She entered the lecture theatre with the decided headmistress gait of Minerva McGonagall, had we, at that time, been acquainted with the character. She smiled at us broadly and then said, in an American accent to which memory adds a little pop culture Queens Jewish inflexion that may not have been there: ”Morning! What you need to remember for the purposes of this class is that Noam Chomsky is GOD!”.
It was the first class on the first day of university and the funky style of our Phonology professor would be trumped many times over by the quirkiness of most of the teachers that stood in front of us after her.* However, that very first sentence of university life ought to have been met, had we been raised in schools where thinking was encouraged, with any range of reactions between ”Why?” and ”Wait, what kind of a scientist are you?”.
Against that backdrop, six years later, the first class of the General linguistics masters course in Amsterdam began with ”Please read this article that gives you tools to rip holes into scientific theories. Keep it at hand. Your job all throughout this semester will be to use the respective tools in order to deliver an argument as to the possible validity or invalidity of each of the theories we are going to discuss. This will be your weekly assignment”.
This not being a neverendingly whining story about how the system of education in which I grew up is inadequate in shaping critical thinking. This is about gods.
There is no doubt in my mind that our professor, with all her international pizzazz (as one would have perceived it in a decent school with provincial airs as mine) would have gone, in her heart, full thirteen-year-old ”OMGOMGOMG!!!” if she had been at a conference and in the position to say ”hi” to GOD. Just as kids in my daughter’s class would do if they met Justin Bieber. The admiration from afar for a skill that one finds extraordinary is quite easy to understand and recognize. With ”afar” being a bit of an issue and the person as a whole being admired as a reversed synecdoche for the skill being the bigger issue.
I imagine being famous as inhabiting a kind of bubble the glass walls of which are being licked (with the French expression) by anything between hundreds and millions of people, simultaneously looking up to their hero and waiting for them to slip up**. There must be a huge pressure to conform to a previously set in stone image of yourself, to not deviate from script in order not to lose fandom, or else, as only escape, to play it completely by ear and pretend not to care what the public opinion is saying. In both cases, there is hardly any constructive communication between the being on a pedestal and the people doing the watching and commenting. In a smaller circle, recognizing people as idols has the potential of bestowing upon them power over others to a degree that is not healthy, either for themselves or their environment – and sometimes for the very craft they are idolized for. It should not be the case that a school creates a halo of godness around a thinker. On the one hand, because if they are wrong, it is at least a bit silly to spend another 40-something years publishing research embedded in a theory that could have been challenged earlier if people were not in love with its conceiver. Of course, ideas have their moments of glory and their own aging cycles, but science should be permeable to criticism and shielding science with personalities is a liability. On the other hand, this sort of cult should not be admitted because it gives the person inordinate power over the direction of a school and the lives of the people working in it. And not least, because thinkers going unchallenged risk getting infatuated with their image and muddling in their own original idea with no new input – and their thinking rusts***.
The same goes, however, to my mind, for every kind of pedestal. Musicians getting ”money for nothing and the chicks for free” is just one cliche of the structures underlying potential power abuse. The type of relationships revealed by ”The devil wears Prada” is another. Gravitating around a center of public admiration seems prone to engender personal trade-offs that can encompass personal time, privacy, different levels of autonomy, dignity, ethical values as regards pain to oneself or to others etc. In a market-like scheme of thinking, there are things and values that people are willing to relinquish in order to be close to those centers. We seem to accept/tolerate this as a fact of life, given that people appear to perform those trade-offs out of free will and that many of the trade-offs of groupies, for instance, are perceived as genuine expressions of love. Yet when it turns out that relationships that were built crooked are being abused by those onto whom we bestowed power, we send the abusers to the rubbish bin and enclose them in another bubble, just as inescapable as the first one: they are monsters. I would like to contend that adulated thinkers risking eventual mediocrity, artistic or other kinds of celebrities risking monsterness and inspirational leaders risking authoritarianism are facets of the same public policy of creating gods out of people with special skills. It is that policy that effectively prevents pedestal people from getting useful, corrective negative feedback when they misbehave or are simply wrong (and makes some of them age rather horribly in the process). It is that policy which creates a layer of look-away-ers when power is being taken advantage of and a layer of victims who can determine only with difficulty whether they have not, at some point, made a trade-off themselves, given that they wanted to be close to a center. It is the same mechanism of stripping away the inherent humanity of our heroes that puts them at risk of no longer/never feeling empathy with their fellow beings and places us in the impossibility of forgiving them if they fall.
By no means do I want to diminish the responsibility of anyone invested with any kind of power for their own actions and sane decisions; nor do I want to place any burden on those who identify as victims in all this. I would, however, like it if at least the discussion started under the #metoo, if not the (just as important) discussion of our political cycles, moved from the (necessary, but not sufficient) singling out of visible personal responsibility to a discussion of the mechanisms that create the circumstances in which abuse is possible and condoned. I would like it to become about more than just misoginy, even though that is an integral part of the more salient strand of this power issue. I would like it to also be about how to teach ourselves, as individuals and communities, to say no to abuse and dictatorship of all kinds, from the domestic to the societal – to not make the trade-offs that tresspass our limits ourselves, to not hand over that power and to teach our children how to navigate the world without becoming either the abuser or the abused. I would like us to stop fighting the ripple effects of spoiled bratts and see where we spoil them and find out whether we have or can imagine the tools to change the game. To move from the identification of a problem to the ownership of our own role in it and the building of solutions.
Irrespectively of what the outcome of that process turns out to be, personally, I would also like most of the people who got singled out and do not legally belong in correction facilities or need to be in prolonged psychological care to go back to work and be brilliant at whatever they are brilliant – with a safety net of pure humble pie: ”Your bullshit is never again going to be a perk of your career, noone will ever put up with it. Live long and prosper, silly human and don’t allow yourself to get conceited again.” But this is a different discussion…
*Off topic, the class turned out to be an excellent piece of structuralist phonetics and phonology (we hardly touched upon generative grammar at all, in what I remember) that has been imprinted so deeply that I surprised myself about a month ago drawing the phonatory apparatus in order to explain to the kids the difference between a dental and a labial fricative rendered by the same letter in Dutch and Romanian. (They are, luckily, too young to say ”you are a horrible geek”, so I’m taking advantage.)
***No more than three weeks later this idea sprung back towards me as a boomerang off the pages of a Frans de Waal book. Possibly reading stuff as confirmation bias.