Tuesday, August 19, 2014

My life as an exile. Am enjoying it though ;)

A few years ago, a senior faculty came to my office to talk with me. Not as a friend, not even as a colleague, but in his official capacity.  He  said that every institution has its own culture, and that there was a significant hallway culture where I was, and not working with that culture was how I ended up not socializing with my colleagues--including him, of course.

I certainly did not make him happy when I told him that slavery too was once a part of our culture, but that does not make slavery valid.  A few more exchanges, in which I was my calm discussing (not argumentative) self, and he left my office seemingly worse off in his moods than when he came to talk with me.

He wanted me to be a part of the community.  But, apparently he could not understand why I should differ from the groupthink.

A few months later, after reading an op-ed of mine, he emailed me:
Just as once you enjoyed exchanging ideas with your peers, couldn't this occur again? You have friends in the Division.  You can build from there.  In your conversation and writing, often your sense of humor triumphs over differences.  Your editorials likewise bridge ideologies.  Couldn't this happen in the Division as well?
What he failed to understand, perhaps because he did not want to accept it, is this: I had already been excommunicated and by his failure to speak against it, he was very much a part of the excommunication process.

It is a strange experience to be exiled even while being within.  Of course, things could be otherwise--with a welcoming atmosphere to discuss ideas, even when there is complete and total disagreement.  Or, I could have at least pretended to be a part of the community--but, I did not because, heck, I am too much an old-fashioned guy who loves Socrates as a role model.
Socrates turned himself into an outsider in his own city, but didn’t move to another. He became “átopos,” which meant “out of place,” but also “disturbing” and “perplexing.” Being átopos is crucial if you are to be a straight-talking philosopher, as Socrates was. There is in every community something that has to remain unsaid, unnamed, unuttered; and you signal your belonging to that community precisely by participating in the general silence. Revealing everything, “telling all,” is a foreigner’s job. Either because foreigners do not know the local cultural codes or because they are not bound to respect them, they can afford to be outspoken. To the extent, then, that philosophy is exposure of “everything,” especially of things no one wants to hear about, foreignness is highly necessary for its practice. The philosopher, at least the straight-talking kind, is bound to remain a metaphysical gypsy.
I could not, and cannot, be bothered with respecting the institutional culture when I did not agree with it.  An exile, thus, goes with the territory!
Socrates’ case is telling. Like few others he saw the philosopher’s need to uproot himself from his own community. Yet he refused to go into an actual exile himself, preferring instead a symbolic one. He lived in Athens as if he were a foreigner. This means that he practiced philosophy as a rather dangerous pursuit. Such a tightrope walking can never take you too far, especially when you, performing it with no safety net, make incessant fun of your audience.
Literally making fun of the audience, so to speak, is not one that I do all the time.  But, I do--only once in a while, though.  Like in this tweet from a few days ago:
All together, is it any wonder, then, that I have not gone far!  But, I could not tradeoff expressing my views on issues, even though I know well that there is a price to pay.

Truth-seeking and truth-telling are dangerous practices, especially with no safety net.  At least I have one net that has been holding me up.  I hope that net won't tear anytime soon ;)


  1. Sriram, are you warning me about mentioning that you're my favorite professor to my other professors? Have I already exiled myself alongside you? Actually, it's probably best to avoid names, since I'm too much of a troublemaker to keep quiet!

  2. Thanks, Mike.

    To be fair to my unprofessional colleagues, they will not direct at students their ill-feelings towards me. They are not that awful, I think.


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