymous ehj2 said...

I'm at a loss for words again. In my mind, your ideas were far more creative and articulately crafted than my own. It was your thoughts that touched me on the arm and said, "look here" and drew my attention out over the landscape of your ideation.

It is properly I who must say "Thank you" for allowing me to add my voice to the music you have here. Thank you for inviting me to walk in this garden.

I look forward to reading here again.

Thank you for who you are and what you do.

/e

 
At 11:15 PM , Anonymous somebody who gives a damn said...

Um, "Professor Shrill"? The one female blogger cited by "Ivan Tribble" is commended for not airing her dirty laundry, but nonetheless dismissed and tagged with the pseudonym of "Professor Shrill"?

I wish it were possible to do a job-search from behind a gender-blind pseudonym. Do you think that a male applicant blogging the exact same content would acquire that particular nickname? (Would a male applicant blogging the same content even merit note, I wonder?)

 
At 7:23 PM , Anonymous ehj2 said...

I've been reading here for awhile now. I keep coming back to your post of Sunday, February 06, 2005, "Still hating freedom." It’s probably not good for me to keep rereading that.

You opened this missive with a nod to B.PhD., "I get all my news of the world over at Bitch, PhD. these days."

But if we've lost our kids, this is the news.

And you write too perceptively and carefully for me to easily discount the substance of your observations and experience.

I have to thank you for all you do to hold back the wave you see.

I'm bereft. Is America lost in my own lifetime? Then I did this. History will record that the turn occurred during my generation.

We had the light in our hands and let it slip away.

/e

 
At 10:02 AM , Anonymous bullshit artist said...

as a recent graduate of an upper-tier liberal arts school it is a huge huge relief to me to hear your analysis of your students' interest in conformity. out in the world--and to a somewhat lesser degree, at school--i'm made to feel like an aberration, like speaking my mind and making choices about my life and my body that aren't "normative" (i'm tattooed, for example)--like those things are wrong. i survived college because a coterie of caring adults and a few really unique fellow students kept telling me that i wasn't doing anything wrong. so please know that i, and young adults like me, are really grateful for your willingness to be honest, in your classroom and outside it. we need it.

 
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