Against the Overwhelming Vagueness

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After writing the last post (on Appiah’s essay on condescension), I started thinking about a peculiarity of (U.S.) American economic and social life: many decisions and judgments get made behind the scenes, with no public disclosure of the discussion and reasoning behind them. People get rejected from colleges, turned down for jobs or publication, or even excluded from parties without ever learning why. The rejection letter (or equivalent) epitomizes the vague: “Thank you for your interest in the position. We received an unforeseen number of exceptional applications and ultimately chose finalists whose qualifications most closely matched our criteria. We have therefore decided not to consider your application further. We wish you the best in your job search,” etc.

In such situations (which abound), the only way a person learns of the specific reasons is through a personal connection. That is part of the reason for the American emphasis on “networking”; without it, you may be consigned to the realm of the perplexed.

In some countries (not all), the situation is more clear-cut, though not better. Either you are not considered at all (because of your class, educational background, demographic group, or some other known factor), or you fail to meet explicit criteria (such as a test score). The drawback in such cultures is that some people never get considered in the first place. The advantage is that they often know the reasons.

Vague rejections are such a part of American life that people don’t question them outright. They might suspect and contest a particular rationale for a rejection (for instance, in the case of Asian-American applicants to Harvard and other colleges) but take for granted that they will receive a vague letter, if any at all.

Even peer groups and individuals exclude others without telling them why. People are bombarded with advice to cut “toxic” people from their lives or distance themselves from “negative” people, but sometimes these individuals never learn that anyone considered them toxic in the first place. Instead, they just see their peers drifting away, evading invitations, having parties and conversations without them. They are left to guess what’s going on. Even if they aren’t deemed toxic, they may be ostracized without explanation. It could be because of their habits, the company they keep, their background, something they said, or or something that has been said about them.

Carina Chocano’s terrific piece on the word “inappropriate” appears in The New York Times Magazine’s First Words column (like Appiah’s). “The word’s vagueness has always been a handy way to remind people of their relatively low status,” she writes; If they can’t already tell what’s wrong about their behavior, perhaps they are beyond help.” By calling others “inappropriate,” people excuse themselves from dealing with them. The vagueness is an exit ticket for the elite.

But there is a benevolent, humble side to this American tendency. People genuinely don’t want others to feel bad or to take their judgments as the final word. If they stick to vague verbiage, perhaps the rejected one will stay hopeful. Timothy might not be a “good fit” for Harvard, but who knows about Swarthmore or Vanderbilt? The New Yorker rejected my poem “despite its evident merit”; maybe it will get snatched up by the next witting editor. Karla doesn’t want to go out with Jamal, but he can still believe that he’s a wonderful person and that someone will appreciate him for what he has to offer.

The problem is that the vagueness can leave a person in worse doubt than clarity would–because the words themselves lose meaning. Does “inappropriate” mean “really bad” or just “mildly out of place”? Why did Harvard turn Timothy down? Did Jamal do anything that put Karla off? Does my poem pass muster?

I recognize the bureaucratic mess that specific, reason-filled acceptances and rejections could cause. They would be inordinately time-consuming, error-prone, subject to lawsuits, sometimes misleading, maybe algorithm-driven, open to interpretation, and possibly more trouble than they are worth. But at the other extreme, the vagueness has become a way of life, a way of making judgments while pretending not to judge.

There are ways to break through some of the vagueness, individually or together.  We* can strive for clarity (without cruelty) in thought, action, and word. We can work to lift taboos surrounding criticism. We can protect an institution’s decisions (provided they are lawful) while laying bare the reasons. But first and foremost, we can recognize that the vagueness does not have to be accepted as is; even if we cannot change it entirely, we can question it, look at what it does, and seek out other ways.

*”We” in this context is as far-reaching as it wants to be. It can involve a few individuals or more.

I took the photo yesterday afternoon outside my school here in Szolnok (after a day of faculty meetings). That’s my bike parked on the right.

I made some edits to this piece after posting it. Also, I am considering “American vagueness” as the topic for my next book. There is much more to say on this subject.

Condescension, Contempt, and Beyond

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Kwame Anthony Appiah’s recent essay “Thank You For ‘Condescending‘” (published in The New York Times Magazine’s excellent First Words column) stirred up some thoughts about the American concern with status. Appiah argues that we have forgotten the old meaning of “condescension” (which Samuel Johnson defined as ““Voluntary submission to equality with inferiors”). Over time, “condescension” has taken on negative connotations; today we resist the notion that there are superiors and inferiors in the first place. Yet hierarchies persist, says Appiah, whether we like them or not–and so condescension, once honorable, has degenerated into “its curdled opposite,” contempt, which now fills the political sphere. I support this argument and the reveille it brings; I would offer just a few complications.

When thinking of the benevolent kind of condescension, I remembered the Swinburne poem “To a Cat,” which begins:

Stately, kindly, lordly friend,
      Condescend
Here to sit by me, and turn
Glorious eyes that smile and burn,
Golden eyes, love’s lustrous meed,
On the golden page I read.

The poem expands in thought over its eleven ;stanzas it contemplates distant past and far future; near the end of the first part, it asks the cat, “What within you wakes with day / Who can say?” It is worth reading in full, many times. I think I first read it–or maybe just the first few lines–in a cat book, as a child. I remember being struck by the word “condescend”; I knew I had not  heard it in that way before. The poem stayed with me because of it.

Appiah says that condescension (in its old, kindly meaning) “denies distance; contempt asserts it.” I would add that condescension of this kind recognizes the unknown in others, whereas contempt denies it. To have contempt for another is to believe that you have summed the person up, that nothing exists beyond your own assessment (or that if anything does exist, it isn’t worth your time).

Moroeover, he suggests that contempt–and its counterpart, resentment–may arise from our insistence on erasing or ignoring the visible markers of status. In pretending to be equal (in fact as well as in principle, in specifics as well as in general), we put ourselves on edge, suspecting a hidden hierarchy behind the ways of the world.

I find this resoundingly true but would add a few caveats. Yes, hierarchies persist and make themselves known, often surreptitiously–through subtle cues, gossip, and such. Many Americans seem intensely interested in knowing who is who. If you go to a wedding, for instance, and someone even mildly famous or wealthy is there, you will hear about it (maybe in a whisper). When I was a student at Yale, someone would often point out someone and say, “You see her? She’s always going around in jeans, but she’s a multi-millionaire.” Or “He’s the son of so-and-so.” I continued to see this tendency later on, in New York, San Francisco, and elsewhere.

In addition to pointing out hierarchies (in undertones), people would also try to act as though they didn’t exist. When the boss drank with the employees–on the job or at a bar, sometimes late into the night–it could seem that there was no hierarchy at all. But part of the point of such drinking is to get employees to work longer and better. While seeming “cool” for hanging out with the lowly programmers–and perhaps being genuinely affable and appreciative–the boss has a specific agenda. Drinking on the job can also foster an “in-group” by excluding those who for cultural, religious, medical, or personal reasons do not drink (or prefer to spend their time in other ways).

Unspoken hierarchies exist in schools, too. I have heard–but have not verified–that when parents pay steep prices (through real estate or tuition) to send their child to a school, they may come to view the teachers as their own employees. In addition, with the rise of “helicopter parenting,” parents are more likely to supervise and judge the daily classes and activities in their children’s schools. The reverse, though, can happen as well: teachers may view parents as their assistants–not as well versed as they are in the subject matter but capable of, say, reading to the child before bed or making sure the homework gets done. While parents and teachers would like to view each other as their equals, they do not always accomplish this.

But let us distinguish between two kinds of equality: basic human equality and provisional, specific equality (say, in athletic competence or language proficiency). It is possible to believe in basic human equality–the idea that all of us have dignity and deserve basic consideration and respect–without believing that we all have the same abilities, attainments, virtues, or even, in some spheres, rights. In our zealousness for affirming basic equality, we have often confused it with the specific kinds; we fear to admit that some people have more musical ability than others, that some are more mathematically inclined than others, that some write better than others (at a given time or over a lifetime), or even that some exceed others in courage. Everyone is supposed to be equally special and capable, ever growing. Everyone’s voice is important.

Only we know that’s not so. Not only differences in ability, attainment, and circumstance, but differences between the “somebodies” and “nobodies” keep resurfacing. Media like Twitter reveal, on the one hand, the principle of equal participation (anyone can join the conversation!) and the blatant divide between those with thousands of followers and those with fewer than thirty. There are those whose every word gets attention and those who write for friends and occasional passers-by.

If you are perceived as one of the “nobodies,” especially online, you can be sure that someone will remind you of this–regardless of the quality of what you do and what you have to say. (“Why pay attention to you? Your comment has only two likes.”)

But there is yet another complication. A person can have higher status in one area and lower status in another. Also, people can be simultaneously each other’s superiors and inferiors. Consider an editor (of a well-regarded publication) and a writer. In some ways, the editor has higher status (through acting as gatekeeper, for instance); in others, the writer does (through creating a work that an editor might covet). The relationship may change over time. So status is more complex than it looks on the surface.

I have often felt uneasy among people obsessed with status–but I recognize that status is there, whether we like it or not, and that it takes myriad forms. I see Appiah’s argument that disavowed status leads to anxiety, contempt, and resentment.  So how does one acknowledge status without letting it dominate one’s life?

Perhaps that is precisely it: by acknowledging it, one does not have to worry about it. One does not have to put so much effort into detecting and interpreting social cues. Criticism can be more frank and at the same time less loaded; the recipient, knowing what it contains, can then choose what to do with it. This will allow not only for clarity and learning, not only for condescension (in the generous sense of the word), but for better sleep and waking.

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I took the top photo in Szolnok (near my apartment building) and the bottom one in Baja by the Danube.