In the current advanced state of civilization, we professors are in a bind. For two millennia, Eurocentric societies have been nourishing values on freedom, individual rights, human dignity, and tolerance. Laws and policies serving these values have multiplied over time, as witness the ever more detailed rulebooks that govern life in universities.
At the same time, we professors are subject to what Harvey Silverglate has lately (in the Wall Street Journal, July 11, 2001, commenting on a wrongful conviction for child sexual abuse) called the "darker forces of the human soul." In my lectures on workplace mobbing, I sometimes say there are three basic appetites in a normal person: for food, for sex, and for humiliating somebody else.
Our civilization affirms the first two cravings and facilitates their satisfaction. The third craving is taboo, especially in so highly civilized a workplace as the university. That is why we professors are in a bind. Like humans everywhere, we are sometimes gripped by the eliminative impulse, lust to put another down, but our hands are tied by rules protecting human dignity. Besides, as learned men and women, we are supposed to be above the darker forces.
The result is camouflage, subterfuge, self-deception, denial, disguise, circumlocution, labyrinthine plots- much like the antics of Catholic priests who are overcome by sexual desire in an organization that forbids them to satisfy it. René Girard, arguably today's most perceptive analyst of the eliminative impulse, calls it the "persecutory unconscious." Many professors think they are absolutely free of it. In I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Girard describes "a new level of cunning," wherein we practice "a hunt for hunters of scapegoats. Our society's obligatory compassion authorizes new forms of cruelty" (2001, p. 158).
Two acclaimed new novels, both published in 2000, describe the way the elimination process commonly plays out in academia today. Blue Angel, by Francine Prose, is the lighter, funnier of the two, a take-off on the 1930s German film about professor-student romance.
After decades of successfully resisting coeds' flirtations, English professor Ted Swenson succumbs to the wiles of Angela Argo, a not very pretty but precocious member of his creative writing class. Angela is a number. Her skill at placing the world at her feet, by painting herself as a victim of its caprice and cruelty, is consummate. Most professors these days have had Ms. Argo in their classes. Pity the ones who let themselves call her Angela.
Ted is vain and oafish, but more tuned in than his counterpart in David Mamet's play, Oleanna. As a straight white power-holding male, Ted is a dog who has had his day. When Angela charges him with sexual harassment, he knows the jig is up, yet inexplicably refuses to resign. He takes refuge in booze until the day of his dismissal hearing.
The last fifty pages of the book describe the tribunal proceeding wherein Swenson is destroyed by the collective action of his dean, colleagues, and students. None of them imagines being part of a mob bent on humiliating a fellow human. They are enforcing policy, upholding human dignity, and protecting the college's integrity.
"Angela, are you ready?" asks one tribunal member, the chairperson of the Faculty-Student Women's Alliance. "Do you feel strong enough to address the committee? Now, Angela, perhaps we should start by saying that everybody in this room understands how difficult it must have been for you to come forward. How brave you are for helping make sure this kind of thing is stopped."
Prose serves up a slice of life and makes the reader laugh. Philip Roth's novel, The Human Stain, is funny, too, but with sobering, spellbinding twists. Roth does not hide his disgust for the devious methods by which learned doctors carry out the elimination process.
Prose's protagonist has committed at least the Clinton sin of cheating on his wife. Roth's protagonist, an ex-dean named Coleman Silk, is as innocent as Roth can make him of the charges used to string him up. Five weeks into the semester, two students on his class roster have still not shown up. "Does anyone know these people?" Silk asks the class. "Do they exist or are they spooks?" Since the absent students turn out to be black, Silk's reference to spooks is taken as proof of racism. A crusade to punish him gets underway. Silk and his wife fight it. She dies of a stroke. He resigns. His life spirals downward to an inglorious death.
Unlike Prose, moreover, Roth spins an explanation for the professor's fall that goes beyond blind panic over sex or race. He tells us that Silk, as dean, had come down hard on the faculty, raised standards of research performance, and launched what he and the president had called a "revolution of quality." Silk's humiliation is shown to be rooted in revenge. The wrongness of it cries out.
Still, what happens to Silk is basically the same as what happens to Swenson, and the mob in each case is composed of the same kind of characters. Roth traces most of Silk's troubles to Delphine Roux, his department chair and chief eliminator. Roux sees herself as blessedly above reproach. Silk to Roux: "A student who tells me that I speak to her in 'engendered language' is beyond being assisted by me." Roux to Silk: "Then there's the problem, isn't it?"
Both Blue Angel and The Human Stainare works in the classic tradition of Western literature: they unmask the persecutory unconscious, strip away the disguises it wears in a given time and place. In this respect, these novels are similar to The First Stone (1995), Helen Garner's nonfiction account of the ouster of a college master at the University of Melbourne.
(All three of these books stand in contrast to J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace (1999), yet another tale of an eliminated professor, this one set in South Africa. Breaking with Western tradition, postmodernist Coetzee has written what Girard calls a naive persecution text. His novel defends not just the mob that humiliates the professor but the one that rapes the professor's daughter. Coetzee finds redemption in her surrender to the rapists' power.)
If, as most reviewers agree, these literary works accurately describe current realities of campus life, they hold an important lesson for individuals and organizations committed to the classic values of a university. Threats to these values in our time are rarely so overt and transparent as Premier David Peterson's instruction to the University of Western Ontario in 1989, that it fire Philippe Rushton for publishing the results of his research.
More often, the threats are heavily camouflaged by accoutrements of due process and the highest ethical standards. Attacks are phrased in academic Newspeak, reflecting the "new level of cunning" Girard writes about. Because academic freedom is an entrenched value, defended by SAFS and similar bodies, administrators, colleagues, and students inflamed by eliminationist passion usually frame their campaigns in altogether different terms. "This has nothing to do with academic freedom," they say. They are sure of it. They are sure of themselves.
In none of the books discussed above is the professor condemned for what he lectured about or wrote in a scholarly journal. The silencing is for alleged ethical violations, for transgressions of what has come to be called political correctness.
Constructive action in today's academic workplace takes courage, but it also takes a quick and cultivated wit. Blue Angel and The Human Stain show how cleverly well educated minds can mask the eliminationist impulse, but they also show how gracefully a better educated mind can peel off the mask. Thereby these books give hope that we can understand and control the darker forces within us all, that we need not behave like savages and eat up our enemies. If we work at it, we can do without enemies and find ways to get along.
Is it foolish to think so? Is it Girard who is naive? Are the Swensons and Silks in our universities just roadkill on the drive away from patriarchy and Western hegemony? Will there always be someone to cast the first stone? Coetzee, I believe, would say yes.
- Coetzee, J. M. (1999). Disgrace. London: Martin Secker & Warburg.
- Garner, H. (1995). The First Stone. New York: Free Press.
- Girard, R. (2001). I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. Ottawa: Novalis.
- Mamet, D. (1993). Oleanna. London: Methuen.
- Prose, F. (2000). Blue Angel. New York: HarperCollins.
- Roth, P. (2000). The Human Stain. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.