Politically Overcorrect

Dr. Ken Wagner ~ Associate Professor of Sociology

Since the presidential election, a gloomy pall has been cast over my colleagues here at Lynchburg College. It seems many of them, quite in step with most national experts, didn’t expect or imagine that Donald Trump would win the election. His election has seemed especially dispiriting, going beyond policy differences to an incredulity that “that guy” could possibly be elected.

I’ve been involved in higher education for many years, and I’ve never seen anything like this. George W. Bush was not liked by many in academia, but the shock and dismay was nowhere near what it is today. The sociologist in me is, of course, intrigued by this new social phenomenon. We live in a two-party system, which means about half of the time one party is going to lose to another. Why is this instance of that so especially troubling to my colleagues?

I think the answer lies in an area I’ve published about a bit: occupational subcultures. We don’t know for sure whether people with certain outlooks and/or personalities tend to be drawn to certain occupations or whether there is a socialization process that occurs when people enter the job, but much empirical research suggests that, in general, many occupations involve not just job tasks and routines but also shared worldviews on politics, propriety and the like.

College professors inhabit a very professional subculture. Social science has long differentiated between occupations which are and aren’t “professions.” Professions are occupations where there is a relatively long training/educational period, and where, once practiced, there is a lot of on-the-job discretion accompanied by the idea that only other members of the profession are qualified to judge performance (think lawyers and doctors, but also college professors, as examples of this).

But professionals also tend to adopt a demeanor, or style, that gives rise to the claim “he’s acting ‘unprofessional’” when violated.  This demeanor usually involves very careful, very political speech. In academe, this is bolstered by the idea of “collegiality.”

Collegiality started literally as the idea that everyone involved in a “college” was equal in power and responsibility; colleges were a unique organization in that respect. That, of course, is an idea quickly tossed today; current college administrators think of themselves as the “boss” of the organization or “coach” of the team. Instead, “collegiality” has come, in a way convenient for those in power, to mean “gets and goes along with others.”

As a result, disagreement speech in academia is, somewhat ironically considering all the talk of “critical thinking,” incredibly calculated and muted.

When I was in graduate school in sociology, classes would often devolve to discussions like this: “So, what did you think of the Weber reading?” “I found it interesting that he said Catholicism struggled with capitalistic norms since I think Catholicism embodies the rationalism behind capitalism.” “That’s interesting, because I felt the idea that Protestants were hyper-rational fits his model.” The teacher: “Thanks both of you for sharing, I think you both make good points!”

Did you notice that both of them can’t be right, as they directly contradict each other? Well, academia ironically often doesn’t. There’s an uber-politeness or safeness which is built into the professional model of academe, such that any strong, vigorous disagreement is seen as beyond the pale, perhaps un-collegial or maybe even borderline harassment.

And here’s where the election comes in. Whatever his faults or pluses, Donald Trump spoke his mind with a candor unusual to national (or any) elections. He would certainly be branded “un-collegial” on college campuses if he were a member.

But here’s the thing: a very significant part of the U.S. population is sick to death of what they see as the forced uber-politeness and discipline of academic-type speech. They want people to be free to speak their minds, to make rough and tumble arguments expressing themselves vigorously.

At the same time, the academic subculture is thoroughly appalled: people, like Trump, who do that are violating fundamental norms of our subculture.

But people in our subculture need to “get out more.” If you listen to talk radio (as I do when I travel from LC to my home), or Fox news or many other popular outlets, you will realize that our academic norms are strange and unusual.

The world isn’t talking like us; it’s talking like Trump. And rather than being appalled by it and dismissing it, we need to understand that. Perhaps we need to ease back on forcing our speech norms.