Re: Hurt Feelings

Eve Pinsker (U56728@UICVM.BITNET)
Tue, 12 Apr 1994 23:54:43 CDT

On the recent interchanges about slamming and apologies -- I was ready to
delete the whole thing without further thought, but some uncomfortable
similarities to an interaction I recently had with a face-to-face colleague
have made me think that there are some serious issues here about collegial
relations and the current state of academic anthropology. I think the problem
isn't simply one of avoiding "ad hominem" attacks; the problem is that ideas
are our stock in trade, and it's hard not to feel that when someone attacks
your ideas, or dismisses them, deconstructs them, or severely critiques them,
they're attacking you personally. Of course we're not _supposed_ to feel that
way, but we do, and the whole thing is exacerbated by the perception that we
get brownie points, both in intra-department contexts and at conferences, for
pointing out the flaws in someone's argument (particularly in rhetorically-
catching ways), much more than we do for saying what we like about somebody
else's work. I am reminded of a paper I gave a couple years ago at a AAA
meeting at a session on public meetings; I started my introduction by citing
positively the growing literature on meetings. The discussant for the session
began his comments by critquing my positive take on the meetings literature,
saying that there wasn't enough and what there was was inadequate and had
serious flaws, etc. I understand why he did that -- just as I had, he was
looking for a starting place for what he wanted to say. which is always
difficult, and the most accepted way to connect your own argument with others'
is by critiquing those others and saying what you think is wrong with them.
One unfortunate outcome of this is that often, instead of having stronger, more
creative theories, which is presumably what we're aiming for, we get practitio
ners whose critical skills are so finely honed that they can't build their
own creative models and theories because every time they try to write something
they see all the holes that other people can poke in it. And we end up with
little common terminology because no one wants to use another theorist's
terminology, you get more brownie points for inventing your own and saying
what's wrong with the other guys'.
(Not that there aren't genuine and important
theoretical differences, but there isn't much incentive to acknowledge with
enthusiasm the positive building blocks you get from someone else's work unless
that someone else is dead or already deified as an important theorist).
But I got away from the interpersonal aspect of all this, which is that,
even though we're supposed to be thick-skinned and not identify ourselves with
our ideas, the reality is that many of us are in very precarious positions,
financially and otherwise, and if ideas are our stock in trade it's not so
surprising that people react defensively and, at times, offensively, during
what are supposed to be purely intellectual (i.e. non-emotional, presupposing
of course a questionable split between intellect and emotion) discussions.
Even anthropologists with tenure make far less money that other professionals
who've invested far less time and passion into their training (didn't someone
have a tag line about very small stakes?)
What happened to me in the face-to-face relationship I mentioned earlier was
that someone senior to me and older (and bigger and of the supposedly more
dominant gender)whom I was working with on a collaborative project let me know
that he was hurt and angry with me because he felt I had belittled him and his
ideas. I had not been aware that my criticism had affected him to that degree;
I learned from that that it's probably better to start with the assumption tha
t one's colleagues are vulnerable rather than the opposite. I hope I learned
something that will help me handle a situation like that better the next
time, but I don't know yet. It's ironic, but cultural/social anthropologists
seem pretty asocial in our work habits; do archaeologists have any tips about
collaboration and how to handle the emotional issues of working on intellectual
projects together?
Eve Pinsker