Politics and Politeness

by Mark English

I’m probably more contrarian than conservative, though I freely admit that my views on some issues might be seen as conservative. Whatever that means. Many views which would now be classed as conservative would have been seen as liberal not too long ago.

Moreover there is a big divide between those who see recent societal changes as a sign of moral or social progress and those who don’t. Not being a fan of identity politics, I don’t. But, then again, I don’t assume that others (apart from close friends or family) will be much interested in my personal views.

When anyone writes on political topics, opinions impinging on those topics will show. But the point of any worthwhile discursive writing is never primarily to display personal opinions or to engage in moral signaling but rather to present and analyse facts, discuss specific topics or events, make practical judgments and predictions, etc. The opinions are there in the background. They play at the very least a motivating role. Ideally they will not be explicitly pushed, but stay “between the lines” most of the time.

Then again, relevant opinions and motives should not be deliberately hidden. Doing so would amount to deception. And, if there is a moral value that is absolutely crucial to intellectual intercourse, it is honesty. A writer or a scholar or a scientist who is not completely honest in his or her work is worse than useless.

Writing in a more or less committed or subjective way about disputed social and political topics is very different from doing scholarly or scientific work, of course, and calls for a balance between self-expression and more objective modes (such as reportage and analysis). As in so many areas of life, judgment is required. You are walking – or trying to walk – a fairly narrow line.

So, while it would be dishonest – and a breach of faith with the reader – for an author to put conscious effort into hiding or obscuring her real opinions or motives, it just seems like bad manners to put the focus on one’s own opinions and (as it were) inflict them on the reader. The only case in which such writing may be acceptable – as I see it – is if it is very entertaining. The trouble is, humor is difficult to do. And, the way the world is moving, satire has become virtually impossible.

Just as the crass and stupid pronouncements of many right-wing activists make us all cringe, so the bad manners of liberals and progressives has, over the years, alienated me and many others from them. Self-righteous moralizing is bad form and very unattractive. In a similar way, violent protests alienate people from the cause in question. As Noam Chomsky and others have pointed out, the Antifa movement has been a gift to the right.

But I am thinking here more of workplace contexts and ordinary discourse. Recently a couple of Hollywood actors were talking publicly about the way their conservative colleagues have to keep their opinions to themselves if they want to continue working. Tell me about it! The same thing applies in other areas of the arts, academia and much of the media, as well as within government and some private sector bureaucracies.

I worked in academia for almost two decades, and I couldn’t believe how rude people were in talking about politics. Time and time again it was simply assumed that because you were in that line of work you had to have more or less the standard view on this or that issue. There was no chance that you might have reservations about certain progressive causes, because only stupid, ignorant people had such reservations. Undergraduate students were often seen in these terms and routinely ridiculed by some of my colleagues. Politicians on the “other” side were considered fair game, the butt of countless (unfunny) jokes. Boorish is the word that comes to mind to describe such behavior.

My response was usually not to engage or to try to change the subject. Occasionally I would speak up, even though I was fully aware that this was potentially a career-damaging thing to do.

I have previously referred to Megan McArdle’s depressing account of her experiences as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania and of her more recent interactions with academics who objected to her claims of general political bias in academia.

Every time I write about bias against conservatives in academia, I can count on a few professors writing me to politely suggest that I have no idea what I’m talking about. Sometimes they aren’t so polite, either. How would I know what goes on in their hiring meetings, their faculty gatherings, their tenure reviews? They’re right there, and they can attest firsthand that there ain’t no bias, no sir! But none of them can explain why, if that bias doesn’t exist, so many of their conservative and libertarian colleagues feel compelled to hide in the closet. Deep in the closet, behind that plastic zip bag of old winter coats in mothballs, and sealed, with many layers of packing tape, in a box marked “Betamax Tapes: Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon 1981-1987.”

Not all my colleagues were boorish, of course. Most of them were not. But the boorish ones were often the ones who dominated common-room discussions, poisoning the atmosphere for those who had different views.

Our tendency to apply (and think in terms of) simplistic labels continues to amaze me. We even tend to label ourselves. But the standard labels – like conservative, progressive, etc. – that we apply in relation to social and political views are inadequate in the same way that racial stereotypes are inadequate. The latter lump together particular sets of personal characteristics; the former, sets of views and attitudes on various issues. Do some people fit these ideological stereotypes? Sure. But such people – party liners – are probably not going to be very interesting to talk to. If you know what someone is going to say before they say it, why bother talking to them?

Actual views on specific topics are what counts, and intelligent people will deal with each topic on its merits. I am suggesting that we can only deal effectively with ideological and value-based questions in a piecemeal way, looking at specific issues in turn. (1)

There used to be rules about not talking about religion and politics in public. It was drilled into me as a small child that this was just not done. It was bad manners. Though I had a penchant for controversy from an early age, I tried to follow this advice.

I can only think of one case of my speaking out inappropriately in a social situation as a child, but it had nothing to do with politics or religion. I was talking to a friend of my father’s, a well-known former cricketer who chaired an important cricket selection panel, and I – an avid cricket follower at the time – was pleading the case for one of my favorites. I was shocked and embarrassed when my father (who had been present) told me off about it later. Obviously it had been the wrong thing to do, and I had displayed a lack of tact and implicitly, a lack of respect for the selector’s professional expertise. (2)

I don’t know why these old rules of courtesy and politeness loomed so large for my father. (3) Certainly his focus on such things was slightly unusual for the time. He was older than most of my contemporaries’ fathers, but even his contemporaries (old college friends and so on) used to make gentle fun of him. I don’t know which particular factors – parental influence, say, or schooling or personal experience – had been most significant in shaping his views and attitudes, but the fact that his father died young and he had to assume heavy responsibilities from an early age would obviously have had a big impact. He was (like me) a first-born, with two younger siblings.

We, all of us, are first and foremost individuals, with unique families and developmental histories. (4) Even such things as the birth order of siblings has a small but significant effect on personality and ideological orientation. But the family unit is not as significant as it was. Its defenses have been breached in unprecedented ways by social and technological change. The “haven in a heartless world” (to use Christopher Lasch’s phrase) is no longer the haven it once was. Nor does the family have the same significance as an educative force that it once did.

Rules of courtesy could be seen as socially-evolved mechanisms that allow us, as unique individuals (who may or may not strongly associate ourselves with particular ethno-cultural, social or ideological groups), to get along without unnecessary friction. But, of course, those old rules – which had been learned and promulgated within families for the most part – have fallen by the wayside.

Instead we find ourselves in a world in which various groupings of like-minded individuals have formed which are operating increasingly in isolation from other groupings. The end result is not only the social fragmentation and dysfunction which is so evident today in most Western countries, but also the decline of individuality. When individuals find their whole meaning and purpose in some group identity or other, they inevitably fail to do full justice to their individuality and uniqueness, to the complex contingencies which have created them.

Those ideological and group identity labels which we all too often apply to ourselves may be revealing – but they are not revealing in a straightforwardly descriptive way. They are, I would suggest, usually quite superficial and more akin to shibboleths – or fashion statements – than genuinely meaningful descriptions.


  1. We also need to “go meta” sometimes, but I see this in terms of trying to identify the framework of values which is implied by a particular set of specific views.
  2. He himself had not appeared to react in a negative way; I suspect that he had been more amused than offended by my earnest suggestions.
  3. Another big no-no for him was anonymous communication, a topic which has become a focus of some attention and controversy as modes of communication have changed.
  4. I am not talking about the atomistic individual – which is a nonsense. You need a cultural matrix to create an individual; and each such individual is unique.






16 responses to “Politics and Politeness”

  1. Nicely stated. I politely agree…

  2. Mark,
    I realize now that what impresses me most curiously about your writings about politics is an essential naivete. If, as I’ve said (following Hobbes) politics is war by other means, why be surprised at the violence of political or ideological speech? – especially in the close quarters of an academic environment?

    We should be speaking more respectably with those with whom we disagree – but we should also be talking more respectively with the shopkeeper who has short-changed us – but the immediate reaction is not in this direction. We want justice (as we perceive it) – even where the mistake is trivial or, concerning larger issues, irrelevant.

    I’m not defending such behavior – on the contrary, such behavior contributed to cutting short my academic career. But what I am suggesting is, that surprise, disappointment, dismay over this situation, while understandable, will get you nothing in the long run. It is what it is, and the people involved just are who they are. We would want them to be otherwise; but don’t we want a lot of things to be otherwise? Life just does disappoint us. How we deal with that defines us.

    Yes, the academic environment should be more accepting of differing ideas. It should be a lot of things. It isn’t. That’s the way i6t goes.

  3. Kevin Page

    Thank you.


    You’ve levelled worse accusations at me in the past than naïveté, so I suppose I should be grateful for the relative restraint. Then again, you have been known to come in later with a subsequent comment saying that on reflection the ideas being expressed were really much worse than you originally thought. 🙂

    I don’t think I am politically naïve. Although I used expressions of surprise and amazement, there is a rhetorical element here. I don’t expect people to change their behavior unless circumstances change.

    But circumstances *are* changing. Hollywood has just had one of its worst seasons. Box-office receipts are down. The old media funding models are broken and people are finding new ways to get information. The higher education system is in crisis, both in terms of funding and rationale.

    My point was not just about politeness per se. There is also the fact that a big majority of people in the sectors I referred to have very similar social and political views, and this was not always so (at least to this extent, and certainly not in academia). In fact, I think the current situation is something of an historical anomaly.

    In a situation where one set of views predominates, politeness is less likely to take hold. But in a situation where there is a better balance of views – as was the case until relatively recent times – no one side can hold sway, so politeness and restraint might make a comeback. Something like those old rules may be seen to be necessary just to “keep the peace.”

  4. I didn’t think ‘naive’ was an accusation. As with a naive realism, it may be deliberate and also the correct way of understanding something. I thought EJ was using it in that sense.

  5. Mark,
    Well, I certainly didn’t mean “naivete” in any derogatory sense. That would be to suggest an ignorance of the subject at hand, and clearly there’s no sign of ignorance in your writing.

    No, I was thinking of a kind of innocence, of a person who always strives to be at his or her best and act accordingly, and who wonders why others don’t do likewise, even where there are differences of opinion. Nobody could deny the decency of the behavior you assert should be expected of members of the academic community. Unfortunately there are some in the academy – as in any community – more interested in power or position or influence of one kind or another.

    I’ve told parts of this story before, but it’s worth retelling in this context: In my graduate English program, I came under fire from the head of the program, a Radical Feminist, for criticizing The Color Purple for being so anachronistic as to create a false impression of the Black experience of the ’20s/’30s. She began berating me in class and tossing my papers away without reading them. She would probably have failed me in that course had she been the only instructor for it. I felt doomed.

    However, I was not without my resources. Fortunately I had already read Heidegger, and so applied for a teaching assistantship with the Deconstructionist Feminist on the faculty, who, being Hispanic, was the only minority on the faculty. She was thus beyond the influence of the Radical Feminist, and I was allowed to pursue my program to completion. (I also grew fond of her, and learned quite a bit as her TA; she was a wonderful teacher, with a real passion for literature.)

    Anyway, that was the moment when my own political naivete, my own innocent expectations of what the academic community ought to be, was pretty much shattered. For the Radical Feminist, the teaching of literature was all about power; I’m sure she felt herself innocent in believing this, for she had a Cause, and Causes justify everything.

    That’s my story; but there’s another story, told to me be by retired former professors, some years later. You’ll appreciate the irony. After I got my degree and left, the Radical Feminists in the program consolidated their influence on it, and effectively controlled the hiring process. Several younger Second Wave Feminists were hired in quick succession. However, these Second Wavers proved far more strident then those hiring them. And according to report the relations between the Old and the New broke down so badly, the Second Wavers would chase the older women around the halls accusing them of treason (to the Cause), whenever they said something or made some decision not towing the Feminist line! I would have liked to have seen that.

    I taught as an adjunct for the next twelve years, in three different states. I loved teaching, I loved my students (well, at least those who showed genuine interest in learning). But I never stepped into a hall of faculty offices without a sense that there were vipers behind some of those doors.

    And there were – and along with economic concerns, this finally led me to seek a different career… but that’s a different story.

    I imagine the academic situation was better once. My own experience probably occurred at a turning point in the history of academic culture, and there are other reasons I think that’s true. But not only my own experiences, but those of friends and former colleagues, have led me to be quite cynical concerning the academy. One friend did land a professorship at a program that is simply work-a-day and collegial, and whenever he complains of his comparatively low pay, I always remind him how lucky he is not to have some radical someone or other chasing him around the hallways.

  6. ejwinner/Dan

    Calling someone’s outlook naïve may not be an accusation, or derogatory in any strong sense, but in the context it does seem to constitute a (mild) criticism. As I suggested, I could live with that, but I’m not sure that my outlook *is* naïve or innocent. As I pointed out, my expressions of surprise and so on were rhetorical to some extent.

    That story of the radical feminists meshes with some of my own experiences and because generations of students in the arts and humanities have now witnessed this sort of thing and have been required to toe a particular political/ideological line in order to get a good grade or even a pass, the whole system has been brought into disrepute. I know it wasn’t always thus, but most people just know what they have experienced. Theoretically things could be scaled back in the higher education area and reformed, but I think it is likely that the humanities will persist in a much diminished but still distorted and politicized form.

    What makes me most angry is that these ideologues – some naïve, others more cynical – have undermined respect not only for academics and academia, but also (to some extent) for learning itself.

  7. ombhurbhuva

    It’s nice to be nice but sometimes the truth as we see it will upset. There was that cliché of some years ago – the full, frank and free exchange of views, meaning to say a good row. In politics however a fudge or apparent agreement many allow the disputants to move forward towards peace in which each party defines the terms according to their own interpretation. Such was the Northern Ireland agreement in which no side felt that they had been defeated. That combined with proportional representation and ‘parity of esteem’ brings nuance into politics and abates the corrosive triumphalism of majoritarianism.

  8. I am old enough to remember when, in family gatherings and the workplace, it was OK for people to express conservative opinions and the height of bad manners to disagree with those opinions.

    I remember being told in my first job at a bank that my reading a slightly left of centre newspaper in the lunch room was endangering my career and possibly my job.

    I continued to read the newspaper at the lunch room..My future was not in banking.

    It brings me no satisfaction that the pendulum has now apparently swung the other way. You would have thought that we would have learned something.

  9. I live in an area where that is still true to a great degree, Robin. I can’t tell you how many students I have had who are essentially refugees from right wing fundamentalist families. Some were homeschooled and thus completely cloistered. Some were gay. Some had a secret black boyfriend. Etc. And because of it, they had to flee. The sheer amount of psychic damage done to these young people boggles the mind.

  10. alandtapper1950

    The problem with “war stories” such as these is they convey no idea of what positively we stand for, other than politeness and honesty and learning.

    With this thought in mind, I recommend this year’s Gifford Lectures given by Jeffrey Stout. They are a model of lucid discussion of competing ideas and religious commitments — ideas and commitments that have often degenerated into ideologies and fundamentalisms.



  11. Alan

    “The problem with “war stories” such as these is they convey no idea of what positively we stand for, other than politeness and honesty and learning.”

    Well, I would have thought that learning, honesty and politeness are quite enough!

    Your short comment raises more issues than I can deal with here.

    Who is the “we”? Academics in the humanities and social sciences, I assume. Alright, but, by posting that particular video (of which I have watched the first part) you are advocating a particular view, one which puts religion at the heart of things.

    In terms of the history of ideas, I would agree that religion has been at the heart of things. Too often it is airbrushed out (by philosophers, for example, dealing with figures like Kant or Hegel).

    But you are also, it seems, implicitly advocating a religious view of the world, contrasting (true? good?) religion to fundamentalism. I am happy to acknowledge the contrast to a point – but not to the point of accepting that religion *in any form* should form a part of my view of the world. Like many people today, I personally reject religion and religious ways of seeing things.

    You also – less controversially – contrast a commitment to ideas (including social reform) to ideology (by which I take you to mean the sorts of abuses which I and Megan McArdle and ejwinner were talking about).

  12. ombhurbhuva

    You talk about the “corrosive triumphalism of majoritarianism” and the way political fudging (most politics is about fudging things in one way or another) can abate it. I agree.

    Ireland’s religious strife is notorious, but you could make a case, I think, that Catholic/Protestant divisions in Britain and other northern European countries contributed in a generally positive way to polities and manners. In other words, to avoid open conflict a relatively private (religious) space was created which may not have existed to the same extent in countries where one denomination, like Roman Catholicism or national versions of eastern Orthodoxy, prevailed.

  13. alandtapper1950

    Hi Mark:

    Learning, politeness and honesty are very far from enough! They are minima. A good humanities academic should have a high level of clarity and argument skills, and some originality (all PhD theses require this), as well as learning. Politeness and honesty are basic virtues in whatever we are doing.

    You suggest that, by posting a link to a scholarly set of lectures, I am “implicitly advocating a religious view of the world”. Stone the flaming crows! (I mean that politely.) I linked to the lectures because they seemed to me a model of excellence in the humanities, and relevant to various discussions on this blog. You may not think so well of them, that’s fine, but that’s what I was intending.

    My objection to war-story-telling (I could tell a few too) is that we need to be defending the best in the humanities as well as criticising the worst — otherwise both the best and the worst will be defenestrated.

    PS. Your interesting comment that “to avoid open conflict a relatively private (religious) space was created which may not have existed to the same extent in countries where one denomination, like Roman Catholicism or national versions of eastern Orthodoxy, prevailed” is very much on the topic of Stout’s lectures.

  14. Alan

    “Learning, politeness and honesty are very far from enough! They are minima. A good humanities academic should have a high level of clarity and argument skills, and some originality (all PhD theses require this), as well as learning.”

    Your original claim was about what we *stand for*, not personal requirements for the job.

    On the religion issue, my suggestion was based not just on the video but on the way you introduced it, which involved two contrasts (which I specified). I was also a little annoyed at the way Stout seemed to be claiming that religion was “necessary” in some sense. His comment was associated with a vacuum metaphor, but I may have got it wrong.

  15. alandtapper1950

    My point applies also to what we stand for. Humanities scholars can be polite, honest, learned drones. We don’t stand for that.

    Neither of the two distinctions — between ideas and ideologies and between the better aspects of religion and fundamentalism — commit me to being a crypto advocate for any sort of religion. And I am not.

    Stout’s personal views are unknown to me. I was recommending him as a scholar.

  16. Alan

    “Neither of the two distinctions — between ideas and ideologies and between the better aspects of religion and fundamentalism — commit me to being a crypto advocate for any sort of religion. And I am not.”

    I realize that the (better side of) religion/fundamentalism contrast is useful. It doesn’t *necessarily* involve a positive view of religion per se. For example, one might be thinking more in terms of bad/worse rather than good/bad! 🙂

    But I took your comment in the context of the Gifford Lectures (natural theology) recommendation. I explicitly acknowledged that religion is quite central to social and political history and the history of ideas, and you picked up on my comment to ombhurbhuva which was along these lines.

    “Stout’s personal views are unknown to me. I was recommending him as a scholar.”

    He was speaking here as a scholar, but I thought his personal views were coming through. But, as I say, I may have misinterpreted what he was saying.