In Which Xyk is Called Cynical and Perhaps Rightfully So

We all know that one by George Carlin (paraphrasing): ” Inside every cynical person hides a disappointed idealist.”

I wonder if I’ve hit the level of cynicism that ends up being toxic to those around me, rather than serving the primary purpose, which is to steady me for inevitable disappointment in the face of people’s bad behavior. A junior faculty member — who, if I am being honest, seems to me to have had a pretty charmed career and life — told me that I was being too cynical when I mentioned that some initiative was never going to happen because it would hinge on the involvement of people know for not giving a fuck about anyone but themselves.

Look, I come from a background where people are distrustful because people are untrustworthy. I was taught to always look for an ulterior motive, to always assume others are there to take advantage of you. I was always too soft, too trusting, and too easily disappointed and manipulated for my ancestral culture, which is in part why I was always so uncomfortable there. I am much more comfortable here in the US, where the whole society works better, and where hard work is usually recognized and appreciated. Only here I have the opposite problem: according to local standards, I am too distrustful, too negative, paranoid even. I was told by a senior female colleague (who’s local) that I always assume the worst about people’s intentions, which isn’t really true, but I admit that it takes me a lot of intellectual effort to imagine the best and be charitable, especially when my previous experiences have been negative.

My colleagues are generally nice. However, in my particular subfield, we have a few whose values are just not aligned with the rest of the department. They put in minimal teaching, eschew service, show up to meetings only when they have a vested interest in what is being discussed. I know for a fact that they think less of those of us who do teach and do service, because they occasionally let it slip. They think that we are not serious scientists, because if we were hardcore, like them, we’d ignore teaching and service, too.

So why did the junior colleague say I was cynical? Because I pointed out, in response to his idea that we should have a local topical workshop, that I’d thought about the same thing  years ago, even ran some numbers and inquired about funding, then polled people about their interest, and it turned out no one was interested in putting in any work but everyone was interested in gracing us with their presence and giving a talk if I organized, to which I thought, Fuck you all, I am no one’s secretary, if you all are too high and mighty to organize, then so am I, and I dropped the whole idea.

So, yes, I suppose I am cynical.

I’ve been faculty for 15 years. The novelty has worn off. I know these people. Some are nice. Actually, most are really nice. Most are also reasonable, well-meaning and hard-working. But not all are nice and not all are reasonable; in fact, I consider some of them so selfish that I will not expend any of my good will or time to do anything that benefits them. I will never harm them or their students, but I will avoid them and I will ignore them and when the time comes that I can choose to benefit someone, I will not choose them.

Now, politically savviest folks around here manage to treat these clearly self-serving individuals as if they are not self-serving. The savvy folks give everyone the benefit of the doubt, treat everyone with kindness, no matter what happened in the past. (I am willing to bet it has to do with savvy folks all being church-going protestants. Turning the other cheek?)

That I cannot do. I treat people with kindness and good will until they’ve shown that they don’t deserve either. Afterwards, I am still civil and polite, but the good will is gone. I am not vindictive, but I do get uncharitable and unhelpful.

And you know what? I am so, so, sooooo tired of having to understand and excuse people’s bad behavior. And by people’s, it’s mostly the dudes’. They go on their merry way, stomping around like clueless elephants, oblivious to how they act and whom they hurt.

For instance, this is what recently happened with a longtime collaborator, with whom I’ve published several papers, who’s been in many of my students’ thesis proposals and defenses and always asked pretty pointed questions. I was in the thesis proposal presentation of one of his students and I asked some questions about motivation. They are working on a topic that was hot 20 years ago and stopped being hot because of major technical issues. The student was motivating the talk the way it had been motivated in its heyday, to which I brought up the fact that with that motivation many people in my fields will roll their eyes and say you’re doing stuff that’s no longer relevant. The student didn’t seem to be able to respond regarding whether the work should be differently motivated. After the student left, my collaborator (there were three additional people in the room) became hostile and said that if it were him instead of the student, he would have crushed me and sent me back to my home department. Yes, he used the words “would’ve crushed you” and “sent you back to Your Department.” I was shocked at the hostility of the comment, and I said that it is true that the problem has its heyday 20 years ago and that if there are new developments, which there are, then then new developments and the vistas they open is what should be pitched. He proceeded to yell how there was someone at FancyPants U who got a large defense grant to do similar stuff, which to him apparently meant I should shut up, that all technical issues were moot because a defense agency known for funding “blue sky” projects had thrown money at someone with a good pedigree.

I didn’t want to make a scene, or make the scene worse; it was my collaborator’s group’s event and there were three other people there. This is a guy who’s been rough to my students; we’ve had papers together, but obviously I am just a theory serf. Things work out as long as I don’t challenge him.

I left feeling like complete shit. I kept feeling like shit the rest of the day and for a few days afterwards.

What am I supposed to do with feeling like shit? I can’t go confront him, because women inciting direct confrontation only get labeled crazy and difficult. We are only collaborators; we’re not friends. I don’t know him well enough for a heart-to-heart. Whenever I brought up grievances with colleagues in the past, they always, always, played dumb, pretended they had to idea what I was talking about, or insisted that I had misunderstood (yes, the good old woman labeled crazy when she says something a dude doesn’t want to hear). So all I can do is a) vent to husband; b) vent on blog; c) find a way to deal with this internally. I feel hurt personally and betrayed professionally. The way to deal with this internally is to stop considering this man a person who is safe and well-meaning; instead, he becomes someone who should be avoided. This means I will not be pursuing papers or collaborations in the future. I will avoid having him on my students’ committees, and I will be less likely to participate on his students’.

Will he notice the cooling off? Maybe, maybe not. Most folks don’t or if they do, they don’t care. There will be no healing or whatever you want to call it. There will be me withdrawing because that’s all I can do to protect myself from feeling like shit in the future for the same reasons.

Now, does this make me cynical? The fact that, going forward, I will be acting aloof toward this person, forgoing the most charitable assumptions?

Perhaps. But people in general — and let’s face it, this mostly refers to dudes because women are socialized to be attuned to others — need to mind their behavior and the feelings of others more. I know people often say, “Well, if you have a problem with something, say something. Otherwise, people assume there’s no problem.” That’s bullshit. Those are the same people who say, “What’s the harm in asking? If you don’t want to do it, just say no.” These are all dudes who never assume that people might not be willing to speak up for all sorts of reasons. That their own paths are so smooth because so many others (women, minorities) anticipate their actions and move out of their way.

Then — shockingly! — those of us who’ve spent 40+ years moving out of the way seem insufficiently optimistic and unwilling to be charitable in the assumptions about others. Surely something is  wrong with us to have become so cynical in our dotage.


  1. I encounter a lot of the same shit here. People don’t want to do the work and call me cynical for noticing it. And if I notice it too often I’m toxic.

    People get money for bullshit and if you point out that it is bullshit everyone here just says “But they got money for it!” For a bunch of purported liberals they sure do think that money makes right.

    The incentives in academia are all wrong. If you do the work that makes everything else work you are a sucker. If you get money for your own glory you are great. If you point this out you are toxic. But if you stop doing the work that makes everything work for everyone else you are suddenly lazy.

  2. But I will add that you did the right thing for the student. A thesis proposal presentation is a good setting to find out that your arguments are 20 years out of date. The student needs to know this, and even the advisor will downplay what you said, hopefully the kid will do some reading because of the points you made…

  3. @Alex :
    Do you think there are incentive structures that would work better for getting people to contribute to the greater good?

    I’ve seen the same sort of thing happen in academia, and for a while I thought that industry had better incentives for people to collaborate, but now I’m coming to see the same selfishness/taking advantage of people show up in my industry job too and I am coming to think that the personality of the people involved matter more than the environment. Saying “it all comes down to personality” actually feel like a lame excuse, hence my question.

    All the people I’ve worked with in industry have been men, both when things were good and collaborative and when they were not so good and not so collaborative.

  4. You did the right thing for the student. Better to find it out now than in front of a lot of impatient grandstanders at a conference somewhere.

  5. I know a few well-established PIs in my field (STEM) who have such mentality that one’s personal value is solely on his/her research (impact factor, funding, publication, etc).
    No wonder if you attack their research, they counter attack you as a person instead of your opinion.

    And the hostility in academia can be much more subtle and implicit than in industry.
    The worst scenario would be the PI you offended retaliate you in a way you cannot tell if someone was involved.

  6. Count me in for the cynical corner.

    What I’ve come to conclude is that it’s not just men – or academia. It’s humans: no matter how grown up we pretend to be, when push comes to shove adult life is still no different from the kindergarten playground where the bullies and loudest self-serving voices have it all. The sole reason the quiet ones are still there is that without them society would collapse and the species would not survive – after all someone needs to keep the fire burning in the cave.

    I’m struggling to face the fact that I’m just a worker ant. That doesn’t mean I don’t dream of still growing wings and leaving the nest, though.

  7. I tried making peace with someone crappy like that once and though I know it was the professional thing to TRY, I still hate that I had to be the one who do it because I was the young woman and he was the older white man and therefore of course HE didn’t have to make peace even though I was the established person with a solid reputation and he was … essentially, a waste of a salary.

    I would do the same thing you’re doing – walls and barriers go up to protect me and mine.

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