A note on academic strife

There’s some truth to the saying that faculty disputes are so big because the stakes are so small. Much the same might be said of disputes between students. Little can be lost (at least from a material standpoint) in either case by shouting down one’s academic peers.  But the reasons usually cited for this — i.e., the immunity conferred by tenure and the strong passions of the young — are not the main reasons for uncivilized behaviour in universities.

A combination of three things upholds civility in everyday life. In addition to good character and reciprocity is good old fashioned violence. When good character goes wanting, reciprocity takes up the slack as the most natural second fiddle, because we’d all prefer a civil atmosphere. But reciprocity has little purchase among professors or students, because neither is much beholden to more than a small clique of their peers, which, in most cases, belong to other departments or travel in different circles. That leaves violence, which works on construction sites and in factories, but academics have little stomach for throwing down the gauntlet.

One might suppose that this favorably contrasts academic social mores with the physical confrontations of the blue-collar rubes. But I think the opposite is true. Shouting, insults, finger-pointing and other intimidating body-language carry implied threats; thus, academics are more—not less—willing to be ruled by the violence. They are only disinclined to respond in kind in order to discourage such behavior in the first place.

Add to this the sometimes violent actions of student activists and it’s not a pretty picture. The social relations between peers comes down to one where those imbued with the moderation requisite for respecting others are expected to kowtow to those overcome by their passions. That’s not a happy state of affairs for a institution built on the free exchange of ideas.

Now, you may object that I’ve elided threatening behaviour and actual violence, as if the former were not a lesser evil than the latter.  But this objection ignores the very obvious fact that there is little difference between submitting to belligerent behaviour and submitting to actual violence—except, of course, that meek submission without objection is usually called cowardice.


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