Wednesday, July 22, 2009

One more on Gates

Diggit said something really great in my comments and I just wanted to make sure people saw it.

She wrote:

"I think it's very likely that somehow, Gates has, over the years, built up an image of himself as somewhat special and privileged. After all -- he is! And I'm certain that male Harvard profs who are white consider themselves special and privileged"

I have to say that one of the most disturbing aspects of this story to me has been the 'how DARE that black guy think he's anything special just because he's a Harvard professor.' undercurrent to some of the public reaction.

I can't speak for Harvard professors, but we sure as hell expect the professors at other good schools to have huge egos. I could tell you STORIES. And I've gone to much less fancy schools than Harvard*.

Do we only let professors keep huge egos when they are white?

CORRECTION: Diggit wasn't making the point I thought she was making. IMHO the point I thought she was making is still correct, though. We hash it out in the comments and she put in her entire original post which you can also read it in the comments here.


*I've also known plenty of humble and reasonable professors.


Matt said...

I would have to say that most people from Cambridge have huge egos and a sense of entitlement, not including the Harvard professors.

I can not imagine the size of their heads.

LinguistFriend said...

I have never seen a good treatment of the psychology of the professorship business, although I know that it has been the subject of a number of novels. The most arrogant and obnoxious professors
I have known have tended to be among the least competent and least intellectually distinguished. In Cambridge during my student days, I did not often see academic dominance expressed towards non-academics - there was no expectation or competing claim of intellectual distinction from them, so there would be no point to it. They couldn't have kept the waiters in the faculty club if that had happened.

Rather, at Harvard, as I knew it, there was frequent, sometimes quite public, brutal interaction between specialists in closely related disciplines. But a sharp discussion such as I witnessed once between the psychologists B.F.Skinner and S.S.Stevens could be profoundly productive. That is part of how human thought progresses in the academy. As a student, one could encounter (earn) gracious and encouraging comments from the faculty. When the Greek scholar Greg Nagy told me that I was just as good at Christian Greek texts as he was, that kept me going on my doctoral dissertation, for which that competence was crucial. That was also part of the assumption that in writing a doctoral dissertation, one was working to a standard set not by local intellectual or administrative tyrants, but by the subject matter itself and by the competent scholars of the whole world.

Some student groups, on the other hand, competed in surprising ways. In seminars, the undergraduates would strive to demonstrate their superiority over the doctoral students, often successfully. Relations among doctoral students were different; I recall that Skinner commented once in his graduate seminar that professors had the illusion that they were the teachers of their doctoral students, but actually successive groups of doctoral students were each other's most effective teachers.

Sometimes the assumed direction of instructional flow would be reversed. My very able undergraduate roommate (later an MIT Ph.D.) would sometimes come home proud that he had been able to pin down a distinguished political scientist in an argument. Since I learned as much about logic from that roommate as I did later from the logician Willard Quine, and he was not capable of lying, I believe that. All in all, the situation (no doubt changed now) is somewhat different and more complex than is suggested by Diggit's comment.

Chalicechick said...

Does Diggitt's comment oversimplify what it actually feels like to be at Harvard?

I'm sure it does.

But the overall point that "professors are often viewed as snotty by members of the town where the university is, yet that snottiness doesn't lead to arrest in white professors" still seems valid to me.

Seriously, do you think that if a white Harvard professor had mouthed of to the cops:

A. He would have been arrested illegally?

B. So many people react by saying, essentially, "how DARE he be rude to the police?"


Diggitt said...

For the record, that isn't the word I used, and I'm not sure that snottiness is the same as arrogance. And I didn't suggest that Gates was arrogant, either.

If snottiness is rudeness, we're going someplace I didn't post about. I don't think Miss Manners has written about the etiquette of behavior towards a policeman who has incorrectly arrested you. Are anger and belligerence rudeness? Or snottiness? Is that what we're blogging about? If so, why?

I also didn't suggest that I was describing what it's like to be at Harvard. Did anyone actually read what I posted?

No. There is an internal sense of privilege one can have. It can give you confidence and/or it can make you arrogant. The one doesn't demand the other. They are separate. And that sense of privilege is what I was focusing on.

Gates surely has it, and Gates surely has earned it. He's earned it by being a brilliant academic (I guess; I've never been his student) and he is an effective public spokesman for ideas that make people think. That has privileged him too.

J.M. Barrie described charm as "a kind of bloom on a woman" and in a sense, privilege is like that. You carry yourself differently. We may argue what it's called, but we all know it exists and can be earned.

And that is what I was saying has been shattered. Gates has earned the right to consider himself above being hustled off in handcuffs. There's security inside that right. And that was stripped away.

When we see pictures of Jews lined up, naked, in front of uniformed Germans, it's that loss that we flinch at. It takes us to the place where we feel secure and we see what a fragile structure it is. It takes us to the place where we see the real answer to the question, "What do you call a black man with a Ph.D.?"

Diggitt said...

To save you the trouble of tracking down what I actually said, here it is. The responses that have been posted here don't relate to what I said. A commenter had questioned why Gates might have thought he was in danger during this event, and I responded:

In terms of what sort of danger Gates was in when he was at the police station? Look at it this way.

You are in your own home when a policeman arrives and challenges your right to be there. You are a 60-ish gray-haired man using a cane to get around, and you show him photo ID that shows a) you are a Harvard professor, b) you are in a Harvard-owned property, and c) it is your legal residence.

The policeman does not check with Harvard or trust the evidence of his own eyes. He asks you to step outside.

Now I wonder, why am I being asked to step outside? What earthly reason does this policeman have to asking me to step outside my own home? Nonetheless, I do as I am asked.

[So far, does anyone dispute this account of what happened? The cop doesn't.]

The policeman arrests me because now -- having left my own home at his request -- I am on what might be construed as public property.

I am shoved handcuffed into a police car.

I personally am a 60-ish white woman and a highly visible elected official in my community, and I think if this happened to me -- and I see no reason why it might not -- I would think the world had gone mad. I would be plenty scared. My mind would be racing. I would think, this can't be happening to me.

If instead of being a 60-ish white woman I were an AA man who had grown up in the USA and who knew, every minute of every day, that I was on someone's watch list of dangerous people just by virtue of being myself, I would be extra scared.

Gates' education and rank have now vanished and he is being treated like any street hoodlum. Isn't that scary?

We all know that AA males die in police custody. You're an AA male in police custody. Wouldn't you be scared?

I think it's very likely that somehow, Gates has, over the years, built up an image of himself as somewhat special and privileged. After all -- he is! And I'm certain that male Harvard profs who are white consider themselves special and privileged. When all this started crumbling around his head, it was a scary, scary thing. Who knows what dredged-up images flew through his imagination?

I think distant commenters cannot imagine what would happen in the head of someone in Gates's situation. I don't think our second-guessing him is useful at all, because there isn't an analogous position to his in this country.

LinguistFriend said...

CC, actually, it is a different effect. Enough Harvard graduates are snotty that many people everywhere hate all Harvard people and it can be a matter of personal pride to get around them. It works especially in Cambridge.
However, a basic issue in this discussion has not been touched. It is, what is the background of most people who become policemen in the greater Boston-Cambridge area, and what are their social attitudes? Attitudes to authority are related to social attitudes and religious attitudes. Policemen in this context and this area may give themselves a role in the legal sphere analogous to that of a priest in the religious sphere.
At the same time, they retain the social attitudes of their upbringing. It is a dangerous combination. No doubt a white person in that situation would have had an easier time. You have a clearer idea of what one can do in talking to a policeman than I or most people have. I'm pretty reserved there myself.

Chalicechick said...

Again, though I don't think any description of the incident makes him come off as particularly polite, I don't care if he was rude.

He should be allowed to be rude without that rudeness getting him illegally arrested. A lot of people don't seem to understand that point, and it is worth blogging about IMHO because it is a basic point of free speech that those who have free speech should understand.

That said, I didn't attribute to you that he was rude, I attributed to you that they VIEWED HIM as rude and that in a white professor that wouldn't lead to his arrest and in a black professor it did. (Privileged people are often viewed as rude by the less-privileged, justly or no.)

It sounds like I misread and I apologize. "Privileged" is a complicated word 'round these parts.

IMHO, no one is above getting hustled off in handcuffs, provided that they have actually committed a crime. But I suspect that you agree with that.


Chalicechick said...


I would probably NEVER have talked to the police the way even Gates admitted he did. I've put up with quite bit of crap from police officers without ever asking for a badge number.

But I am perfectly pleased to defend Gates' right to talk any way he wants and not get arrested for it as long as he doesn't break the law.


Chalicechick said...

Also, what is "rude" and what is a social acceptable way to speak negatively to someone else will always be subjective, particularly in an emotional situation like an arrest that is likely to be remembered vastly different ways by different people as this one was.


LinguistFriend said...

Diggitt, CC took one branch of possible discussion, from your point of view not the most important one. Your portrayal of
Gates's personal reaction probably has much accuracy, more than even you admit. However, to answer the question, "why did this happen?", the factors of local police selection and training to which I allude must be considered, as well as whatever Gates did. In the case of Gates, one may expect that they will be dealt with. But that is the exception. To my regret,
I believe that Gates received much better treatment than is common in many areas. His prominence serves an important function in this case, in making it obvious that such things routinely happen to those who are not famous, and who lack his many forms of recourse.

Chalicechick said...

I'm just hoping that next time the police are about to arrest a black guy who isn't doing anything illegal they ask themselves if they are willing to go through what the Cambridge police are going through.


Diggitt said...

Oh, heck yes. Last I heard, rudeness wasn't an indictable offense. Altho I do think that handcuffing a grizzled guy with a cane is sorta like chaining a woman prisoner to the bed during childbirth.

Actually, about the police. I lived in Boston (not Cambridge) for three years in the 80s. It was like a joke. Everywhere I turned, I saw my uncle Jim Ryan. The city seemed so WHITE. Then one day I found the Orange Line, and realized that the rest of Boston was WHITE because one part of it was BLACK.

And the Irishness. That was stunning. I never felt ethnically Irish until going to Boston, then I wanted to walk around with a bag over my head. A lot of the Boston Irish made me ashamed to share their DNA. And a lot of those were police.

The ranks of Boston area police are not what they were 25 years ago, but I found the area very stratified in ways not particularly imaginable (except maybe Chicago) elsewhere. It isn't only the Harvards and the rest, it's the Harvards and the Irish and the MITs and the Italians and the Brahmins (wherever they are, Kings Chapel and First and Second Church maybe)and the rest.

LinguistFriend said...

Diggitt, you clearly have the point about what I meant by the selection of police. The problematic local attitude
towards civil rights may be exemplified by the husband of a former friend (they live in Worcester); the son of a Boston -area policeman, for entertainment he likes to listen to recordings of people being arrested.

Robin Edgar said...

I can't help him out with that, but if he would like to listen to the recording of my first criminal trial in which I successfully defended myself against charges of disturbing a religious service I will happily sent him the mp3 files. It acn be kind of bring and tedious to listen to but there are some very educational and entertaining bits too. . .

Robin Edgar said...

"That said, I didn't attribute to you that he was rude, I attributed to you that they VIEWED HIM as rude and that in a white professor that wouldn't lead to his arrest and in a black professor it did."

But you don't know that CC. It is entirely possible that A) a black cop who Gates got similarly snotty with might have arrested him and B) Sgt> Crowley might have arrested a white Harvard professor who similarly berated him and made an ass out of himself. White people get unjustly ticketed and/or arrested by white cops quite regularly without even being half as rude and snotty as Gates was.