calling in reinforcements

Jan 16 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

A long time ago, I lived in a very "red" state. The place I now call home is not so conservative, which I like because it is more aligned with my own politics. I may not always agree with my blue friends, but we agree on some basic premises that enable us to have interesting/productive conversations. This is not true here. While it is always a shock when I take a trip back to catch up with folks and find myself immersed in the red-state culture. This trip, for some reason, has been particularly frustrating. I have had several conversations in the past couple of days that make me want to tear my hair out.

Here are a couple of positions that I have had to defend:
1. Tenure is not a mechanism for lazy people to suck at teaching.
It became clear in this conversation that the folks I were speaking with felt that teaching is the main/only job of an academic faculty. I tried to explain that teaching was a small part of my job, and that basic research is important for laying a foundation that allows for the development of treatments for diseases, etc. That research leads to economic development and jobs. The response? "meh. maybe we'll go along with that. but tenure is evil and makes it so you can't fire people that suck at their job". So I follow up with people that suck at their job won't get tenure. I try to explain that tenure is a way to keep smart people in a difficult job that doesn't pay well. It is a "carrot" at the end of a long career training and it allows folks to study topics that may become politicized without fearing for their job. I told them that people don't check out after they get tenure, and, while you can't be "fired", at least where I work, you do have to cover part of your salary by landing grants.

I would say that we agreed to disagree on this one.

2. people, in general, do not avoid getting jobs so they can collect unemployment
I almost exploded my head on this one. This topic is a little out of my league, and I haven't really researched it well enough to be a good advocate for my position. But I tried. The basic premise of the argument that I heard was that most people are lazy and just want the government to give them money. Or else they will go sell drugs (WTF? I have no idea where this came from so I just ignored it). The first piece of evidence presented to me is that there are a lot of jobs available out here (this anecdote is supported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which indicates the lowest unemployment is in mostly rural states). So, if people really wanted jobs they would move here. I tried several approaches here. I raised the possibility that some people can't move, because of family, child care, medical reasons, etc. Or that there might negative consequences if we force the entirety of American workers to become migrants that "follow" the jobs. Or that people who were trained to be computer scientists might actually not work out so well working on a farm. Over and over I heard: if they WANTED a job they would make it work. So I changed tactics: suppose that all the jobs were in the big cities on the east coast. Would you move out there to take a job doing something that are totally unfamiliar with? The predictable answer: I would if that is what I had to do to feed my children! Then came the "I heard Joe say that he wanted to hire someone but they wouldn't start for 2 weeks because they still had that much unemployment". I tried to explain that even if this was a true story, it was probably not representative of the entire population.

We declared an impasse.

3. white people are NOT discriminated against
Now, I really felt like I had some good arguments when this topic came up. And that I was RIGHT! The argument started when it was proposed that the fact there were Associations for *insert your favorite non-white here* that it was discrimination - there is no Association for White Men, after all. I pointed out that almost every "business association" or the like is basically the AWM. They argued that the non-whites should learn to "work within the system". I pointed out that it is hard to do this if you are blocked from entering "the system". They argued that discrimination ended long ago. I called bullshit, pointed out that there are still overt discrimination based on gender and ethnicity when it comes to hiring not to mention other less obvious barriers that prevent people from having the opportunities that WM take for granted. A female in the room pointed out that she had witnessed discrimination, but had been able to become successful anyway. So discrimination is not an excuse for failure.

My head exploded. Thankfully it was time to call it a night.

I feel like there was a time in my life when I could engage better with folks more conservative than myself. I wonder if the fact that I now live in blue-topia has dulled my debating skills? The people I'm talking to are not stupid (though they may be misinformed in some regards). In my view, these discussions are chances for folks from very different viewpoints to understand why we have such different perspectives. But I don't think that I understand folks out here any better than before these conversations. And I suspect that my arguments haven't actually done anything to make the folks out here think any differently of the "liberal elite".

So, dear readers (both of you!!). I need some help. What is it that I am doing wrong with my interactions here? Please keep in mind that "don't talk to those people" is not very helpful.

22 responses so far

  • Dr Becca says:

    You are not doing anything wrong! I think your reasoning is spot on. The problem I've found with discussing most political issues of contention is that people's minds are made up, and no amount of sound logic--or, for that matter, factual evidence--is going to change that.

  • gerty-z says:

    Does this imply that there is no way for folks from different political viewpoints to reach consensus? Because I find that really, really depressing.

  • Pharm Sci Grad says:

    As long as you're engaging in civil dialogue, you're not doing anything wrong!!! Americans tend to have little experience in the rigorious debating of political issues, so it is often a difficult discussion to have calmly.

    People also have to be open to the fact that they may be wrong; there's no other hope to change their mind. No one really LIKES to be wrong. But no amount of elegant rhetoric will sway someone who's not willing to think about it. Most days I settle for planting a seed that there might be another truth and spend the rest of my energy being grateful for my diverse professional and personal experiences (which have informed my perspective more than any debate).

    I would say meeting people (ie: professors, people on unemployment, etc) and talking to them/seeing what they really do all day is more effective in changing minds and stereotypes. Walking a mile in someone else's moccasins is usually helpful, but does require a degree of empathy that some may lack. It's not easy, but I think it's important. I tend to not have these confrontations/discussions though (for my own mental health), so I give you a lot of credit for at least trying. 🙂

  • Dr. O says:

    Gerty, you've just described every trip home since I started college. My family is quite middle of the road, but my friends, well, the word conservative doesn't do justice. After an especially frustrating experience two years ago, I finally gave up and have since resorted to benign conversations about their kids. Thank God I have the Monkey to talk about next time I visit.

    As sad as it is, I've just accepted that I can't change their minds any more than they can change mine. We still have a lot in common, and I prefer to just stick with topics that are less confrontational.

  • becca says:

    One model that could explain these data:

    When you are young, EVERYONE is more conservative than you. You are liberal/progressive just to shake things up. Also, many of those more conservative people have acquired some wisdom. There is always some good thought behind a position that is more conservative than the one you hold.

    As you age, you get as conservative as your logic allows. You recognize that change per se is stressful, and so you demand a good reason for things to change. And so you stop being liberal by default. This means the things you *are* liberal about you have *damn good reasons* to want to change. And that the average intelligent thought behind the positions that are more conservative than yours are not as high as they once were.

    • Katharine says:

      I dunno about that. There are some pretty liberal old folks in the world.

      Also, don't confuse the conservatism you're probably thinking of with the crazy-ass authoritarianism that American conservatives advocate.

  • rxnh says:

    I don't think you're doing anything wrong. I'm of the
    opinion that you probably won't be able to change anyone's mind by
    arguing with them. Just sharing your own personal story or
    straight-up facts might get them to really start to integrate what
    you say into their understanding, and make them change their own
    minds though. So if both parties have the intentions of trying to
    understand the others' rationale, I think that can be a satisfying
    conversation. That conversation is a bit different though. You
    really have to start with the evidence that the other person uses,
    then listen to the specific logic that leads them to their
    conclusions. And make sure to explicitly define the terms you'll be
    using together, because even if you say the same word, you might
    have slightly different meanings in what you're saying. With the
    tenure argument : "tenure is not a mechanism for lazy people to
    suck at their jobs" I think that the "sucktitude" if you will,
    isn't really well defined. Does sucktitude mean not publish? does
    it mean fail a huge class? Does it mean be a bad mentor? Does it
    mean gross scientific incompetence? What does a professor have to
    do to "suck" at his/her job? Then is it true? Will tenure allow a
    professor to insist on failing every class, if the students really
    suck? (Word on the street is no- that PI got a talking to) Will
    tenure allow a professor to never publish again? ( I've never met a
    PI that did this) Will tenure save a professor that is found to
    fake results? ( I don't know, but I hope not) And like you said,
    not everyone knows that professors do more than teach. And I think
    a key key key key point to share is grants. In a way, a professor
    is self employed from the grants. (More than "in a way" if one
    considers the overhead the university takes-- WTF??? Overhead???
    and you could take it further and compare a PI to a small business
    owner with postdoc, grad student, and undergrad employees. ) This I
    think isn't clear at all to many outside of academe, and I think it
    goes a long way to assuaging the feeling that it isn't "fair" that
    profs can have "stable jobs" after tenure while other positions,
    where people still are working hard, aren't as secure. I hope I
    didn't pull a party-foul with a super long comment, I'm new at

  • Jade says:

    Interesting subject and a good timing for the holiday. I
    lived in a conservative state, where Martin Luther King day was
    actually called Lee-Jackson-King day in honor of the confederate
    generals as well as MLK. It was shocking when my classmates
    actually corrected me when I accidentally called it by the wrong
    name. It seems to me that when people believe something, they can
    find examples that support them, thus proving their point and
    making them right. Their thinking perpetuates the myth. Examples of
    the opposite are not even noticed or acknowledged because they are
    only looking for the examples that prove them right. I suppose it
    is possible we do the same thing on the opposite side, but, I think
    the difference is that we give people the benefit of the doubt,
    that most people want to work, or earned tenure and are good
    teachers, etc, because that's how we are. The subject of
    discrimination is more complex because it is viewpoint that is
    ingrained during upbringing and reinforced throughout life. An
    extreme but good example is that Edward Norton movie, American
    History X. It took a serious life changing event to change his mind
    about white and black people. Perhaps the next time you are hanging
    with the red-state friends, you could make it a movie

  • I don't know. Sorry.

    I thought I had a fairly rational and civil debate about abortion with a friend (well, an acquaintance) of a friend a year or so ago - but our mutual friend ran into him very recently, and apparently he's still furious with me, going from normal to spitting mad, shouting, and bright red in the face when my name was mentioned. He apparently said "I will never again be in the same room as that woman", declared that he felt sorry for my husband, and said that I was "obviously uneducated" (I LOLed so hard at this one, and at the story of how he reacted when informed that I have a PhD. I am well aware that education is not synonymous with intelligence and being well informed, but hey, it was him that chose education as the metric by which I should be judged, not me!). Oh, and he also said that our mutual friend (whose house this debate happened in) should not have allowed me to continue speaking. Said friend pointed out that actually, he agreed with me 100%.

    Like I said, I thought this had been a fairly reasonable debate. So I'm obviously not the right person to ask about this. It's also exceedingly rare for me to meet someone who's such a polar opposite to me on any given issue - I think the US two-party system tends to generate more polar opposites than the British and Canadian multi-party systems. But what do I know, I'm ignorant and uneducated and should not be allowed to talk 😀

  • BikeMonkey says:

    Or else they will go sell drugs (WTF? I have no idea where this came from so I just ignored it).

    Really? No idea? Here's a clue.

    there is no Association for White Men

    when they say "people are lazy" they mean "black or brown people are lazy".

    • gerty-z says:

      Don't forget poor. Poor white folk are lazy, too from this perspective. If they weren't lazy, they probably wouldn't be poor, after all. :/

      • But remember the white folk wouldn't be poor except for the repressive shackles placed upon them to give preference to black or brown people. Uh, had a dirty Fox News moment. Have to go shower.

        Sadly I moved from one red state to another. But in each of the states, I lived in the tiny bluish island surrounded by a fucking giant sea of red.

  • El Picador says:

    It is not accurate to call states that MLK and the Confederacy on the same day "conservative". The term "racist" is considerably more appropriate. Perhaps "bigoted dumb fuck" when in polite company.

    • gerty-z says:

      yeah, I had never heard that before Jade mentioned it...that is just wrong.

    • Katharine says:

      There was a discussion on another site I follow about the Obama interview on Bill O'Reilly's execrable show.

      Someone said 'don't legitimize Bill O'Reilly'.

      Someone replied 'Uh, saying Bill O'Reilly is not legitimate alienates middle American whites'.

      Middle American whites, if you're talking about the idiots in red-state land who vote Republican and are teabaggers, can go fuck themselves.

  • Katharine says:

    What I have found over the years - which has led to being a hermit with nearly no social life, and it's better to have nearly no social life than a crappy one - is that most people are not that bright and that most people cannot think that in-depth. Most people are governed by their limbic system.

    We in science tend to be governed by our frontal lobes. Not only do we tend to be governed by our frontal lobes, we have to be governed by our frontal lobes to do our work.

    It's hard for smart people to deal with this sometimes - in fact, it still drives me up a wall - but you WANT them to be as smart as you are, sometimes you desperately wish they could comprehend what you thought so you wouldn't feel so alone when you see them, but the reality is that they do not comprehend you and the reverse is that it is difficult for people such as us to comprehend them, but for a different reason: they are irrational and that is not how we roll. There are a billion different ways to be irrational and substantially fewer ways to be rational.

    I have to sort of pretend dumb people don't exist just to stay sane.

    • gerty-z says:

      I have a problem assuming that all folks that don't agree with me are, by default, less intelligent or rational than me. I feel that this sort of view precludes any ability to have discussions at all. Why is my view of "rational" more valid than anyone else's?

    • becca says:

      All people are governed by their limbic system. It's DESIGNED to override. Otherwise, when you are chased by a lion, you are busy contemplating the nature of good and evil, and you get eated.

      People who say, "Oh *I'M* governed by my frontal lobes" are, on average, as annoying and, more importantly, as factually incorrect as those who santimoniously say, "Oh *I* always make economic decisions that are in my best interest" or "Oh, advertising doesn't work on *me*! It doesn't work on anyone with an IQ over 140. I just love Coke better than Pepsi!" or "maybe those OTHER people can't tell the difference between X and Y in a blinded test, but I KNOW I COULD (even though I won't put it to the test)."
      There are a billion ways to be irrational. There are also a billion ways to convince an irrational person they are perfectly rational. There are zero perfectly rational people.

  • Isabel says:

    "People also have to be open to the fact that they may be wrong; there’s no other hope to change their mind. No one really LIKES to be wrong. But no amount of elegant rhetoric will sway someone who’s not willing to think about it...."

    I used to agree with the OP and commenters on this thread, and looking back I can't believe what a sanctimonious bore I must have seemed, just as bad as the people I was arguing with. As in this piece I quote here, I suspect that most of the suggestions about "being open to being wrong" and "walking a mile in someone's shoes" are things we expect of them. It's never taken seriously for a moment that it should work the other way. Or it's suggested and either qualified (when *we* do it we at least give people more credit) or excused (we become really busy so we are forced to pick our battles). We are still not letting go of the superior position.

    ". I pointed out that almost every “business association” or the like is basically the AWM."

    What does this mean, really? Don't business associations require someone to own a business before joining, and aren't they open to Asian and other men? I'm not saying there needs to be such an organization, but saying a business association or a union fits the bill is a poor argument - it's a snide point about the world in general favoring white men, I guess. An unemployed lower class white man may find no comfort in those ideas and might justifiably feel angry at the suggestion.

    Filling people in on the workings of academia might be a better argument to start with. As someone has already pointed out, this one may be largely based on genuine and understandable ignorance. There is a similar feeling out there that I've come up against that scientists will exaggerate claims to get funded so therefore their research isn't reliable (such as in global warming debates). People don't really understand the peer review process.

    • gerty-z says:

      Isabelle, I agree: no one likes to be wrong. It can be uncomfortable, that is for sure. I'm not sure where I came across as being unwilling to listen to arguments from "the other side". In fact, I welcome any evidence that would support their argument, outside of rumor or anectdote (as a scientist, I have become fairly comfortable with being wrong.) What I find very frustrating is that the debate I was engaged in was not fact-based. When I tried to share how the academic system worked, for instance, I was shot down. Not because I don't know how the system works, but because "everyone knows" that after teachers get tenure they stop caring about teaching. There are no data I could present that would change this view.

      I wasn't trying to be snide when I said that "almost every “business association” or the like is basically the AWM.” I was trying to highlight the idea that the world does, in general, favor white men. Are you are arguing that this is not true? I guess that calling them "business associations" might lead one to believe that anyone could join. However, when I asked my friends (who are members of such associations) how many non-white or non-males members there were, it was FAR BELOW the number of non-white male business owners. This suggests that 1) the non-white male business owners are not "allowed" to be members or 2) they don't want to be members. Given that these associations often have explicit benefits, #2 is hard to understand. However, there is historical precedent that suggests these "associations" are NOT open to all business owners.

      Maybe I don't understand your point? Or am I missing something?

      • Isabel says:

        "I was trying to highlight the idea that the world does, in general, favor white men. Are you are arguing that this is not true?"

        Well, I have argued here, and I am always shot down, that the world has traditionally favored some white men more than others, and that this is still true. For the majority they are just barely not treated as badly as others in the lower classes. This was originally enacted as a way to keep the lower classes divided and at each others' throats, and it is still an effective mechanism today, sadly.

        So in my opinion, it is still almost facetious, if snide was too strong a word, to suggest that any white male, for example my young relative who feels he has to join the army to get an education and will soon be deployed to Afghanistan, can just stroll into their local business association and the businessmen will automatically help him to realize his dreams. As far as people not being allowed to join, that certainly is shocking, and I find it rather surprising. That certainly should be investigated.

        I'm sorry your explanation of the tenure process was shot down, it does sound like a particularly annoying non-conversation!

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