Saturday, October 13, 2012

A Small Revelation

I don't know why I haven't been able to get much writing done.  I've done too much commenting at other sites, perhaps -- but that doesn't usually slow me down much.  And there have been a number of distractions and interruptions (some of them welcome) this weekend.  But I was reading (re-reading, actually) Emily Toth's Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia (Pennsylvania, 2009), and noticed something in her impeccable advice to new faculty on page 99:
Get yourself a mentor, or several -- senior professors who'll decode the academic enterprise for you, and tell that words that seem distant and uncaring ("uncollegial," "inappropriate," "not germane") are in fact strong condemnations, not mealy-mouthed euphemisms.
Really, I thought when I read that sentence today.  We all have our bugbears, our pet peeves, and among mine are the words "inappropriate" and "unnecessary" in certain contexts.  Context is important, of course: both words should be used in the right place.  They annoy me when they come across as "mealy-mouthed euphemisms," with the sense of someone's nose being held against a bad smell.  In such cases they're prime examples of what is often derided as Political Correctness.  Someone uses a racist or sexist or  homophobic epithet, or some other expletive, and someone else says peevishly, "That's so ... unnecessary" or "That's so ... inappropriate."  In a way this reaction is funny, because the language being admonished is exactly that, and probably intentionally so, but the people looking down their noses are unaware of how funny they look.

But when I read Ms. Mentor's advice, it occurred to me that the people who annoy me with these words are usually academics.  I'll have to start keeping track.  But then their reaction makes sense, except that they've taken their crushing condemnations out of the context where they'd be effective, to admonish people who don't know the code.

Consider this bit that I've quoted before, from the British stand-up comic Stewart Lee:
Eighty-four percent of people think Political Correctness has gone mad, and you don't want one of those people coming up to you after a gig and going, "Well done, mate! ... Y'know, you can't even write racial abuse in excrement on someone's car without the Politically Correct Brigade jumping down your throat."
Now imagine someone reacting to racial abuse written in excrement on someone's car by making a face and saying, "That's so ... inappropriate."  Or "That's so ... unnecessary."  But maybe the fault lies with me: I think that rather stronger language is appropriate and necessary in response to bigotry. 

Or consider an example from elsewhere in Ms. Mentor: in the middle of a meeting with the female graduate student whose dissertation he's advising, a male professor lies on the floor of his office, pleading a bad back, and peeks up the young woman's skirt.  (This seems to be a popular game among some male faculty; I've read about it before.) The student can't go through channels, because sexual harassment is a venerable tradition in academia, as elsewhere, and she needs the help of this professor to get her degree.  His colleagues would consider her lodging a formal complaint to be "uncollegial," and probably "inappropriate."  I agree with Ms. Mentor that discretion is the better part of valor, and that one should pick one's battles with care; her advice in dealing with more powerful colleagues is good: survive to become a professor yourself, and use that status to protect the weak.  But I also hope that academics will learn to save their mealy-mouthed euphemisms for the Faculty Council, and to be more direct and forceful outside of that very specific context.