Advice: What should one do?

On Friday I was at Houston’s Menil Museum watching the construction of a sand Mandala by Tibetan monks who live in exile in India. It was a Compassion Madala, and the idea of compassion had been in some of my conversations in the week before. Afterward I went to the museum’s book store and discovered various writings by noted religious figures, one of which was attributed to Mother Theresa, though the original is by Dr. Keith Kent. It immediately struck me as written about groups of people very similar to some I’ve encountered in academia. I certainly thought, given my experience, that it was way too depressing to hang on any wall I’d see very often. I am also truncating it; the last two lines says that the struggle on earth is not between you and these people; rather, it is for you and God.

More recently, I’ve been thinking about whether it is very good advice. It might be just too out of touch with the way human beings do work, maybe especially in a groups. And it may neglect how in fact we do react. Perhaps if one is somewhat mystical and feels one’s most intense relationship is with God, the effects might be different. But the advice seems to be to remain engaged with your society. However, having people continually destroy things you’ve built (lines 9-10) might have a very bad effect.

What do you think?

People are often unreasonable, illogical and self centered;
Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;
Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies;
Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;
Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight;
Build anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous;
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow;
Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;
Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.

Another things one might consider is whether it is very good advice for anyone caught, as too many women in philosophy are, in the following sort of situation:

Bias thrives in unstructured environments, where objective excuses for hostility are available, and where stakes tend towards doling out in-group rewards rather than punishing out-group exclusion. When professional rewards are discretionary, distinction between in- and out-group membership is heightened, the perceived flaws or weaknesses of out-group members are exaggerated, members are blamed more harshly, weaknesses are attributed to the person (“she’s not very smart,” “she’s crazy,”…) not the circumstances, excuses are less available, and punishment is swifter and more severe. Withholding professional respect, excluding women from philosophical conversations, refusal to acknowledge their contributions or minimizing their significance in favor of those of male colleagues, are all examples of discretionary rewards that even the best-intentioned philosophers are prone to deny women in informal settings. The presence of a male philosopher displaying overt hostility or aggression towards a female philosopher licenses further in-group hostility towards her, and where an objective rationalization is available for explaining this behavior (he has an objection to her argument, say, or she behaved somewhat inappropriately, etc.), it is often taken to justify this response. Women philosophers thus also suffer judgments that are harsher than their male colleagues’, more hostile, quicker and crueler dismissals of their views, and these judgments are multiply-reinforced by even their well-intentioned peers (my stress).

How does one go on in such situations? Be like Mother Theresa?

10 thoughts on “Advice: What should one do?

  1. I think it’s a question of approach. If you see it as moralising “you should do xyz” – as we tend to in our society – it’s problematic.
    If you see it as good advice on how to make your own life better, that’s a different story. Then it’s just the advice to lead your life the way you want to, the way you think it’s right, even if that is not appreciated or rewarded. Compassion is good for us, the same way that getting enough sleep, water, and exercise is good for us, and hate hurts ourselves, not others.

    For anyone caught up in a situation as you describe above, nourishing grievances against individuals is not going to help. Seeing the situation realistically, including the systemic and societal components, may be a much better way to find appropriate steps to take to deal with it. I would go with Gandhi’s non-violent resistance though, not “saintly” endurance. Suppressing your own needs is also a form of violence: I don’t approve of it, and I don’t think it helps.

  2. The advice leaves out the possibility of collective action to change things.

    It is true that people are often unreasonable, illogical and self-centered and I doubt that
    humanity in general is going to be converted to reason and altruism, but that does not mean that you can’t get together with others to create situations which are more conducive to your own flourishing and that of others.

    It is also clear that certain societies and certain social organizations are juster and more conducive to flourishing than others and that is not mentioned. Now even in societies which are juster and more conducive to flourishing, you’re going to run into unreasonable, ilogical and self-centered people, but hopefully, things will be set up so that they cannot do so much damage.

  3. SW: Your comment is so interesting, both in referring to collective action and in reminding us of the differences in respect for justice among societies. I was thinking back over the literature on mobbing after I wrote the post; mobbing – or group actions against an individual – is much more frequent in institutions which do not promote respect for individuals. I’m inclined right now to think that when one is in an unjust society and can’t really flourish, one has an extremely big problem. I really don’t know what one can do except leave, which may be an extraordinarily heavy price for an academic deeply committed to her subject and/or to her teaching.

    The other standard advice is to drop out of the social life, and people do try to stay in their jobs, but stay away from the people. I can attest that this can backfire, since your absence will be filled by conjectures about what you are doing. Anyone who wants to see how nasty those conjectures can get should have a look at some unmoderated philosophy blogs. (Actually, they probably aren’t as bad as I’ve seen in real life, where people can write hate letters to get one in trouble..)

  4. @s. wallerstein
    I’d argue much to the contrary, that “Succeed anyway”, “Build anyway” and “Give the world the best you’ve got anyway” fully include the possibility of working to make the world more just and conducive to flourishing.
    Even if it’s not clear whether you can succeed. Even if it makes some people angry, and others tell you it’s hopeless.

  5. Wise words, Delft. I think I would add that you might just have to leave. There are limits to what one can take. I’d assume you are thinking of the fairly petty envy and sniping that can go on. But the stuff about spending years building something and having it torn down is very serious. Or if, e.g., the haters decide to organize a personal boycott, so that people turn their back when you approach, it might be quite foolish to think that won’t affect your serenity. (One might think that good people don’t get treatment that bad, but that’s just false. Good kids may commit suicide when bullied. The suicide rate for those mobbed in organizations (mobbing = adult bullying) is about 13%. Far worse are the heart problems such treatment can cause.)

    A close friend of mine was offered a chair at Oxford, and he tried to negotiate a leave of absence with the promise of building an alliance between the (good) department at his generally third rate university and Oxford’s equivalent department. His university couldn’t see the benefits. I think in such a case, the advice “well, try building something else” is probably wrong, and he’s better off detaching from them.

  6. Anne,

    If you’re thinking about leaving, that’s a huge step for someone like you, deeply committed to her subject and her teaching, as you say, and remember that the world outside academia isn’t necessarily any better and it may be worse.

    If I may be presumptious enough to give you advice, talk what you’re considering over with lots of people, with all the people who know you best. I don’t know you well, but I sense that you’re the kind of person who has a fair number of good friends to talk things over with.

    There’s a French psychoanalyst, Marie France Hirigoyen, who has written some stuff on mobbing, which has helped some friends of mine, who were mobbed. Unfortunately, her books on mobbing don’t seem to be available in English. However, if you read French or Spanish,

  7. @annejjacobson
    I fully agree that there are situations where leaving may be the best option. And that’s where the advice may help, because it transforms the issue from being a fight between them and “me” which I am seemingly under obligation to win, to being a question of what is the best option for me, including leaving, ending a relationship etc.
    I think I’ve recommended the Alon/Omer book before, here a precursor of the crucial chapter on psycnet.

  8. Delft, I will look for the book, and will get the chapter on psycnet. For me, as you can see from my response to SW, the issue is now resolved. But many, many other women in philosophy are in bad situations or at least non-ideal ones. My heart sank when I heard it said that some or many women in philosophy at Colorado had given up on any social life with the department. I don’t know that that’s true, but if it is, it is a bad sign. Mind you, it doesn’t take many people to make it worth one’s while to stay away.

  9. Yikes, I think I’ve lost my response to your second comment, SW.
    For me, the situation is over. I had to retire and was able to negotiate it through federal mediation. (The situation was very bad, and I had a very good lawyer.) It’s all fine with me, given my age, our retirement plans, etc. But for many other women it is not fine. I wish I had good advice for them.

  10. Thank you for this thoughtful post so appropriate for this time of year (first day of Chanukah, middle of Advent, etc.). As one who was struggled daily for the past 5 months in an institution embroiled in ugly politics, I do find these words helpful. I feel called to stay so long as I can build something, be kind, do good (be happy is a bit more elusive!!), none of which for me excludes working with others. In fact, through this time I have never felt more connected with some others at my institution (perhaps therein lies the happiness). For those who are spiritually inclined, the part you left off may prove relevant. Personally, I try to be aware of both the wider social effects as well as the individual, personal effects of my choices and actions and how these are intertwined. For example, for me in my present situation, I have come to see that staying (so far) involves the spiritual disciplines of trying to deal with (eventually let go of) aversion, cultivating patience, etc. So, right now, I do understand my choice to stay as a spiritual choice, i.e., between “me and my God.” Yet I could imagine being in a situation where the situation and/or abuse was so bad I could no longer do good, build something, etc., in which case I might understand my choice to leave as a spiritual discipline to cultivate risk, courage, hope, etc., as well as a political/social statement to stand up to abuse and to invite others to do the same. In other words, the emphasis on the spiritual dimension, for me, recovers the legitimacy of the individual’s own interpretation of the situation and reminds me that there is no universal prescriptions in these situations (e.g., always fight it out, always leave, etc.). And what a wonderful experience of the Mandala formation that must have been! Maybe philosophy departments need a sandbox!

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