Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog


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No, I’m not kidding.  As I was coming here to teach, it was actually snowing.  It was warm, and it wasn’t sticking, but still.

So, I’ve been thinking about sincerety.  It seems to me that sincerity matters more in determining what the person is worth than in determining what the ideas are worth.

If you’re reading someone who is suggesting that you can make a change to your life, especially one that you don’t think is really possible, then whether or not he is able to follow his own advice can help you determine whether or not you’ll sign on for the program.

But even there, what you really need to know is whether anyone could follow the advice and succeed.  I quit smoking cold turkey in 1991.  I know it’s possible because I did it.  People around me know it’s possible because I did it.  If the guy recommending cold turkey on television is still a nicotine addict, it’s still the case that it’s possible and I know because I did it.

I agree with both Robert and Lymaree that the Hobbesian stance is probably the default stance, but I’m bemused by how many of you seem to assume dehumanization means blanking out entire groups.

Lately, the dehumanization I notice is of individuals by individuals, or individuals by institutions.  There are an incredible number of people out there who decide “this is the way you should behave,” and if you resist and disagree, feel justified in doing whatever it takes–lying manipulating, threatening, bullying–to get you to do it.

Okay, that sentence should be shot.  But my point is further this:  although Hobbes may be the default mode, I do think most of us in this society at this time have been brought up to believe that the default is a bad option, that we should behave differently.

It would embarrass me to do some of the things I see people do, and especially some of the things I see various officials of various organizations do.  Consider, for instance, the SLAPP lawsuit, which is fortunately illegal now in many states.

The SLAPP lawsuit works like this:  somebody in the community objects to the fact that your company wants to build a plant there, and publishes op-eds or sends letters to the editor of the local paper detailing all the awful things your company has done.

This somebody is telling the truth.  Your company really has done all these things.  You know that if you launch a lawsuit against this person for what she’s said, you’ll lose–

But you don’t have to win.  You only need to make the who process so expensive, your critic will be forced to shut up.  You also send a message to other potential critics–if they say anything you don’t like, you’ll cost them enough money to put their houses, their children’s educations, their very lives in jeopardy.

I’d really like to look into the mind of the person who thought up the SLAPP suit.  We’re not dealing here with a marginal issue.  That this course of action is both politically and morally wrong would be easily discerned by the vast majority of the population.  For one thing, the suit asserts a lie, since it claims defamation where the company knows none exists. 

The other thing I’ve seen, quite frequently, have been attempts to get workers or students to quit.

I’m not talking, now, about truly difficult situations where an employee cannot be fired or a student expelled, but his behavior is such that there has to be some way to get him out of there.

At one of the places I’ve taught, for instance, there was a tenured professor who’d  become an habitual drunk.  He’d come in drunk, teach drunk, and leave drunk.  His classes had degenerated into hour and tweny minute long rambles on his life, his tastes in music, whatever.  He was supposed to be teaching American government.  If students left papers in his campus mailbox, he would pick them up, then lose them, then forget he ever had them, then fail the students for never handing them in.

Firing a tenured professor is damned near impossible.  I don’t think the administration did anything wrong by going in for guerilla tactics–moving his parking space to a lot in the Sibera across the highway, “forgetting” he was supposed to have his check directly deposited into his account and giving it to him in check form instead (thereby causing a delay that bounced a whole stack of checks he’d written on the assumption the money would be there), finding it nearly impossible to get the air conditioning working in his office when the heat hit 100 degrees.

My problem is that I see too much of this when it’s completely unnecessary, and especially against students.  In one case I knew of, a teacher took a student’s note cards–nearly three hundred of them–when the student wasn’t looking, making the student incapable of finishing a research paper on time and giving the teacher the opportunity to hand over an F.  The F put the student’s GPA under the bar for staying in school.

And that was, in fact, the point.  The teacher wanted the student gone.  The student went.

If I was the one who wanted the student gone–and I admit that it isn’t the kind of thing I’m prone to–it would make sense to me to tell the student so, or to do something direct that would might get me what I wanted, like complain to the administration about the student’s behavior.

But even if I was unwilling to do that, I’d have a hard time stealing the notecards and then staging a convincing hissy fit over the student’s “irresponsibility.”  And irresponsibility is what this teacher accused this student of.  Of course, the student hadn’t really done all that work, made all those note cards.  He was just slacking off again.

My son calls this approach to human relations “corporate,” but it certainly doesn’t restrict itself to corporations. 

And unlike the practice of stigmatizing groups, it requires one person to directly face another, to look straight into someone’s eyes and do it anyway.

Am I really the only person left on the planet, or one of the few, who can’t do this sort of thing without at least looking guilty?

But I’m blithering again.  And I found my copy of The Intellectuals. 

Written by janeh

April 8th, 2009 at 2:05 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Snow'

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  1. No you’re not blithering. I’ve been quietly appalled at this kind of behavior since my nose was rubbed in it 20 years ago.

    It was in one of my favorite classes ever. It was “Journalistic Ethics” and was taught by Neal Shine, then-publisher of the Detroit Free Press, when it was still a major newspaper. I was a returning student, aged 33 or so, among all the first time 20-22 year olds.

    So one day Neal starts a discussion about “Is it okay to lie to someone if they’re a bad person?” Now, there’s no real definition given of “bad” so everyone who speaks up kinda has to relate what they think constitutes enough badness to qualify.

    Not one person, not ONE, other than myself (and Neal, actually), even conceived of the concept that a lie redounds as much on the liar as the one lied to. Every single person who spoke, and most of the class did, seemed to think that a lie in service to whatever “good” cause they had, or even none, was acceptable, since the person being spoken to fit some vague criteria of unworthiness.

    For all of them, the ends justified the means, and there was no absolute value of truth being better than a lie, period. For that matter, the bar for the requirement of badness was set very low… just being under suspicion or investigation was enough in most of their minds to justify a lie.

    No one but me said “A lie damages me as much as the person lied to.” Not that I haven’t or won’t lie when it’s required, but at least I recognize the damage I do, both to myself and to the other person. There’s no pretending to *myself* that a lie has no consequences, even if the other person IS bad, objectively. But that’s exactly what all those students, who I point out are now 20 years into their careers, so likely in positions of authority and expertise, thought. Lies to bad people, or justified by some other reason, have no personal consequences.

    This is the source of the “lack of embarrassment” you note. Where you and I would be ashamed of ourselves or embarrassed to have others know of such behavior, these people do not.

    I think this kind of attitude extends to theft, to cheating, to unethical behavior of all kinds. It was okay to steal a student’s means of succeeding. He was a bad student. He deserved it, so theft was okay. It absolved the teacher of the onus of being a thief.

    I told my sister recently that we had given our ATM card code to both our children (well, both are over 21 now, though still at home), and that as a result, we had never missed one penny from the house or our accounts. She was shocked that we trusted our own children that much. It made me think about how rare such trust must be. And so we’ve been explicit with both our kids how proud we are of their integrity.

    I also hope we’ve taught them that lying or treating other people poorly, even if justified by another’s veniality, has consequences to themselves. Despite the general attitude out there.

    We’re trying to increase the numbers of people who behave ethically, one family at a time.


    8 Apr 09 at 2:53 pm

  2. We may be talking past one another. I wouldn’t have thought of it as ‘dehumanization” if you treat everyone that way when you can get away with it. It may well be unethical, but that’s different. A survivor of a Japanese POW camp observed that “they beat us with sticks–but then, they beat each other with sticks, too.”

    I’d save “dehumanization” for treating someone in a way your own moral code would normally keep you from treating people. Normally, this is done by types or groups, even if some of the groups–students, say, or interns–are ones you can get out of, or it’s a response to individual behavior, as in dealing with that drunken tenured professor. And, of course we sometimes need to do this. Locking a vicious multiple murder into solitary confinement for years or decades is certainly dehumanizing–and sometimes quite necessary.

    Your card-stealing professor is right on the line. He’s treating a student in a way he wouldn’t treat anyone who cold fight back–but he’s treating THAT student in a way he isn’t treating the others. Why?
    [Mind you, in any event, the card-stealing professor should be fired, blacklisted, and sent home with a note to his mother. Query: does he have an ethical code to violate?]

    I agree that “sincerity matters more in determining what the person is worth than in determining what the ideas are worth.” Problem is, mostly I don’t care what the person is worth in the abstract. He may be centuries dead anyway. But the person known to be insincere can’t effectively promote the idea. Are you familiar with the saying “I wouldn’t believe HIM if he said the sun rose in the east”? If I know you to be an honest person, and you tell me you quit smoking cold turkey, than I know quitting cold turkey is possible in practice for at least some persons. Being told by someone I know to be dishonest–and still a smoker–is not evidence. It doesn’t disprove any assertion the dishonest person makes–but it doesn’t support the assertion either. I try to get my facts from honest and sincere people. The others are no substitute for a good novel.


    8 Apr 09 at 4:23 pm

  3. I don’t think sincerity matters much. People can quite sincerely hold opinions that are not only factually wrong, but actively dangerous to those around them. Honesty matters a bit – that is, not lying about what the opinion is – if only because it makes discussion a lot easier. And, of course, if I know someone is dishonest about something, I’m suspicious about their behaviour in all things, even though I’ve observed that many, maybe most, people are dishonest about some, but not all, things. There’s ‘cash box honesty’ vs the other kinds, like spreading lying gossip.

    And a lot of advice about changing one’s life come either from those who can and have done it – and therefore can’t understand or believe that anyone had a different experience – or from someone who has never had the problem in question but who considers him/herself an expert.

    But I think you’re missing a point when you dismiss the ‘group’ aspect. I think that’s essential. When a professor betrays and lies about a student, it’s often because he doesn’t see Joe Smith, he sees just another of those lazy layabouts who needs a lesson in responsibility – that is, a group. Of course, it’s always possible that he acts because he does see Joe as a person, and is acting because of some personality quirk or other characteristic of that student in particular. Maybe Joe showed him up in class, or had sex with his wife.

    I think I first realized that some people behaved immorally at university – oh, before that I knew that some people lied and stole and had sex with people other than those they’d had a commitment with, but somehow all of those seemed like normal human failure of willpower. And I knew that people who weren’t too smart cheated in school. It was at University that I discovered that quite reasonably intelligent people cheated for no apparent reason at all. It’s not terribly surprising to find out years later that a lot of teachers from the same or similar backgrounds don’t consider carefully supervising students during exams etc to be of much importance. Officially, they all assume that cheating is so rare as to be non-existent.

    Money is a bit different. In my family, control over money is primarily a matter of personal privacy, and we don’t share PINs. This was established long before we learned about the nasty possibilities inherent in access to someone else’s PIN and drug use, although stories of misuse of relative’s funds, including abusing the trust of elderly parents and grandparents far pre-dates PINs and banking machines.

    Now, that’s a moral failing I’d consider the opposite of the dehumanization of the other. When it’s not pure greed (or addiction), it seems to be rooted in an inability to recognize the aging parent as another human being. It’s as if people think their interests and their parents’ are identical – what’s mine is mine, and what’s thine is mine too.


    9 Apr 09 at 7:21 am

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