Academics ‘the rudest people on earth’? Hardly

The idea that universities are hotbeds of incivility is implausible, says Emrys Westacott

November 21, 2013

Source: Dale Edwin Murray

People remember the insults and put-downs they witness or hear about in academic settings precisely because they are uncommon

Academia seems to enjoy a reputation for being a hotbed of incivility. According to one professor quoted in a recent Times Higher Education feature, “academics are the rudest people on earth”. But is this true?

The article certainly offers some memorable examples: snooty remarks about non-academics and colleagues lower down the academic totem pole; a reviewer describing a book as “shoddy, inept, and disastrous”; attendees at a lecture ostentatiously reading newspapers instead of listening; and Camille Paglia, professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, describing a fellow scholar as “the Pollyanna of poppycock”. But before drawing general conclusions from these anecdotes, we should ask: what counts as rudeness? What purposes does it serve? And how common is this sort of incident?

For an act to qualify as rude, some sort of generally recognised social norm or convention must be violated. Not everything that people find objectionable in the behaviour of academics is an example of this. Scornful or condescending remarks made with no expectation that the person spoken about will hear them should not normally be classified as rude, for they don’t usually violate any convention. They are evidence not of rudeness in the academy but of arrogance and snobbery – related but different problems.

Nor is criticism rude. A commentator on a conference paper who says, “I have two objections to your argument: your central concept is ill-defined and your major premise is false”, is not being rude since no norm is being transgressed. It would be rude in a different context: if, for instance, it was the response of a child to a parent in a Confucian culture. But the norms of academia permit forthright criticism and even encourage it as a method for eliminating falsehood.

Among academics there is usually, however, an expectation that exchanges will be civil. Pointing out that a book fails to mention important recent research does not violate this norm (even though it may be painful for the author to hear); calling the author “pig-ignorant”, however, obviously does. Even here, though, context is everything. Telling a panellist at a conference that what they’ve just said is “bullshit” clearly crosses the line. Yet I might say this to a close friend and colleague without being rude if the nature of our relationship and our conversational conventions permit it.

The term “rudeness” usually carries pejorative force, and for stalwart champions of civility on all occasions, to describe an action as rude is to condemn it. But rudeness can serve different purposes, and these may sometimes be legitimate. For instance, ostentatiously not listening to a lecture is a way of making a statement: it expresses disrespect for the speaker, the claims they are making or what they represent. If the point is to show a lack of respect for female scholars or feminist ideas, the gesture is objectionable; but if the idea is to protest against, say, the speaker’s involvement in a war crime, it might be justifiable.

When academic stars such as Paglia take off the gloves, a good part of their purpose, presumably, is to entertain others. Some may lament the introduction of insulting language into a debate on the grounds that it betrays the ideal of cooperative intellectual enquiry. But others will see it as a welcome injection of passion and personality into discussions that often become abstract and boring. So long as the heavyweights are tearing strips off each other, the rest of us can enjoy the spectacle just as we might a boxing match. It’s very different if a big shot is beating up a student or a junior colleague. That looks like bullying.

Whatever its reputation, though, academia probably contains less rudeness than many working environments: I suspect it is much more common in, for example, sport, politics, high finance, the military and the entertainment industry. People remember the insults and put-downs they witness or hear about in academic settings precisely because they are uncommon, rather as our attention is caught by the few planes that crash, not by the many that don’t. Even in philosophy, where rudeness is supposed to be especially prevalent, my experience has been that most exchanges, whether in person or on paper, are perfectly civil, even cordial.

So I find it highly implausible that academics are “the rudest people on earth”. But just why they have this reputation is an interesting question. Perhaps it is because rudeness is more common at elite institutions where the biggest egos are concentrated and which tend to be most in the news. Or maybe, just as we like to hear that the rich are no happier than the rest of us, so we like to hear that the clever are no better. And perhaps academics really do enjoy their reputation: for as Nietzsche observes, a capacity for cruelty makes us more interesting.

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Reader's comments (2)

But there is a lot of posturing within academia and many a grand statement made which invites an equally spirited response. What can actually be worse is the ubiquitous practice of negative politeness, the ultimate put-down. But is this sort of one-upmanship mainly restricted to the Humanities?
As a fairly new academic with extensive experience in business, I do find academics very, very rude. Not everyone, of course, but the rude people throve as they are very rarely taken to task. It seems, at least in my subjective experience, that a combination of a very strong hierarchy and people who are not socially very competent results in a culture where the socially rude get away with it, again and again, and by example teach younger academics that this is permissible.

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