This is my sabbatical year, so I’m not going to be getting those fawning adoring messages
from any students this year. I am so accustomed to being held in reverence, as a kind of saint, like this:
“I only now [received] your beautiful and exquisite message… I thank you for your infinite understanding and sensitivities which are always beyond measure.”
Those are the words of Nimrod Reitman, in an email to his Ph.D. advisor, Avital Ronell, a professor of German and Comparative Literature at New York University. As many now know, Ronell was found by NYU to have sexually harassed Reitman.
Oh, wait. I never get those. It could be that I’ve never written a “beautiful and exquisite message” — I tend to be brief in email — or it could be that Ronell built a cult-like relationship with her professional dependents. That’s an ugly outcome, and part of a deplorable pattern. Your students are not your acolytes, and that sort of behavior should be discouraged, a point the author of the article makes strongly. But then, unfortunately, he goes on to write this:
Many commentators on social media express have expressed familiarity with the kind of dynamic at play in the Ronell case. Yet I did notice that many of these commentators were not in academic philosophy.
I suspect that the culture of argument in academic philosophy helps counter tendencies towards sycophancy. We show respect to each other by posing the best challenges we can to each other’s ideas. Putting tough objections to philosophical heroes is something we are trained to (love to) do.
Well, gosh, good thing the mode of thinking in my discipline makes that behavior unlikely. We are above all that, so it’s unlikely to be a problem for us.
I’ve heard that kind of argument so many times before, and it’s a sign that someone in that discipline is about to fail spectacularly. “We’re skeptics, we rigorously criticize bad ideas so that’ll never happen to us” or “We’re scientists, science is objective and impartial so abusers can’t thrive in our ranks,” and then whoops, boom, pratfall.
I’ll go so far as to say that having the attitude that the culture in your little domain of thought makes you immune to the foibles of those other poor thinkers over there is exactly the kind of arrogance that makes you susceptible to failure. It’s a fallacy to think that rationalism makes one resistant to bad ideas — we’re all human here, which means we’re all going to fuck up. Rationalizing away your fuck-ups just means you’ll repeat them, and make them increasingly worse.
At least, that’s what I’ve learned from many decades of involvement in groups with a tendency to praise their own rationality. It’s not a promising development.