PROFESSOR MEETS GUN: Part Eight -- We're All That Way

"Guns," conclude two Yale law professors in a recent Emory Law Journal, "are at the center of an expressive struggle between the adherents of competing visions of the good society - one egalitarian and communal, the other hierarchic and individualistic."


July 13, 2008

"Guns," conclude two Yale law professors in a recent Emory Law Journal, "are at the center of an expressive struggle between the adherents of competing visions of the good society - one egalitarian and communal, the other hierarchic and individualistic."

Yeah, and which is which? "The more hierarchical and individualistic individuals were in their orientations, the more they opposed control; and the more egalitarian and solidaristic they were, the more they supported it."

I know ... Must people write like this? Individualistic individuals? Is solidaristic a word?

But put that aside. UD's back from her blogging break -- though she's still on vacation, negotiating Hurricane Bertha-inspired tides at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware -- and ready again to shoulder the subject of guns. She's grateful to one of her Inside Higher Ed readers for linking her to the Emory piece, because it moves her along in her attempt to understand and take up a position somewhere on the control/confiscation continuum...

The piece argues, just as Mark Tushnet does (see this post), that we can waste time fighting about whether lots of legal guns lying about decreases or increases crime (it almost certainly increases suicide), but we're not really going to be able to answer these questions decisively. It makes more sense to understand the cultural divide underlying the gun conflict in America, and then to attempt to get the warring parties to understand one another and possibly moderate their positions. As Wendy Kaminer writes, "Debates about gun ownership and gun control are driven more by values and ideology than by pragmatism - and hardly at all by the existing empirical research, which is complex and inconclusive."

UD's problem with the fundamental divide on offer here between hierarchical and individualistic gunnies and egalitarian and solidaristic anti-gunnies is that it doesn't map all that well onto professors.

Of course, you could argue that the large national conversation about guns the guys writing in the Emory journal want to start doesn't need my lot to get itself going; but this IHE series is titled professor meets gun, and its focus for better or worse is on one professor typifying one form of antipathy to guns. So let's proceed.

Let's begin with this excerpt from a recent essay about being a tenured professor in America today. The anonymous author tries to account for the incessant bickering in his department:

Although I'm not even at the midpoint of my career, I'm already worried about the repetitious nature of my job. Teaching the same classes year in and year out would seem to be a one-way ticket to tedium. On bad days, you feel like the protagonist from the movie Groundhog Day. On good days, you feel motivated to discover new texts, develop new courses, and strike out in new directions.

But innovation requires effort, and opportunities for change are often limited by curricula, concerns about coverage, and other constraints. Perhaps we initiate and perpetuate interdepartmental fights in order to keep boredom at bay. Not that we do that consciously or calculatingly, but at some unrecognized level, aren't we itching for intensity? Tenured for life, we perhaps need the drama of conflict to inject the thrill of spontaneous emotion and extreme passion into our stable and predictable existences. Conflict might be our unacknowledged antidote for ennui.

This comment goes to the deep, almost problematic, sense of security UD has always known -- and, as a tenured professor, will, at least in her public existence, rather likely continue to know. (Recall this post, in which UD describes her life of remarkable security, a security that started at birth.)

Professors are so bored in their stable, predictable lives, so oppressed by ennui, that they provoke conflict in their little group just so that, for a few moments, they can feel intensity, drama, and passion.

Of course, this enviably calm life is supposed to help professors think freely and creatively; one might say that a professor's passion is supposed to come from her scholarly and pedagogical activity... though mainly from her scholarly activity, since tenure is ultimately about the provision of intellectual freedom... Yet here we've got a young professor stressing the depressing non-eventfulness of an academic's life, the almost maddening nothingness of it. The claim is that there's an acutely felt tedium to a tenured professor's days, and it's so fierce that the professor will pick fights to give herself a sense of being alive.


Whatever else you might say about this picture of dead academics stimulating themselves through quarrel, it doesn't exactly describe the social solidarity the law journal authors evoke. Most professors are pro-gun control, but are they really the egalitarian communal types the article associates with this political position? It's not very communal to be fighting all the time. And as for egalitarian...

UD can think of few more hierarchical settings than American universities. Professors live in a tightly titled universe (lecturer, assistant, associate, full, named, named in three departments, named in four schools, man of letters, man about town, Man Booker recipient...); they're constantly comparing their schools to other schools (the US News and World Report rankings are notorious obsessions, and now there's that other thing, that ranking of public intellectuals.... plus, what, Posner's book?...), and they keep close watch on everyone's course load and annual report and article production, with many departments ranking each tenured faculty member each year in terms of productivity and reputation.

This is one of the big reasons why our universities are the envy of the world. They're full of restless quarrelsome status-obsessives. You want communal egalitarians, go to an Italian university.


It's noon. There's a fine breeze and a full sun and a beach steps away. UD will conclude this post with the following thought: We're all that way. We're all of us - Americans - hierarchic and individualistic. At least we're much more hierarchic and individualistic than we are communal and egalitarian. People characterize tenured radicals as communal and egalitarian, but they're really not. They just look that way because they're bored.


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