***Originally Presented to The Atlantic Institute Dialogue Dinner (Greer, SC – November 2018)
I have often said that far too many professors are still angry about being picked on by the athletes in high school. Although I usually mean this statement as something of a joke aimed at the problematic way that academics tend to take themselves way too seriously, I actually think that there is also something true at the heart of it. Frequently, academics view their own approach to thinking, living, and knowing as not simply the “best” way to do things, but the “only” way to do things correctly.
This is especially common among the STEM disciplines due to the social empowerment that attends scientific discourse as nebulously obvious. Just think about the way in which one can appeal to “science” as a singular authoritative discourse: “Scientific studies show . . .” “Science says that . . .” “According to science, we know . . .” etc. According to the French philosopher, Michel Henry, the dangerous thing about understanding science this way is that we end up overextending its scope of application such that we erase other domains of human knowing that lay beyond scientific inquiry.
For example, I am sure that neuroscience can tell me a lot about what happens in the brain during experiences of love, but I am also sure that it can’t tell me much about what it means to experience love as a lived relationship to another person. I am sure that sociology and psychology can offer important insights into the reality of implicit bias, but I am also sure that neither can help much when it comes to living into hospitality as a moral imperative. I am confident that biologists and chemists can say a lot about what constitutes life, but I am also confident that they can’t say much about what makes life worth living. Henry goes as far as to warn that if we allow science to be everything, that is, to be the only thing when it comes to knowledge, then we are actively engaged in practices that will lead to the death of our culture. In other words, art, religion, and ethics are rarely made better through lab reports.
We are more than merely biological organisms and yet biology remains important. Just because something is not the only thing does not mean that it is simply nothing. This might seem obvious, but as David Foster Wallace notes, oftentimes when we carefully consider the stuff we take for granted as obvious, the really important things about life become visible. I think that academics tend to take themselves too seriously because (especially in the humanities), what they do is so often not taken seriously enough.
We live in a society in which college athletics are certainly not undervalued. So, when the football coach of the state university is frequently the highest paid employee in the state, and simultaneously increasing percentages of college courses are taught by adjunct faculty who are living below the poverty line (despite having graduate degrees and authoring books), it is not unreasonable to think something is wrong. Similarly, given that rarely are the members of the chess club, or Latin club, as socially prominent in their high schools as the football players or members of the wrestling team, say, it is not silly for professors to maintain these old animosities toward those folks that they perceive to challenge their own significance.
Perhaps this is why so many professors are offended when you don’t call them “Dr”? “I’ve earned it,” they say. Sure, but perhaps the deeper explanation is that they continue to feel like that awkward 16-year-old who just wants to be noticed by the other 16-year-old who is also just trying to fit in. In this way, their not having gotten over being picked on by the athletes, or cool kids, more broadly, in high school, and alternatively, the perceived need of the athletes to pick on them in order to maintain their “cool” status, might expose something important about their psyches, but also about the logic of exclusion by which they both understand their professional and personal identities.
By “logic” here I don’t mean the math-like stuff we learn in philosophy courses on critical thinking, but instead the background frame of meaning by which things signify as what they are. The logic of exclusion is the idea that things are either everything or nothing. This logic plays out in lots of ways in our lives. Consider religious discourse that thinks if you are part of this church you are not participating in salvation. Think about the way that it works in social dynamics: you are either part of the group that matters or you just don’t matter at all. For academics, I think that far too many of them think that since they have so often not been invited to the cool-kids’ parties, they must now make the cool kids irrelevant in order to be able to throw parties of their own.
The logic of exclusion operates due to a variety of other logics that reinforce and supplement it. The logic of binary options is the main one to notice here. Remember when George Bush said that you are either with us or with the terrorists? This is the binary logic at work. It has been transformed recently into the following: you are either a member of this political party or you are not a patriot. Alternatively, think about religion: you are either a participant in this religion or you are wrong about God. Or think about the frequent social understanding of academic life: You are either majoring in pre-med or business, on the one hand, or you will be unemployed for the rest of your life, on the other hand! Moreover, notice the way that this binary logic also so frequently and disastrously applies to more basic socially deployed identity categories. You are either man or woman, anything else is non-existent. You are either straight or confused. You are either white or black. You are either Christian or atheist. You are either Northern or racist. We could go on and on offering other examples of such binary logics, but the point is that the logic of exclusion requires such binaries in order to operate. Yet, like exclusivism, binaries are often reflections of the views of those already in power, rather than reflections of the ways that power might be rethought, reframed, and reconsidered.
When there is no nuance, no complexity, and no ambiguity, there is also rarely anything original, creative, or excellent. Perhaps ironically, binaries invite mediocrity and extremism.
It fosters mediocrity because when we say that everything is either this or that, we also do not allow for better or worse examples to be possible within those alternatives.
It fosters extremism because when we say that everything is either this or that, we want to foreclose anything that might appear to interrupt the clarity with which we make judgments about those who are not like us. This extremism shows up in the attempt to make anyone who would offer nuance to a view or a position look like a threat to the group holding the view.
Let me show you what this might look like when played out on the ground. I once was invited to speak at a Christian university by a student group. The group wanted me to speak about progressive politics and Christian ethics. They were told by the administration that I was not approved to be on campus because I was “dangerous” to the campus community. So, I had to give the talk at a coffee shop off campus – it was packed with students desperately seeking to hear from folks who understood Christianity to allow for a more complicated and nuanced approach to social life. Similarly, I have been asked to leave several churches, and denied academic positions at Christian universities, because I was perceived as “dangerous and divisive” to the community. Notice here that the danger is that the group polarity would itself become divided in ways that no longer respected the boundaries of the division between the binary alternatives by which the group identity is framed and understood.
When we continue to play the game of life according to the logic of exclusion and the binary logic by which such exclusion functions, we eliminate the possibility of being a game-changer. Instead, we can only ever change the score by being better at the game dictated and stipulated by others. Yet those others are powerful precisely due to their own belief in the exclusivism of the binaries by which they conceive the world and their position in it.
Unfortunately, too often leadership is conceived as a matter of playing such games well. Indeed, think about how often universities advertise themselves as being better than other schools as offering “real world experience” so that their graduates get better jobs and make more money.
Look, I like my job (most days), and I wish I had more money. My point here is not that these are bad things to care about as essential to a flourishing human existence given our current particular social arrangement. My point is that when we think that leadership is about understanding the rules and making sure that everyone else plays according to them – or finding the lines and then enforcing those boundaries, we never open spaces in which to envision things differently. There is no genuine progress because either we repeat things, or we become unrecognizable.
Simply put, we merely change the score within the game, but never change the game itself. Were we to change the game, then we threaten to undermine the power of those who understand their importance according to its current operation. Yet, think about who we remember as truly great in a variety of human endeavors: Albert Einstein, Aristotle, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, Michael Jordan, Danica Patrick, Serena Williams, Ghandi, the Buddha, and the list could continue on and on. The point is that all of these individuals refused to do things the way that others had done. They made possible what others considered impossible. They changed the game itself, and not merely the score.
True leaders are gamechangers. We change the game when we reject the logic of exclusion and explore logics of hospitality. We change the game when we refuse to operate according to binaries and open spaces for new options. A big movement in business currently is the idea of “disruptive practices.” Think about that. The companies who stand to make the most significant impacts on the world are those that don’t just tweak things around the edges but fundamentally ask “why not?” where everyone else gets intimidated by the difficulty of asking “why?”
When we stop thinking that our not sitting at the cool kids’ table means that we are not cool, we open the door for inviting a bunch of “nobodies” to find themselves as “someone.” The philosopher Jacques Derrida, someone who certainly was disruptive to the binary logics by which philosophy operated in his day, once claimed that the basic logic by which we should understand our social lives can be summarized in the words: “viens, oui, oui” (Come! Yes, yes!). Notice here the invitation that gets followed by affirmation, rather than the exclusion that yields negation.
Importantly, such hospitality requires humility. It necessitates that we realize that our way is not the only way, and maybe not even the best way. Inviting others to come means that we not only welcome their ideas, but their criticism. Crucially, though, when we realize that our identities are not threatened by the identities of others, we begin to understand that our identities are much more interesting, complicated, and dynamic than we were led to believe by those who said that we could only be “us” when “they” are opposed. The same is true for our society: bridges allow for movement without eliminating different sides of the river, but walls restrict our view regardless of which side we are on.
I want to invite you this evening to be a game changer; to be disruptive; to be nuanced; to live in the spaces that everyone else abandons. But also, let me invite you to be hospitable, to be humble, and to embrace the critique that allows you to live toward truth and excellence.
We need athletes and we need academics. We need biologists and classicists. We need politicians and plumbers. But, we definitely don’t need more mediocrity and extremism. There is plenty of that already on display in the world – usually motivated and encouraged by the most powerful among us. Rather than be intimidated by that power, or suck up to it in order to get ahead in “the real world,” let’s become leaders who are not concerned with being powerful; and let’s create worlds that are currently nothing more than the dreams of disruptive voices that get ignored by those only interested in hearing their own.