February 10, 2011

BIAS IN ACADEMIA: AN EMAIL:

I email you from time to time, either with links to my blog, or with comments about your posts. Every time, I say “don’t use my real name”. This is solely because I am an academic, and I positively fear my colleagues learning my real political preferences.

In Megan Mcardle’s story (that you link) she has the following passage:

Haidt notes that his correspondence with conservative students (anonymously) “reminded him of closeted gay students in the 1980s”: He quoted — anonymously — from their e-mails describing how they hid their feelings when colleagues made political small talk and jokes predicated on the assumption that everyone was a liberal. “I consider myself very middle-of-the-road politically: a social liberal but fiscal conservative. Nonetheless, I avoid the topic of politics around work,” one student wrote.

I have used this comparison myself, it is apt, and it doesn’t just apply to students. You hide yourself in plain sight. You make comments that are carefully crafted to allow you to make small talk, and which will allow your colleagues to think you’re in agreement with them, but which nevertheless satisfy your own sense of integrity. You never lie. You just make comments and allow them to draw their own conclusions. A classic example is the way I’ll make comments about politics, saying things like “I don’t trust politicians, period.” My liberal colleagues will nod and agree. We’re all in agreement, they believe. It gets easy after a while. You make comments about Marxist ideology that are really rather neutral, such as how you see similarities between Marx’s views, and something else. You leave it unstated that in fact you think this is appalling, while they nod and smile at the continuing relevance of Marxism in today’s society. Everyone is happy. I don’t feel quite so happy when someone says something about “stupid fucking conservatives” (I’m quoting exact words here), but I just nod, and say “ugh-huh”.

I’ve just been watching the first series of Mad Men, and I’m struck by the gay guy Salvatore Romano, and how similar his behavior is to me, only I’m hiding my politics, not my sexuality. There are also the classic moments, whereby fellow believers in academia carefully try to work out if you are one of “us”. I remember one guy who heard me comment on how some architecture reminded me of something I read in The Fountainhead, which was enough to alert him. Later we went out for a drink. I remember the nervous moment (for both of us) where he finally came out and asked me, “so what are your political / economic beliefs?” I chickened out, tempered, and said, “well, perhaps more to the center than most academics” and countered, “what are yours?” Reassured, he was willing to admit to conservative leanings. Then I was willing to admit it too. Then at last we could talk about our true feelings, with it clearly and openly stated that (of course) none of this was ever, ever, ever, to go beyond our own private conversations. (I also learned to never ever, in future, mention Rand within hearing of any academics, in case I accidently revealed myself again.) In another case, the vital clue was our shared interest in science fiction, and over the weeks there followed careful probing concerning which authors we liked, until we eventually discretely revealed ourselves. Now he lends me books saying “don’t let any of your colleagues see you with this.”

When (if) I get tenure, I toy with the idea of coming out of the closet. I don’t think I will though. Perhaps my job will be more secure, but I have to live and work with these people for years to come. I prefer to work in a friendly environment. I don’t want to be the token conservative, and I don’t want to be the one who speaks at meetings while everyone else rolls their eyes and exchanges meaningful glances.

Needless to say, don’t under any circumstances use my real name if you choose to refer to my email. Thanks!

I’m happy to teach at a place where you can be both openly gay and extremely conservative — as one of my colleagues is — and not worry. It’s too bad so many other institutions fall short of this standard. But, you know, as with the gays, you need people who have the courage to come out of the closet before it’s really safe.

UPDATE: A reader emails: “Your readers account of being a conservative in academia’s closet made me wonder about three things. First, is such an account more likely to spark new tolerance for conservatives by the left in academia or a witch hunt to identify the conservative heretics? Second, how is the covergence of the higher education bubble, more state legislatures going to the GOP and a hard left academia going to play out in the state schools? Third, how does the ‘Army of Davids’ work when ‘David’ is in the closet?” Depends on when he opens the door, slingshot in hand.

But yeah, smart administrators understand that intellectual diversity on the faculty is a good thing, for purely self-interested reasons alone. Back in the 1990s when I was writing a lot of second amendment stuff, somebody tried to get my dean to fire me, saying that I was fomenting domestic terrorism. But my dean told me that he was glad to have me writing that stuff, because when alumni or legislators talked about ivory-tower liberal faculties, he could just send ’em a copy of my “Critical Guide To The Second Amendment.”

ANOTHER UPDATE: Don Surber emails: “Friends of Dorothy, meet Friends of Ayn.”

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