When Bad Things Happen to Good Academics

I wonder sometimes what makes people go bad. There doesn’t seem to be any logic to it. James Gilligan, a forensic psychiatrist who has worked with serial killers, writes that nearly all of them have been abused as children. That makes sense to me. I’m inclined to think that people are like other animals, that if they get what they need when they’re young, they grow up to be well- adjusted members of their species. We know how to make an animal, a dog for example, vicious: simply mistreat it. My understanding is that that works on pretty much any animal. If it gets what it needs when it’s young, it will turn out to be a fine adult. If it doesn’t it won’t, it’s that simple.

I like this view, not simply because it’s humane, but also because it’s optimistic. It gives us a formula for wiping out cruelty and intolerance. We just need to work to ensure that people get what they need. We need to make sure that parents don’t have so many financial worries that they cannot be sufficiently attentive to their children, or worse, that they end up taking out their stress on their children. We need to make sure that every person, every job, is accorded respect, that people are treated with dignity, etc., etc., and eventually cruelty and inhumanity will become things of the past. That’s a tall order, of course, and perhaps it’s idealistic, but it’s something to aim at anyway. There was a time when people said things such as poverty and hunger could never be wiped out. But we’ve made great strides in eliminating them, and have even eliminated them completely in parts of the world. It’s widely believed now to be a question of will, not of practical possibility. If we want to eliminate poverty and hunger, we can.

I like to think that the same thing is true with cravenness and cruelty (meaning that it can be wiped out if we have the will to do so) and generally, I do believe it. But sometimes I’m confronted with examples of what seems to be completely gratuitous and inexplicable viciousness from people whose lives to all outward appearances anyway, would seem to be pretty cushy, people who give no evidence (no other evidence anyway) of having been abused as children. The mystery of why some people go bad gives me a certain sympathy with John Calvin, and others who believe in predestination, or the view that some people are just inherently bad. I don’t really believe that, but in my weaker moments, I wonder if it might not be true.

There are just so many variables. Is it not enough to have loving and attentive parents? Can having been picked last for a team in gym class cause a wound that festers for years leading finally to generalized suspicion and paranoia as an adult? Can one slight on the playground explain a vicious and unprovoked attack on a colleague years later?

My mother once said that in her experience, religion made good people better and bad people worse. (Both her parents were ministers in the Assemblies of God church.) The same thing, sadly, seems to be true of academia. I don’t believe there is a better life than that of a tenured academic. Hardly ever in human experience are the stars aligned so perfectly as they are in the lives of tenured academics. Teaching of any sort is fulfilling but most teaching doesn’t come with the job security and other material benefits routinely accorded to the tenured academic. To be paid to teach, not to mention to read, and write, well, it’s like winning the lottery.

I had some wonderful teachers when I was in college. This led me to believe that teachers were, in general, not simply wiser and more learned than the average person, but also kinder, more considerate, more understanding and tolerant. This made sense to me because they had what appeared to be wonderful jobs. How could anyone not be happy with such a life, I asked myself, and how could anyone who was happy fail to be anything but nice?

Since then, however, I have learned that two kinds of people enter academia: (1) well adjusted people, people who are basically kind and decent, sympathetic and empathetic, people who love to read and sometimes (though not always) also to write, people who like people in general and like to think that in their own small way they are doing something to better the human condition, and (2) maladjusted people who like to use their learning as a club with which they can intimidate others, people who suffer from varying degrees of paranoia, people possessed of a messianic zeal to single-handedly save humanity from what in their fevered imaginations they believe to be the ravages inflicted on it by the forces of evil they take to be embodied in the form of despised colleagues, people who spend more time plotting to undermine and even publicly humiliate these colleagues than they spend on teaching.

There is almost no way to check the damage the latter sort of academic can cause once he or she becomes tenured. They sit plotting and poisoning the air in their departments until they retire, and they do not generally retire until very late in life because they thrive on conflict, a kind of conflict that it is hard to find outside a professional context. When, as sometimes happens, I’m confronted with the spectacle of the damage such people can do, the havoc they can wreak in an otherwise harmonious community of scholars, the pain they can cause to colleagues for whom they have conceived a pathological dislike, I have a certain sympathy with the anti-academic element in our vociferously anti-intellectual society. Academics are not really the plague that they are increasingly represented as being, but there is, lamentably, a sizable contingent that gives the rest of us a bad name.

The Logic of Limiting Violence

"Handgun," Oil on Canvass, Hall Groat II

“Handgun,” Oil on Canvass, Hall Groat II

The issue of gun control is once again in the news, thanks to the mass shooting in Connecticut yesterday. All the putatively-lefty pundits in the main-stream media are trotting out their tired arguments in favor of stricter gun control laws in what ought to be clear to anyone with live brain cells is simply part of the circus (as in “bread and circuses”) that poses as political discourse in the U.S. The problem, is not the easy availability of guns, it’s the increasing numbers of people whose murderous rage has ceased to be metaphorical. That is, the problem, I would argue, is not the supply of guns, but the demand for them.

We experienced the same revival of the public debate on gun control last July, when there was a mass shooting in Colorado. “In our country,” wrote Gail Collins then in The New York Times, “the mass shootings come so frequently that most of them go by virtually unnoticed. Did you catch the one last week in Tuscaloosa? Seventeen people at a bar, hit by a gunman with an assault weapon.

“People from most other parts of the industrialized world find the American proliferation of guns shocking,” Collins goes on to observe. She neglects to mention, however, that the differences between the U.S. and the rest of the economically developed world are far more profound than can be captured in the single issue of gun control. Yes, most other countries in the economically developed world appear to have more restrictive gun control laws, but those laws cannot alone explain the discrepancy in levels of gun-related violence here and there. After all, at least some of these countries have more liberal drug laws than we do, yet drug addiction there is still less of a problem than it is here in the U.S.

The real difference, or the distinction that makes a difference, is that the wealth in the other economically developed countries is less polarized. (see James Gilligan, M.D.’s Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic on the relation between wealth inequality and violence). These countries have extensive social welfare systems that in many instances have eliminated poverty and have provided free higher education and free health care. My point is not that these countries tend to have a better handle on just who is mentally ill and what kind of treatment they need. My point is much broader than that. It’s that these societies are more humane. When you know that no calamity that could possible befall you would cause you to end up destitute on the street, that no illness or educational ambition could bankrupt you or indenture you for the rest of your life and that the reason you don’t have to worry about these things is that your neighbors, your fellow citizens, are deeply committed to the view that no one should have to worry about these things–well, that makes you feel pretty good about humanity, pretty happy to be a part of it.

Norway had a highly publicized mass murder last year, but part of what made it so disturbing to Norwegians was how unprecedented it was. Norwegians, unlike Americans, are not used to mass murders. Life in Norway is pretty good. Life in Scandinavia in general is pretty good. Road rage, for example, is unknown there. I know. I lived there for eight years. Scandinavians take life a pretty leisurely pace and can afford to. They don’t become violent when someone, intentionally or unintentionally, cuts in front of them in a line. They don’t trample one another to death trying to get at a limited supply of deeply-discounted flat screen TVs. No murderous rage seethes just below the surface of society.

I moved to Denmark in 1990 along with my then boyfriend who was what one could call a gun enthusiast. He joined a gun club in Copenhagen and was surprised to learn, from one of the other members, that it was, in fact, possible, despite Denmark’s highly restrictive gun laws, to buy a gun on the black market in Denmark. Yes, he was told, there were a few bars, in what Danes considered the seedier part of Copenhagen, where a gun could be procured after a few discrete enquiries. The thing is, there aren’t many Danes out there making such enquiries.

Danes are pretty happy. Most Europeans, at least Northern Europeans, not to mention Canadians and those in Australia and New Zealand, are pretty happy compared to most Americans, and there are obvious reasons for this. It’s not merely that they don’t live with the fears nearly all Americans live with. It’s more fundamental than that. It’s not the absence of the fears, but the reason for their absence that makes the difference. They have a much more positive view of human nature than we do. They think people are naturally empathetic and sympathetic, that they want to make a positive contribution to the larger social whole, that they are generally kind and decent and ought never to suffer any more that is absolutely unavoidable. It’s a happier thing to be a human being in such a society.

That, if you ask me, is the real reason for the levels of gun violence, and indeed, violence more generally, in American society. The availability of guns doesn’t, after all, explain the levels of violence in the media, in movies and television.  We have a taste for violence in the U.S. that is unknown in the rest of the economically developed world. Why? Because we have been raised to view human beings as contemptible, as having to prove they are “worthy” of help before we will give it to them. We have a taste for violence because we hate one another and hate ourselves for being part of such a contemptible species.

Or maybe it’s just that we’re butt stupid. It ought to be obvious to anyone that the real problem with gun violence in the U.S. is the social and economic conditions that have created an apparently inexhaustible demand for guns, a demand that would be met no matter what the laws concerning the sale of guns. There’s no logic behind what passes as political discourse in this country. Perhaps we should have more restrictive gun laws. I’m not opposed to that in principle. That’s not the place to start, though. If we are serious about reducing gun violence, we need to figure out what’s driving masses of people to want guns and then begin working to eradicate that.

The painting above is by Hall Groat II. Other paintings by Hall Groat may be viewed on the “Daily Painters” website.

This article is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in Counterpunch on July 23, 2012.