Thursday, June 28, 2007

What full professors can learn from Elizabeth Edwards

If you've been following the aftermath of the Elizabeth Edwards-Ann Coulter dialogue on Hardball, then you know that Mrs. Edwards confronted Ms. Coulter directly, asking her to stop making personal attacks and, instead, to debate the political issues. Ms. Coulter decided to construe the request as one to stop writing and speaking altogether, and—quite predictably—she refused.

Here’s my favorite excerpt from the call:
Elizabeth Edwards: Hello, Chris.
CM [Chris Matthews]: You wanna say something directly to the person who's with me?
EE: I'm calling you … in the south when we -- when someone does something that displeases us, we wanna ask them politely to stop doing it. Uh - I'd like to ask Ann Coulter -- if she wants to debate on issues, on positions -- we certainly disagree with nearly everything she said on your show today -- um but uh it's quite another matter for these personal attacks that the things she has said over the years not just about John but about other candidates -- it lowers our political dialogue precisely at the time that we need to raise it. So I want to use the opportunity … to ask her politely [to] stop the personal attacks.
Ann Coulter: OK, so I made a joke -- let's see six months ago -- and as you point out they've been raising money off of it for six months since then.
CM: This is yesterday morning, what you said about him.
AC: I didn't say anything about him actually either time.
EE: Ann, you know that's not true. And once more its [sic] been going on for sometime [sic].
What struck me was how much Ms. Coulter’s reaction was just like that of a petulant teenage girl. Wearing her sunglasses on-air and flipping her hair when she was formulating her responses, she denied that she had made the statements in question (the “did not!” response), and then she claimed that she meant the statements as a joke (the “just kidding” response).

Rachel Simmons, author of the wonderful book Odd Girl Out, has classified the “did not” and “just kidding” responses as two of the most common ways that teenage girls bully each other. Trained by society to “be nice,” teenage girls express their passive-aggressive instincts in ways that provide them deniability.

I’ve noticed that this particular type of passive-aggression is common among those who have no particular bosses—academics are a prime example. Professors, especially full professors, can bully their colleagues (and their deans, and the support staff) with impunity. Based on my own experiences, academia is rife with bullies, and they exist because their colleagues don’t call them on their bad behavior. Their putative bosses (deans and department chairs) can’t fire them for insubordination, because firing a professor for his speech would bring up all sorts of constitutional issues. Full professors have life tenure, so their jobs are not in danger when they act out. And so they do—openly, and mostly without reprisal.

I'd love to see more full professors behave, instead, like Elizabeth Edwards did: confronting bullies openly and directly. Most bullies back down when someone calls them on their bad behavior. There's no risk to a full professor to confront a bully (unless the bully is in the administration or has unusual influence over the administration). I wouldn't recommend that an assistant or associate professor take a stand against a bully, because the risk of retaliation is too great. But full professors are well-nigh invincible: their workload won't change because they confronted the bully; their salaries won't change; the atmosphere might even improve after a confrontation.

Brava for Mrs. Edwards! No matter where one falls on the political spectrum, it's easy to say that she did the right thing. Now let's see what Ms. Coulter does in response.

1 comment:

Shelby said...

I really like Elizabeth Edwards. She is very intelligent, extremely poised and communicates good common sense.

I know she's not running, but I'd vote for her. And I vote republican usually. I really like her.