Friday, February 11, 2011

On Hypocrisy and Lies: Why Maggie The Cat Could Have Been A Blogger

One of the ongoing themes in the comments section of this blog is the question of how a blogger can position herself as a radical critic of institutions and practices in which s/he is embedded.  Isn't that hypocritical?  some commenters ask: Don't you feel dishonest?  If you feel this way, others ask, how can you possibly go on working at Zenith?  Why don't you quit and go to work for a community college?  Why are you so ungrateful, a few insist, for everything that Zenith affords you -- the students, the salary, the research money? Although some of these criticisms come from conservative readers, all of them do not.  My more critical graduate student and adjunct commenters sometimes see my position within the system as a particularly inauthentic position for critiques of hiring and tenure. While they usually stop short of name calling, their occasional fits of rage suggest that regard my position as vexed and troubling.

I find these encounters generative and interesting for many reasons.  One is that I have been interested in hypocrisy, and the various lies that are crucial to hypocrisy, since my suburban youth.  Among my first attempts at serious intellectual labor was a literature paper, written when I was seventeen, about the theme of lies and lying in the plays of Tennessee Williams.  The action of two of my favorite plays, A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, revolved entirely around attempts to conceal lies and the explosive outcomes of uncovering lies. Both plays achieve narrative closure through the deployment of new lies that occlude what the audience can see but the characters cannot:  that  normative sexualities require hypocrisy and a variety of very different lies to maintain their dominance.  The strategic lies that emerge in the final scene to usher the characters into their unhappy futures do so by moving them out of the shame of sexual chaos and into the respectability of nuclear family. 

For example, In Streetcar, the lie that Blanche is mad, and her accusations of rape against her brother-in-law Stanley false, permits Stanley and Blanche's sister Stella to transform themselves from a husband and wife given to animal couplings and into expectant parents.  Ironically, of course, it is Blanche's prior lies about her own drinking and extramarital sexuality prior to her arrival at Stella's house that give the lies credibility.  Similarly, in Cat, the refusal of heteronormativity by Brick, which must be repeatedly covered up by his wife Maggie in a desperate attempt to secure his position as his father's heir, is resolved at the end of the play by the lie that Maggie is pregnant.  This is presented as "proof" of a sexual relationship between husband and wife that does not exist, and will only exist in the future as business transaction between them.  All of these lies succeed for one reason:  Williams' insistence that hypocrisy is the state of play in the nuclear family.

Imagine what a compelling revelation this was for a teenage, suburban, queer proto-Radical. 

The second reason that accusations of hypocrisy interest me is the assumption that, in the academy and perhaps elsewhere, what we critique is something we should sever our connections to.  By this logic, one is morally bound to forge compromises with one's academic employer, and identify with one's it, regardless of how unchosen and unfree the relationship to that employer might be.  And yet, one might argue that, if  hypocrisy is the state of play in families, we might sensibly look for hypocrisy in all institutions and social organizations.  Can we not all cite examples in which the covering up of lies -- lies of commission and lies of omission -- seems to make the whole academic engine run?  Think of instances in which the forwarding of a particular intellectual interest in a job search caused members of your department to say things about another strong candidate that are simply untrue, but everyone sat there and listened as if they were.  Think of arguments made against competing candidates of great merit that rely on exploiting minor flaws or inconsistencies in research findings to a mammoth scale in order to degrade that person in the eyes of other, less well-informed, colleagues. 

Accusations of hypocrisy are nearly impossible to disprove, but it is interesting to me that they are not pinned to conservative academics who rail against the supposed domination of universities by liberals, but don;t seem to imagine resigning from them either.  From my perch, it would be nearly impossible to make a living as an intellectual at all -- much less a radical one -- were we not able to compromise our moral compasses and work comfortably in systems that are disagreeable to us in one way or another. 


Comrade PhysioProf said...

The only way to not be a hypocrite is to completely sever all connections to other human beings and to love alone in the woods. The only morally relevant question is whether a particular instance of hypocrisy is employed for the purpose of exploiting other people.

Anonymous said...

Yes, CP, we are all hypocrites so no one is a hypocrite. How very bourgeois of you. Also, there are degrees of hypocrisy -- it's not all or nothing. (And TR, my observation stands -- if I held your beliefs and were in your position, I would teach where I was most needed -- which is certainly not at Zenith!)


Comrade PhysioProf said...

Dude, once again, you completely fail to understand an adult discussion that occurs way over your childish head. Wouldn't you have more fun in a discussion you are capable of comprehending and participating in?

Anonymous said...

When you don't have anything meaningful to say, engage in childish hyperbole. You comrades and radicals sure are impressive -- but not in the way you think! And isn't "Dude" a little er -- 2008 Bud Light ad?


Dr. Cynicism said...

"The second reason that accusations of hypocrisy interest me is the assumption that what we critique is something we should sever our connections to." Bingo. This is the exact false assumption that I was thinking of. We all deal with things that we consider junk at our workplace, some people carry on, and some people quit and move elsewhere. It is what it is.

Eileen said...

>The only morally relevant question is whether a particular instance of hypocrisy is employed for the purpose of exploiting other people.

Exactly. Talking out of two sides of your mouth to preserve your own privilege is different than arguing the system one works within should change for the better. To me the two are fundamentally different.

AYY said...


Even though I'm usually more likely to agree with Jack than with you, I don't think the hypocrisy charge is well taken.

You have been criticizing some of the practices of the institution, rather than the legitimacy of the institutions such as Zenith. And even then you are not saying those practices are okay for you but not okay for someone else.

I do not see how a convincing case can be made that by teaching at Zenith you are taking advantage of something that you would deny to others.

Jack's argument seems to be blurring the distinction between inefficiency and hypocrisy. Inefficiency is not necessarily a moral vice. Also it might not be inefficient for you to teach at Zenith because one who holds your beliefs can make a reasonable argument that you can better accomplish your goals at a place like Zenith than at a community college.

Anonymous said...

Well, different strokes for different folks. I know what I would do -- but what other folks would do is up to them. We all have to make our own way in this world, and it ain't always easy to square our actions with our beliefs.


readywriting said...

As someone who is wrestling with similar issues, it's hard not to see myself as a hypocrite. But it also depends from what position you hold; I am currently a full-time instructor who is not on the tenure track. I don't think I am particularly exploited at the moment, and I enjoy my position for a number of personal and professional reasons. But if the situation were to change, I would be hypocritical to stay in a position where I was exploited while I try to fight to end the exploitation/recommend others refuse such treatment.

I guess my biggest issue is that the very institution that "claims" to be inclusive, diverse, progressive (although obviously that's highly debatable) and critical is the one that is forcing us into positions where we need to make some pretty massive compromises.

By the way, brava on the analysis of the plays as a 17-year-old. We read those same plays in high school and I didn't pick up on any of that. But then again, my coping mechanism for dealing with the hypocrisy of suburban living was to further immerse myself in fairy tales and elaborate fictions.

We deal with what has happened/is happening in higher education the best we can. You blog, which is a powerful tool to help bring attention to the issues and problems. Your teaching might be "better served" elsewhere, but your observations about what goes on "at the top" are invaluable. Sometimes, just the act of naming it is important (I'm also thinking of Roxie's World and Excellent Without Money). We need to keep writing and talking about it.

As for taking your toys and leaving? Well, that would suit most people just fine - don't want you teaching the elite all of this heretical, radical stuff anyway, do we? :-)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this, TR. I think conversations about hypocrisy are not held widely enough.

To me, an academic liberal hypocrite is someone who argues that a particular set of systems need to be unraveled and rebuilt, but simultaneously uses their knowledge of how these systems work to make sure they remain in place so long as they are personally benefited. This happens when vocally anti-sexist professors continue to engage in old boys clubs to get "ins" for their next job, when old "Marxist" professors don't retire until they are sure they take home the maximum pension from the university system, and even when scholars bring attention to their sex appeal to gain attention.

I agree that one can critique a system that one is part of and not be a hypocrite (like critiquing white privilege and American hegemony, while remaining white and American). But, when one vocalizes critique of a system that one is part of but takes action to perpetuate that system so long as that particular person is benefited, that, to me, is hypocrisy.

Isabel said...

"I would teach where I was most needed"

Yes, this is the reason, it's not about severing ties. We all live with those sorts of those situations (though the denigration of job candidates sounds particularly ugly).

I don't know if I would call teaching at "Zenith" hypocritical, but it's hard to see it as radical. Especially as you don't seem to be taking a position of trying to change the system from within. Maybe I misunderstand, but you seem hostile to the suggestions of AA for lower class students, but isn't that key?

Shouldn't the existence of a whole system of elite schools that lead to the best careers in the country be troubling to a radical? It seems like you would tire of helping the children of the rich be even more successful and dominant. So on that basis I can see how it's hard to say you are not part of the problem.

You don't have to teach at an open admissions community college. There are prestigious public universities you could teach at that will at least have a much higher percentage of students who are first in their families to go to college and could really use your radical guidance.

Turtle Woman said...

I don't know anyone who is both lesbian and feminist who can live in perfect harmony in any male created institution. So being a lesbian in these straight heteronormative worlds is always a bit jarring. One must find authentic self in caution, and also in activism within a given institution. To me, Mary Daly, who is the gold standard of lesbians in academintia, argued this well. She said she "chose to stand her ground."

Anonymous said...

The descriptions of what people think constitutes hypocrisy here are interesting. My own definition is that advanced (I think -- saw this movie sometime ago and my memory could be deceiving me) by the character called Animal Mother in the movie Full Metal Jacket who asked another character "You talk the talk but do you (or perhaps it was can you) walk the walk?" In my opinion, we all need to get our talking and our walking in synch with each other!


Comrade PhysioProf said...

In my opinion, we all need to get our talking and our walking in synch with each other!

Dude, how about you tell us all about *your* "walking"? Let's hear it!

AYY said...

I still don't understand why there's a problem with you teaching at Zenith than at a community college. Here's why:
1. You don't always get a choice at where you teach and the choices aren't always equivalent. As a practical matter your choices of where to teach were limited. If your only choices were let's say between Zenith (or staying at Ben Franklin, another elite institution) and teaching at Frostbite Community College in the Yukon Territory, at a fraction of the salary and without the cultural amenities you get at Zenith, then I can't see why there's a moral problem in not picking Frostbite. Those who criticize you would reasonably have made the same decision.

2. Why would a person of your beliefs would be most needed at a community college? There's a substantial pool of people with your beliefs who are available to teach at community colleges, so it's not like if you don't do it no one will.

Unknown said...

The second assumption really hit home with me: "...that, in the academy and perhaps elsewhere, what we critique is something we should sever our connections to." I work on China, a place that presents a smorgasboard of problems for critique. My students,and others, have confronted me about why I don't publish more criticizing various human rights abuses--as they see them. I have explained over and again that I am not willing to "burn the visa' and end 30 years of relationships quite yet. And of course, when you get into transnational comparison of whose state is most heinous, as an American, I feel that the charge of hypocrisy would justifiably then come from Chinese colleagues. Staying in the game, w/an eye to stealing the ball and bending the rules as far as you can...? Thanks--great post.

Historiann said...

Interesting discussion, but I don't get this at all as an example of "hypocricy:" "when old "Marxist" professors don't retire until they are sure they take home the maximum pension from the university system."

This implies somehow that it's hypocritical for Marxists to be paid for their work, when it seems like it would be a very bad Marxist who would refuse to be paid for hir work. Would the money in the maxed out retirement fund otherwise go to the relief of widows and orphans? Is the professor taking food out of the mouths of babes? Does the professor have an inheritance? Does the professor have a husband with Parkinson's Disease or ALS? Does it matter? Taking home a "maximum pension from the university system" is presumably legal and done according to university policy. (Besides, anyone here who's going to get a fixed-benefit "pension" raise your hands. TIAA-CREF is like a 401K or a mutual fund.)

Being a Marxist does not demand that one refuses all compensation for one's labor. This is crazzy, especially since we all know that once Fictional Professor retires, she'll be replaced by adjuncts making 1/10th hir salary, and whose interests does that serve? The Workers International, or the Corporate University?

Isabel said...

What's hypocritical is conveniently ignoring class inequalities, having them always take a back seat to other concerns, where they are eventually forgotten. Interesting that only 17% of Zenith's students apply for Pell grants and other financial aid (and are from families earning less than 60K). So a sizable majority of the non-white students are also upper class. Perhaps many are from ethic groups in countries where they are upper class minorities, where the ethnic majorities may have little hope of reaching for a spot at Zenith -who knows?

Even if you don't have a problem with the class system, you *have* to acknowledge it. Pretty much all the time, as the discrepancies are huge; people are leading really different lives out there. Asserting that it is "race", specifically whether one is white or non-white, that is of primary importance when it comes to equal treatment and the chance at success in life is disingenuous. Or it's extreme blindness to one's own privilege and in someone preaching about such matters to others it does come off as hypocritical.

Tenured Radical said...

Isabel: Who the frack are you, where do you get your numbers, and why have you made it your life's mission to expose Zenith's crimes against the working classes? Could you move on to Stanford or Princeton?

Zenith gives massive financial aid to students -- making it cheaper, in many cases, than attending a state school, something that would not be reflected in Pell grant figures. You have no idea who goes there.

Get another theme, hokay?

Anonymous said...

"why have you made it your life's mission to expose Zenith's crimes against the working classes?"

Jeez I just left a few comments about it on someone's blog.Hardly making it my life's mission. Are you saying Zenith is not an elite school? Pell Grants should relect the income of the parents, the tuition wouldn't effect them I don't think.

But it is true that I aspire to expose upper class liberal hypocrisy. Other commenters brought up the class issues, which is great.

So far you haven't responded to my polite comments and have been pretty hostile to the other comments about class. In any case, as far as my "figures" I already explained that I did some cursory internet research, wikipedia etc.


AYY said...


I don't understand your point about class differences and hypocrisy. We don't ignore class differences, we (or many of us) recognize them and try to make choices that ideally will allow us to be in the class to which we aspire. If professors were paid the same as someone who works at McDonalds, there wouldn't be much of a reason for anyone to spend the time and money to become a professor.

As for Zenith, it's a private institution. They have to pay the bills and they don't get state funding. That is a simple fact of life. Recognizing it doesn't make one a hypocrite.

And even then, I don't see why you are seeing this as a problem that TR needs to recognize. TR doesn't decide who applies to Zenith, who gets in, and what financial aid they get. All she does is teach the ones who get in.

(Sheesh TR, I never thought I'd be one of your staunchest defenders on a thread.)

Historiann said...

I guess we Marxists should do the morally pure thing: leave academia where we can talk and write about issues of fairness and social justice, and instead go to work for Goldman Sachs, where no one makes any pretense that they're not filthy capitalists exploiting the lax regulatory system to further exploit the working class. No "hypocrisy" there!

Isabel said...

I actually said that I also didn't think it was necessarily hypocritical to work at Zenith . That seems to have been overlooked.

I suggested that it is hypocritical to lecture others about equal access as far as anti-racism, to appear to really care about access to Zenith to those who have been historically denied access, but to then leave class out of the picture.

Do you honestly think lower class whites have equal access to the elite schools that lead to positions of leadership in our society?

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Isabel will only be satisfied if you agree that poor whites are *more* discriminated against than anyone else in American society. Anything other than complete capitulation to that point leads to continued obsessive claims of "hypocrisy".

Tenured Radical said...

The VP and Speaker of the House are white, working class men; so is the president of Zenith. So are several of my colleagues in the history department, my shrink...uh...uh...uh...

I repeat, who the frack are you, Isabel, and why are you beating this horse?

Isabel said...

Physioprof is lying. I do not think that that is true, and I would certainly not demand that anyone else say it is true. Anyway, I already stated my case pretty clearly, I think.

Who am I? What do you mean? What is my background? Am I famous? What would you like to know about me?

"The VP and Speaker of the House are white, working class men; so is the president of Zenith."

The president of the most powerful country on the planet is black. The richest woman in the US is black. The richest man in the world is Mexican...what is your point? Some working class people succeed, so any can succeed if they just buckle down (and if they've got the IQ and talent)? Hmmm, Sounds familiar!

Anonymous said...

TR, perhaps instead of inquiring about Isabel's identity (which seems to me irrelevant) you could answer her question:

"Do you honestly think lower class whites have equal access to the elite schools that lead to positions of leadership in our society?"

Inquiring minds would like to know!


Susan said...

I recently had a similar conversation with a friend about religion: what is the role of critics from within and can more be done from within as a critical believer than from without as a hostile critic. Coming from 2 very different religious traditions and backgrounds, we both agreed that there is a place for internal critics that isn't hypocritical but is almost always uncomfortable. And sometimes discomfort -- for the individual and the institution -- is a good thing.

Tenured Radical said...

Comrade PhysioProf is many things, but a liar is not one of them.

If Isabel knew how to read, she would know the answer to the question: there is no such thing as equal access to elite colleges, or any higher education, for that matter. And thanks to the Republican Congress, and the billions spent on war that now, mysteriously, has to be returned from "social spending", there will be even less access.

The poor -- whether they are white or of color -- have dramatically diminished access to higher education across the board. The poor are getting poorer, regardless of what their race is; and higher ed of all kinds, from community college on up, dramatically more expensive.

That's my position.

Isabel said...

"Comrade PhysioProf is many things, but a liar is not one of them."

Sorry to burst your bubble (I like how you take his side about what *my* position is. Nice. Very progressive.)

Thanks for the caned response by the way. It's all because of the Republicans! BTW I specified lower class, not necessarily poor.

So what are you doing about it, since you seem so concerned about access for PoC?

"there is no such thing as equal access to elite colleges"

Exactly - so what is the point of AA at Zenith?

ps. Why so rude? "if Isabel knew how to read" etc. Tacky.