Anthropology's Spinal Tap problem26 Feb 2013
The Thesis Whisperer brings up the topic of prolonged rudeness in academic culture: “Academic assholes and the circle of niceness”. When I write that it’s time to “reclaim the name ‘anthropology’ from this earlier generation”, I mean that the elite discourse within the field has become toxic. Rude behavior often yields short-term gains, but has obvious long-term costs for the discipline as a whole:
How does it happen? The budding asshole has learned, perhaps subconsciously, that other people interrupt them less if they use stronger language. They get attention: more air time in panel discussions and at conferences. Other budding assholes will watch strong language being used and then imitate the behaviour. No one publicly objects to the language being used, even if the student is clearly upset, and nasty behaviour gets reinforced. As time goes on the culture progressively becomes more poisonous and gets transmitted to the students. Students who are upset by the behaviour of academic assholes are often counselled, often by their peers, that this is how things are done around here . Those who refuse to accept the culture are made to feel abnormal because, in a literal sense, they are if being normal is to be an asshole.
Not all academic cultures are badly afflicted by assholery, but many are. I dont know about you, but seen this way, some of the sicker academic cultures suddenly make much more sense.
Yes, anthropology has been affected. Picking academic vendettas used to be a great way to get famous. The students – at least the normal students – suffered. The field has selected for bad behavior.
Many elite anthropologists still consider the New York Times to be an arbiter of quality work. That is, if you are featured in the Times, you are visible to the elite. Yet the Times itself has become actively hostile to cultural anthropology as a field, selecting the worst instances of bad behavior for promotion and coverage. Some of my friends have been agitated for the last week waiting breathlessly for the Times to publish letters decrying the recent coverage.
You know that scene in This Is Spinal Tap?
David St. Hubbins: I do not, for one, think that the problem was that the band was down. I think that the problem *may* have been, that there was a Stonehenge monument on the stage that was in danger of being *crushed* by a *dwarf*. Alright? That tended to understate the hugeness of the object.
Ian Faith: I really think you're just making much too big a thing out of it.
Derek Smalls: Making a big thing out of it would have been a good idea.
Yeah. That one. The curtain has risen on the old band, and they’re playing behind a Stonehenge monument that can be crushed by a dwarf. Please, somebody, lower the curtain.