Academic conferences are more than merely for intellectual exchange. They are also where we network, we connect with people, get energized by younger colleagues doing amazing work, ... and also get to hear horror stories from other campuses. It is like a big counseling camp ;)
After listening to one of those horror stories, I shared one of my favorite comments about faculty: A significant percentage of them, if they were not in higher education institutions, would be locked up either in mental institutions or in penal institutions. This is one way that society keeps antisocial assholes locked up.
Most academics do not seem to want to systematically develop within themselves two virtues that mean a lot to me--empathy and kindness. Bullying, being a jerk, and engaging in immoral and illegal activities perhaps happen more in academia than elsewhere. If you do not want to believe me, read this essay, where the author notes:
In a popular 2013 post, “Academic Assholes and the Circle of Niceness,” Inger Mewburn, who blogs as “The Thesis Whisperer,” considered whether jerks really do get ahead in academia. Relying upon Robert Sutton’s book, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, Mewburn notes the advantages of being an asshole — someone who pursues his or her own career with ruthless dedication while stepping on and over others. More than that, unkindness is viewed as a signifier of intelligence and kindness as a signal of intellectual weakness. Academia rewards those who represent the clever and cruel version of intelligence. So nasty behavior gets reinforced. Jerks admire other jerks, and departments and institutions can become havens for assholes.
You see how much milder my language is in comparison with the words in that paragraph? ;)
Assholes abound in academia. Which is why if students find out that I am a good listener, I end up being their counselor.
Apparently the absence of kindness is a part of the larger culture in which (if you want, channel Trump here) only "losers" show kindness:
According to psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor, kindness “has become a forbidden pleasure.” In their 2009 book, On Kindness, they explore how kindness has emerged as trivial, corny, and/or silly rather than a crucial component in our social interactions. Simply put, kindness has a bad rap. They write: “Most people, as they grow up, secretly believe that kindness is a virtue of losers.” We think people who act kind are weak or are only acting that way to further their own interests. Kindness actually makes us suspicious of other people’s intentions.
Could there be a particular reason for empathy and kindness to be looked down upon in academia?
Part of the problem is that kindness gets associated with emotion while ideas and intellect go together. That dualism, they write, is “a philosophically thin account of what it means to be human.”
Many academic philosophers--who are the ones we think of as contemplating what it means to be human--are also some of the most bitter, sarcastic, condescending assholes that I have met. Recall this post on assholes in which I cited a book by a philosopher; I bet the author ran into way more unpleasant experiences with assholes than he ever wanted to write about.
We are now so much used to people behaving badly, and we so much expect the other to be nothing but an asshole, that we think that one acting with kindness has some devious agenda. Hey, this is what progress is!