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.