Like much of the world’s population, I have spent the last four years contemplating what has led so many people to support Donald Trump, despite a series of shameful acts that would have ended the career of a politician in any other era of U.S. history. There are, of course, many different reasons that individuals chose to cast a vote for him, but I have begun to wonder whether his shamelessness, itself, had an appeal for the many people in our society who live lives of daily humiliation. Any culture that identifies wealth with moral value automatically shames all those who have been denied access to money. Our culture constantly holds up ideals that cannot be met by those who are labelled as too unsophisticated, too old fashioned, too uneducated, too rural, too fat, too old, and, most of all, too poor. And many of the local institutions that might once have offered a counterbalance to such devaluing of individual worth have been dissolved in the acid bath of a hegemonic national or even international culture.
In such a world, Trump’s apparent imperviousness to being shamed may have a special appeal to those who are most vulnerable to such assaults on their sense of self-worth. To them, his narcissistic incapacity to acknowledge the baseness of his own conduct may create the illusion that it is possible for someone to go through life unaffected by the scorn of the larger culture. Many may vote for him, not despite, but rather because of his outrageous refusal to accept censure.
If resistance to shame is a crucial component of our current political crisis, we need to face the possibility that there is an ecological relationship between Trumpism and the “cool kid” satirists, whom I have enjoyed so much over the last four years. I love the jibes at the gaucheness of Trump and his followers by the late-night defenders of my subculture — Colbert, Bee, Oliver, Kimmel, Myers, and, of course, the incomparable Randy Rainbow. Their cleverness delights me, and it is a joy to watch first-rate satire emerge in a nation in which such wit has been a rarity for most of its history. But, their efforts to shame an arrogant bully have certainly had no impact on the target of their criticisms, and, if at least some of Trump’s appeal rests on his shamelessness, they might have actually strengthened his support in certain quarters.
As much as we might like to see such cultural critiques as standing outside the world of Trump and as providing a pathway to its overthrow, it is also possible that the soon-to-be ex-president’s appeal and the jabs of these clever satirists are integrally connected. There is, of course, an economic link. The head of NBC news is reported to have said in 2016 that the election of Hillary Clinton would result in a 30% drop in MSNBC’s revenue,* and the scorn heaped upon Trump’s followers on late-night television serves as fodder for fundraising appeals on both the right and the left. But there is a form of psychological transaction here that is potentially even more problematic than the economic one. The viewers of these programs receive back a sense of their own special self-worth from the mockery of their social and intellectual “inferiors”, while the targets of their humor receive a confirmation of their victimhood.
I am not suggesting that there is anything innately dishonorable about the attempt to reveal the venality and crassness of what will likely appear to future historians as the most corrupt presidency in U.S. history. But in a society in which status lines are so intensely drawn and so many people have few avenues to experiencing self-worth, there is something dangerous about mixing criticisms of policy with barely hidden slurs against entire portions of the population. How often do the late night hosts combine incisive insights into what is happening politically with pop cultural references that define their intended audience as being more hip than their opponents or with photos of Trump supporters that portray those on the right as pathetically uncool? All of this gets repeated and amplified endlessly on social media and generates an equal tsunami of outrage within right-wing culture.
As regular readers of this blog must have suspected, I do not see the world of higher education as removed from the patterns suggested above. Academia is not innocent of the kinds of collective shaming that is practiced on late-night television. Departmental offices and faculty lunchrooms are often filled with expressions of disgust and ridicule for those segments of society that are judged to be inferior by those in the ivory tower. All too often, these condescending attitudes spill over into classrooms, in which many of the students have been raised in the very cultural milieus that are held in contempt by such teachers. In my own university I have seen colleagues make jokes about the cultural backwardness of Hoosiers** to students from southern Indiana, oblivious to the fact that such comments might shame the very people that they were expected to teach. And even when the disdain for these cultures remains less overt, comments that have drawn faculty together in a shared reality may have the opposite effect on many of their students.
Such expressions of cultural exclusion can serve as a major obstacle to learning. A former colleague described how on the first day of class in the 1960s he and his fraternity brothers would sit in their fraternity regalia in the last row of the lecture hall, watching to see whether their professor would indirectly – and sometimes directly — exclude them from the presumptive community of the university. The choice of words, snide asides, and even facial expressions may convince many students that they are being forced to choose between the world of the professor and that the environment that they grew up in.
Sadly, it does not occur to some of the instructors who are most vocal in their support for the “inclusive classroom” that they might be excluding students from those communities that are despised in the ivory tower. Here, it is not a question of pandering to prejudice and bigotry or of assuring that every student is comfortable at every moment. But shaming students because of the culture they were born into is neither justified nor strategic.
Such “othering” of much of the student body can have the same effect as the elite satire has on a good part of the larger population. People rarely voluntarily seek to enter social groups in which they are openly held in contempt, and it is not surprising that large numbers of students retreat into an intensely anti-intellectual subculture that values liquor over learning. For them, the professor becomes “the man,” and education is a meaningless job to be finished as quickly and as painlessly as possible. All these attitudes are perceived by many in the professoriate as confirmation of their original judgment of students and their cultures of origin, and the cycle continues.
In part, this tendency to view a good part of the student body with scorn is an expression of the unfortunate human tendency to reject others who have the temerity to be different from oneself. But I strongly suspect that the impulse to look down on non-elite students is greatly increased by the nature of faculty culture. As I have suggested elsewhere, the emotional life of faculty at many universities is stunted by a constant fear of being exposed as lacking in crucial knowledge or of being trapped in an institution of lesser worth. (See “The Shame Factories of Academia” and “Vampire Universities.”) There is a temptation to compensate for this emotional damage by asserting one’s cultural superiority over less educated or sophisticated portions of the population.
Faculty, stung by a lack of respect from colleagues, are often tempted to assert their own value by denying that of many of their students. Sometimes this takes the form of secretly drawing satisfaction from the failure of undergraduates to live up to the high standards that have been set for success. Emphasizing the inabilities of students may be used to highlight the competence of their professors. But faculty, who feel shamed by the cultural system in which they work, may also project this humiliation onto cultural groups that academia views negatively. By denigrating the supposed cultural inferiority of many of their students, they may be seeking to affirm that even professors low on the status hierarchy of academia have some relative value.
Such attitudes transform the university into a kind of castle surrounded by a moat. Inside is a glittering world of the princes and princesses. Outside are the ignorant peasants, who continue their brutish lives, unaware of the marvelous life within the walls and, most likely, incapable of appreciating its refined culture, even if they were to try to enter its “hallowed halls.” The drawbridge is only lowered for those few students, whose gifts and commitment indicate that they are born for the elite.
The imposition of such medieval imagery on twenty-first century universities serves neither our students nor our society. And, ultimately the mockery of other groups does little to create a real sense of self-worth in faculty, for it neither addresses the real causes of that sense of inadequacy nor produces real results in the world upon which to build a sense of personal dignity. Strategies for drawing students in can ultimately create a firmer foundation for feeling good about oneself than building up one’s ego by excluding them as unworthy. And society can benefit twice over from such inclusion – first, because it fosters better learning and, second, because it makes a small contribution towards healing some of the rifts that are tearing us apart.
Just as political satirists have an obligation to expose the malfeasance of political leaders, educators must often challenge fallacious arguments against evolution or climate change or visions of the past that rest on racism or exploitation. But the effort to point out the logical fallacies and practical consequences of a position can be undermined, if teachers build up their own egos by demonstrating the cultural inferiority of others. In mocking the cultural groups that advocate such positions, one has crossed the dividing line between reason and prejudice, and the consequences of reinforcing the divisions in society can be as destructive for education as for the maintenance of democracy.
New York Times columnist, David Brooks, recently repeated an anecdote from 19th century Britain in which Lady Randolph Churchill described how sitting next to Prime Minister William Gladstone convinced her that he was the cleverest person in England, but, that, when she talked with his opponent Benjamin Disraeli, she, herself, seemed to be the cleverest person in the country.*** If we are to be truly effective teachers, we must emulate Disraeli, not Gladstone. Our goal must be unleashing the intellectual potential of our students, not demonstrating the superiority of our own minds and world view. That is impossible, if we do not enter the classroom, confident in our own value. If the culture of academia is so devastating to faculty that the only way to maintain a sense of self-worth is to shame students, then it is that culture, not the students, that needs to change.
[N.B. Those writing about topics such as this are apt to fall into the same patterns that they are criticizing. I am still unsure to what extent I am, in my criticisms of colleagues and even in my choice of a photograph to head up this post, practicing the same kind of group shaming that I am attacking. Like racism, shame is so prevalent in contemporary – perhaps in all – societies, that we should always question our own ability to avoid its pernicious effects. If, in this essay, I have projected my own insecurities onto to those whom I accuse of projection, I apologize. At 76, I remain a work in progress.]
David Pace, December 2020
* Ben Smith, “The End of an Era for the Media, No Matter Who Wins the Presidency,” The New York Times, Monday, November 2, 2020.
** “Hoosier” is a term that has been used to describe the inhabitants of the state of Indiana since the 19th century. There are multiple theories of its origin, but none are definitive.
*** David Brooks, “9 Nonobvious Ways to have Deeper Talks,” The New York Times, November 20, 2020.
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