One of the ongoing themes in the comments section of this blog is the question of how a blogger can position herself as a radical critic of institutions and practices in which s/he is embedded. Isn’t that hypocritical? some commenters ask: Don’t you feel dishonest? If you feel this way, others ask, how can you possibly go on working at Zenith? Why don’t you quit and go to work for a community college? Why are you so ungrateful, a few insist, for everything that Zenith affords you — the students, the salary, the research money? Although some of these criticisms come from conservative readers, all of them do not. My more critical graduate student and adjunct commenters sometimes see my position within the system as a particularly inauthentic position for critiques of hiring and tenure. While they usually stop short of name calling, their occasional fits of rage suggest that regard my position as vexed and troubling.
I find these encounters generative and interesting for many reasons. One is that I have been interested in hypocrisy, and the various lies that are crucial to hypocrisy, since my suburban youth. Among my first attempts at serious intellectual labor was a literature paper, written when I was seventeen, about the theme of lies and lying in the plays of Tennessee Williams. The action of two of my favorite plays, A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, revolved entirely around attempts to conceal lies and the explosive outcomes of uncovering lies. Both plays achieve narrative closure through the deployment of new lies that occlude what the audience can see but the characters cannot: that normative sexualities require hypocrisy and a variety of very different lies to maintain their dominance. The strategic lies that emerge in the final scene to usher the characters into their unhappy futures do so by moving them out of the shame of sexual chaos and into the respectability of nuclear family.
For example, In Streetcar, the lie that Blanche is mad, and her accusations of rape against her brother-in-law Stanley false, permits Stanley and Blanche’s sister Stella to transform themselves from a husband and wife given to animal couplings and into expectant parents. Ironically, of course, it is Blanche’s prior lies about her own drinking and extramarital sexuality prior to her arrival at Stella’s house that give the lies credibility. Similarly, in Cat, the refusal of heteronormativity by Brick, which must be repeatedly covered up by his wife Maggie in a desperate attempt to secure his position as his father’s heir, is resolved at the end of the play by the lie that Maggie is pregnant. This is presented as “proof” of a sexual relationship between husband and wife that does not exist, and will only exist in the future as business transaction between them. All of these lies succeed for one reason: Williams’ insistence that hypocrisy is the state of play in the nuclear family.
Imagine what a compelling revelation this was for a teenage, suburban, queer proto-Radical.
The second reason that accusations of hypocrisy interest me is the assumption that, in the academy and perhaps elsewhere, what we critique is something we should sever our connections to. By this logic, one is morally bound to forge compromises with one’s academic employer, and identify with one’s it, regardless of how unchosen and unfree the relationship to that employer might be. And yet, one might argue that, if hypocrisy is the state of play in families, we might sensibly look for hypocrisy in all institutions and social organizations. Can we not all cite examples in which the covering up of lies — lies of commission and lies of omission — seems to make the whole academic engine run? Think of instances in which the forwarding of a particular intellectual interest in a job search caused members of your department to say things about another strong candidate that are simply untrue, but everyone sat there and listened as if they were. Think of arguments made against competing candidates of great merit that rely on exploiting minor flaws or inconsistencies in research findings to a mammoth scale in order to degrade that person in the eyes of other, less well-informed, colleagues.
Accusations of hypocrisy are nearly impossible to disprove, but it is interesting to me that they are not pinned to conservative academics who rail against the supposed domination of universities by liberals, but don;t seem to imagine resigning from them either. From my perch, it would be nearly impossible to make a living as an intellectual at all — much less a radical one — were we not able to compromise our moral compasses and work comfortably in systems that are disagreeable to us in one way or another.