Monday, February 07, 2005

Talking Smack
The Eason Jordan and That Moron Ward Churchill stories are all over the blogosphere right now, and I am too tired after a babysitterless day to do a link roundup.

I see a connection between the two stories that might not be evident to folks outside of academia: both individuals have--to their surprise, I'm sure--gotten called out for talking smack. I am almost certain that Jordan was trying to suck up to his audience and show what a tough job he has. It's even more obvious that Churchill was writing as a tough guy rebel who can speak truth to power.

I think both must be surprised by the reaction, because in the realms in which they move not only does no one ever call them out, but they are in fact encouraged to talk more and more smack.

Wheaton has a lovely Faculty Dining Room where most of the faculty eats regularly (some classes are taught 12:30-1:30, but most aren't). We have a lot of nice customs, including the unwritten rule that you generally fit yourself into a table regardless of who is already there, so you end up sitting with different sets of people, including the President and the Provost. Sitting in the faculty dining room, one hears many things. Most of the talk (probably more than 75%) is about students, and this is probably the best reason for students' parents to fork out 30K per year: we're always asking: how is Susie doing in your class? Did Adam skip English today? Amy wasn't herself in class, etc. But there's an occasional strain of talk that crops up that I particularly hate: talking political smack.

My favorite example was when one of my colleagues, a nice person and a good teacher, went on an extended rant that the purposes of prisons was to provide a source of cheap labor for companies. I am almost certain that this colleague knew that this was not just untrue, but ridiculous (the cost of guards, buildings, etc., is so great that even the rock-bottom prices on license plates don't really make up for the overhead). Everyone else at the table knew this was nonsense also. But yet it went on, and became in fact a kind of theater, the same kind of theater I remember from my own college days when we sat around in my fraternity and escalated b.s. about how amazingly we were going to defeat our rivals in the Spring Carnival Booth competition.

I think this kind of smack-talking is pretty normal when people are gathered around eating. We see it in the beot and the gilp in Anglo-Saxon, when the warriors gather in the mead-hall and talk about how great they are and what they're going to accomplish in battle.

But the problem shown by Jordan and Churchill is that you can get so used to performing that theater that you forget that it is acceptable in one setting and not in another. And because people want to be collegial, and because academics as a class are deadly afraid of offending their minority colleagues (in the case of Churchill), and journalists are deadly afraid of offending someone as powerful in journalism as Jordan, the feedback loop gets lost and people start to believe their own extravagant nonsense and, worse for them, forget that others don't believe it either.

I hope that both Jordan and Churchill pay a very high price for what they've done. There should be some consequences for talking smack to the wrong audiences and in the wrong social settings. But the seed of the destruction was planted a long time ago and fertilized by all the people who sat around and, not wanting to provoke an argument, encouraged them and people like them to run their mouths. Just as I did when I said nothing in response to my colleague's talk.


Jack Mercer said...

Hi Michael!

I posted a link to Ward Churchill's interview on my blog at . You're right about one thing, once they start digging they just can't stop.

Ith said...

"Talking Smack"! I love it!

Mearcstapa said...

I think Mssrs Churchill and Eason are a lot less likely than Beowulf to successfully respond to Unferth's challenge!