Tag Archives: credibility

Wearing Our Successes on Our Sleeves

uniforms wikipediaAcademia can be a lonely place.  In my 40 years of teaching and writing it’s become clear that most us have an increasingly desperate need to carry our successes with us. As even this web site demonstrates, self-promotion has become a professional way of life. Rhetorically, the drill involving these credibility enhancing attempts is familiar. Even before the opening pleasantries of polite conversation are finished, we lapse into hints of self importance, innocently uttered as if by a less bashful self: “Before I resigned as chief spiritual adviser to the Dali Lama. . .” or “As I recall, the phone call informing me that I was a Guggenheim Fellow came just after hanging up with the Chief Justice.”  Albert Einstein famously proposed to an editor that his seminal work on relativity be published “if there is room.”  But these days vanity seems to have the advantage over modesty.
Perhaps we are born with the knack for discovering tropes of personal credibility to remind others that we are.  .  . well, pretty darned important.  We see it nearly every time our professional newsletters duly pass on our news about grants, promotions, sabbaticals and awards. I suspect that conversation analysts probably have a word for this compulsion to establish our bonafides. But I tend to think of it as a kind of garlic that will ward off disciplinary Draculas not easily impressed.  Even if what we say doesn’t inspire, we can at least be satisfied that we dropped enough early hints about our biography to make an impression.
There are many routes to signaling our breathtaking credentials.  A personal favorite is the self-referential “literature review” in our research, where half of the seminal earlier sources identified at the beginning of a paper are actually from the author.Sometimes this habit makes it difficult to function as a reviewer of journal submissions that are supposed to be anonymous. Look at whose work gets cited the most in the notes, and you’ve usually found the author. Then there are those professionals in many fields who seem to travel with the details of their professional lives all but tattooed on their foreheads.  My wife recently attended a seminar for psychotherapists where—I kid you not—the psychiatrist-presenter offered the gathered group his 80 page resume.  For those reluctant to take the bait in paper form, it appeared out of the blue as a PowerPoint extravaganza. The seminar’s theme was not supposed to be about needful personalities with self-esteem issues.  That unintended lesson was simply an added bonus.
Establishing our personal credibility is not just a human impulse.  Who cannot marvel at the capacity of many animals—males mostly—who compulsively mark out their territory to ward off others who would usurp it?  As a critic studying public rhetoric, it’s hard to take in the inevitable opening ritual of selling one’s value without also conjuring images of a neighbor’s pet happily marking every vertical object in sight.
            All of this points to something missing in academia.  Put simply: we need uniforms.  Maybe not the awful pea-green ones used by the Army. And those variegated combat fatigues seen on the streets of Baghdad don’t seem quite right either. But we do require something on which we can hang the symbols of our success. When you think about it, a well-decorated soldier is a walking monument:  part time-capsule, part autobiography, and the bearer of all kinds of official certifications. We hardly need to ask what they’ve been up to.  By contrast, the old academic imitations borrowed from Oxford and Cambridge simply aren’t up to the task.  They were never rich enough in information to record the career-long battles and victories we want others to honor. We prefer our own unoriginal civilian garb. For my colleagues in Film and Cinema studies, it tends toward black jeans and shirts.For Rhetoric faculty of a certain age like myself, the uniform is often a pretty hopeless combination of mismatched pants and sport coats purchased when gas was $1.25 a gallon.  
Perhaps the basic uniform could be a nice neutral grey, or maybe the color of one’s own discipline, as represented in the hood of an academic gown. The color of my academic field is silver, which might make a group of us look like a crowded parking lot on a sunny day.But no matter. The real payoff would be in the academic equivalent of the braids, metals and bars displayed on the life-long combat veteran. Deans might even be permitted to wear gold- braided epaulets.
Dressed out in this plumage, we could impress students with a few references to our war medals:  the one in the image of a thumbtack for teaching a Friday afternoon mass lecture;  the decoration shaped like a racquetball for being forced to lecture in a reverberant room where everything was heard at least three times. We could wear the purple Sign of the Stretched Dollar, given for conference attendance in Nairobi on a travel allowance that wouldn’t get us from New Jersey to New Rochelle. And there is no reason we could not decorate ourselves with pins made up as miniatures of our book covers. 
Bars with nifty colors could also be given for surviving a few years as a chairperson, or answering impossible administrative requests, such as listing “all” the maintenance problems in a program’s 400,000 square foot building. And there could be at least small tokens given at intervals for finding new ways to answer AWOL undergrads who innocently ask if they “missed anything important.”
I’d reserve special medals for close combat on the battlefields of conferences and publishing. We have all seen colleagues laid low by petty and sometime terribly misinformed comments and reviews. Some reviewers are so toxic that you may suspect that their presence kills artificial plants. I have a friend who was advised in an anonymous critique that his article suffered from overlooking the seminal work already done by a superior expert in his specialty.  He was bewildered to discover that it was none other than himself who was supposedly the more knowledgeable source, giving new meaning to the idea of a “blind” review.  And we all probably deserve some awards for surviving the arrows launched in the direction of our own books, papers and articles. I still carry the shrapnel from the panel respondent at a professional meeting that treated my two co-presenters as agents of enlightenment, and me as an unwitting mouthpiece of disinformation.  I thought the old scholar might actually cane me with his walking stick. Or there was that really rude assault on a book that implied—as nearly all book reviews do—that the reviewer should have just written the manuscript himself.  Surely we should find ways to signal our survival in spite of these wounds.
There probably can’t be battle ribbons for the ecstasies of teaching and writing. These moments should be their own rewards. But I for one am ready to add five or ten pounds of shiny hardware to my drab wardrobe, even if I end up looking like a Soviet war veteran on May Day.

The Fraudulent Rhetoric of Anonymous Response

Comment boxIf here are pleasures in delivering anonymous and wounding responses, they make a mockery of the familiar cant that the “internet wants to be free.”

Pick a polarizing subject in our national life, tie it to a news story, and then take your own tour of the rough music that passes for online comment. It’s a dispiriting side-trip. The migration of news and opinion to the internet has made it possible for virtually anyone to pass on their first and often intemperate reactions to news stories, opinions, and other forms of public discussion. Responding only requires a simple digital device and a reactive instinct that usually plays out in contemporary America as an oppositional style. Many comments can’t even rise above the crude invective of a schoolyard taunt.

The problem is that online pronouncements from individuals using pseudonyms are allowed. With exceptions, online protocols accept the kinds of false identities that were once associated with characters in spy novels working behind enemy lines. Typical are the monikers used by individuals who responded to a Slate.com story about the recent Boston bomb attacks. Slate was careful and responsible in its reporting. But as with most news sites, the individuals who signed on to make comments concealed their identities. Readers heard from “Celtic,” “ICU,” “ddool,” “roblimo,” “Dexterpoint,” “Lexm4,” and others. “Celtic,” for example, noted that the suspects were “Muslims,” expressing mock surprise that any of them would produce “terrorist actions.” “Dexterpoint” decried “lefties” who he imagined to be anxious to confirm that the terrorists were not Muslims.
It’s easy to see such names as the avatars of souls who lack the confidence to be engaged as full dialogical partners with others. But putting names to our opinions is part of living in a civil society. Members of the Fourth Estate with an interest in sustaining the ideal of public discourse seem to be at cross purposes by allowing pseudonyms in their “comments” sections. They contribute to a fraudulent rhetoric that keeps sources in the shadows. Commenting on the behavior or opinions of named individuals in unnamed responses is at least a small act of subterfuge. While subjecting others to the burdens of public criticism, abandoning our identity absolves us from the same standard.

What’s in a name? More than we might first assume. Even if an identified person is not known to us, affirming who we are is an elemental expression of our integrity. It is the clearest token of our personhood that we possess, and its use should be a demonstration of trust for the community we seek to address. If this sounds hopelessly romantic, it isn’t. Try miss-identifying another person. The correction that is sure to follow is a reminder that we cherish our birthright as an important marker of our identity.

To be sure, there are circumstances when revealing a person’s identity might be their death warrant or, at least result in their inability to work. Whistleblowers, political refugees, and others who have engaged in acts that could lead to deadly retribution have at least a conditional right to anonymity. But for the rest of us, advocacy from behind a scrim of anonymity is at least a mild form of intellectual dishonesty.
Some of the advocacy spilling out at the end of web-based stories is benign. But significant portions of this clandestine commentary exhibit a kind of free-floating rage. Typical is the kind of jawdropping scorn toward a writer or subject that suggests a respondent who is intent on dismissing rather than engaging others. Add in a certain number of “trolls” who fire off repeated rounds of vituperation simply to provoke, and we’ve defined a corner of our public rhetoric that grows darker every time the light of authentic authorship recedes. For trolls, the drone attack of harsh judgment is made safe from retaliation or responsibility by never having to leave the private space from which the target was struck.

At its worst, this is the territory of the unqualified conclusion and the fantasized conspiracy: often a stream-of-consciousness unburdening of personal demons unchecked by the kind of self-monitoring individuals usually apply in the presence of others. Turned outward, this reactive rhetoric is often a jumble of histrionics from persons who seem to want a stage and an audience, but lack the mettle to do more than offer taunts from behind the curtain.

Internet pioneer Jaron Lanier has written about the online world’s erosion of an individual’s unique voice. In You are Not a Gadget he notes that “an impenetrable tone deafness rules Silicon Valley when it comes to the idea of authorship.” Because it’s a system defined by the vastness of interconnecting networks, a “hive mentality” of frenetic sampling effectively plays down the uniqueness of an individual perspective. Information is aggregated and sources are slighted. Material from one author blends into another. Content is registered and defined in files that are merged and merged again. As with Wikipedia, “data” is primary; and sources are mostly unknown.
Part of this process is bureaucratic. Organizations prefer to communicate under the broad umbrella of the corporate brand. And part is the result of an active culture of libertarianism that flourishes within the culture of internet technologists. As political journalist George Packer has noted, many have a relatively withered view of the requirements for managing a civil society, finding solutions to social dislocation in the mastery of better forms of “connectivity.” This view sometimes extends as well to the digital departments of even “traditional” news organizations far away from the Shangri-La campuses of Silicon Valley.

The problem is that connectivity is not communication. To merge the two is to confuse a “platform” with the far more variable nature of human content. So while these technologists still regularly hail the idea of the “information revolution,” with that phrase’s implication that data is just another commodity, the bias towards connectivity allows them to miss the critical question of how data is sourced. Media platforms are relatively static. But the qualitative measure of a source’s worth is dynamic. It depends on determining personal credibility as the first of many checkpoints that will allow us to assign value to an idea.
The long term effect of this de-emphasis on authorship is to put into virtually everyone’s hands a tool for issuing ceaseless streams of public invective. Against the earnest business of news gathering and straight reporting, we seem to take special pleasure in issuing attitudes of defiance. A columnist offers a particular “take” on a policy initiative. A journalist records the words of a political candidate. Another reports the known facts involving the suicide of a teenager. Even for straightforward reporting, multitudes seem to lay in wait to correct the record. One need only read a few offhand “comments” attached to a story about the death of someone’s troubled child to witness the violation of a fragile space where strangers don’t belong. There’s good reason why we retain an American demonology for the likes of secret police, post-war Hollywood witch-hunts, and hidden cameras. If anyone makes a serious accusation, everyone involved should be able to claim the right to know their identity.
Aristotle observed that an individual’s character is perhaps their most valuable asset. He subscribed to the conventional view that you reach others best when you offer an olive branch and the assurance of your good name. Instead, the oppositional language of denigration fills a simpler expressive need. What was once the art of public comment on national and community issues now seems more like an unintended registry of disempowerment. It’s easy to account for the attractions of screeds posted with abandon and without interest in preserving even the remnants of a civil self. But if here are pleasures in delivering anonymous and wounding responses, they make a mockery of the familiar cant that the “internet wants to be free.” If freedom means anything, it must include a sense of personal obligation for the opinions we express.

(This post first appeared in The Sunday Star Ledger, June 30, 2013)