Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Ms. 21st century

I occasionally get emails from people who find my critique of the Internet generation cruel. Last week, I got an email that said point blank "what do you want people to do?"

Let me take a detour on the way to answering that.

My friend James sent me a link to this post by Penelope Trunk. It's a pretty typical screed against grad school, of the kind that you've read before and that I've critiqued before. I could rebut it; as is typical of those sort of arguments, it's long on attitude and low on facts-- facts like median income and employment rate for those with graduate degrees, etc. But honestly, why bother? It strikes me that grad school is a bad idea for very many people and a fantastic idea for a much smaller number of people. And yet I find that notion-- that some choices are good for some and not good for others, and that there is no way to sort which is which except by living those choices-- to be anathema to both Trunk's project and our culture.

Now, I could go into take down mode with Ms. Trunk. There's a lot to mine there. You'll find Trunk is something of an archetype: the person who is Winning at Life and insists on telling you. Loudly. Page after page of her blog amounts to self-justifying and self-promoting. She has launched three successful startups! She has appeared on 200 radio stations! She used to be a professional beach volleyball player! But as I navigated the site, I just got more and more bummed out, to see a person whose entire shtick is built on projecting the confidence which no one with actual confidence ever feels the need to project. Turns out that Trunk herself went to grad school. (She can't simply disagree with those who believe grad school can sometimes make sense; she must "crush" them. What does that tell you?)

There's a single lesson that I have learned more forcefully and more completely than any other in my life.

Those who try to show you that they're strong are weak.

Strong people don't talk about their own strength. Weak people do that. Secure people don't try to convince you of their security. Insecure people do that. People who love themselves don't have to prove it. People who hate themselves try to. When you get down to the root of my complaints, why I'm so cranky about Internet culture, the thing that I object to most strongly is the refusal to let other people make their own choices. And my belief is that this refusal stems from a desperate need people feel to validate and justify their own lives. I've written in defense of monogamy many times, and one point I've made over and over again is that those who attack the romantic ideal often do so because they don't like the implied judgment of other people's successful relationships. When people say, for example, "everybody cheats," what they are in fact saying is "I cheat, and I can't countenance the implied judgment that might exist if others don't." Take that perverse logic and apply it to almost everything, and you've got  something like 21st century aspirational culture.

I mean check out this post from Penelope Trunk's blog. Look at the list of what she accomplishes. I would put it to you that literally listing the reasons you feel good about yourself is a rather strong indication that, in fact, you don't feel that good about yourself. But if Trunk does it with less self-awareness than others, she is no less of a model for your typical blogger at Gawker or the Awl or wherever else. Take pop culture writing. When people talk about the AV Club, they talk about a place where people can discuss the pop culture they love. Who could argue with that idea? But when I look at the actual AV Club, I just see row upon row of people who need to let everyone know that being a fan of Community marks you as a connoisseur while being a fan of Two and a Half Men makes you a chump. Even our purely subjective aesthetic choices are not allowed to be our own anymore. If tastes are subjective and people are allowed to make whatever choices they want in the media they consume, people can't use those tastes to justify their self-conception as arty or hip or whatever. So what you get is a lot of people heaping derision on those who make different aesthetic choices. Nobody can leave other people alone anymore.

Perhaps if I thought that this all made people actually happy and fulfilled, I could let it go. But that's not what I find. I find, in fact, that the more time people spend justifying and validating themselves, the bigger gulf they feel between the self-concept they try to project and how they actually feel about themselves. It may be a cliche, and it may tiptoe up to the line of New Agey goop, but I do believe it's true: you will never achieve self-fulfillment by looking outside of yourself. Other people cannot validate you. Not that they shouldn't, but that they can't and won't. If they could, all of this manic effort to get them to would have certainly accomplished it by now. I drone on about self-pitying sci-fi fans not just because they're bullying and sanctimonious. It's also because the self-pity and sanctimony don't actually make them happy. As showy as they are in rejecting "high culture," they also yearn for validation from that culture. But that's an empty concept, and even if there were designated high priests of high culture, their approval would not make sci-fi fans happy. It comes from inside or it doesn't come at all.

If I am cruel, then I hope it is a kind cruelty, one in the service of getting past a particularly unhealthy cultural moment. For now I look out at a broader culture, made increasingly visible and explicit by the Internet, and see an army of Penelope Trunks: outwardly self-satisfied, brimming with false confidence and showy self-esteem, incapable of accepting that other people make other valid choices, terrified that someone will puncture the bubble of their self-presentation, desperate to position themselves above and apart from the same people they look to for validation, and deeply unhappy.


Josh said...

Yeah, she's got Asperger's. I don't think that means she should be coddled (obviously, she doesn't need it), and I wholeheartedly agree that she is obnoxiously overconfident, prone to saying crazy bullshit, and a bizarre choice (in my opinion) for anyone to consistently take life advice from. But a refrain on her blog is "I don't really understand how normal human beings are supposed to treat each other," and so, from a rhetorical standpoint, she might not be the ideal central example for your otherwise very good argument.

Will said...

Great post. I agree with practically everything written here. The one thing that is lacking though is the idea of trying to help people see a better life.

For example: A lot of Americans think they will be happier living in a HUGE house in the exurbs with a 45 minute commute and limited walking opportunity. I can accept that for some people, that truly is what they want. But for probably a majority of those in that situation, they got there because they have been confused and persuaded by our cultural love of space and home ownership. I don't know exactly how best to approach someone and say, "I think you might be happier with 40% less space, a 10 minute commute and a grocery store in walking distance." But I do feel the need to say it. Because hey, some people have been misled.

How does the well-intentioned person give advice if we have to accept everyone's personal preferences as their own (as opposed to a product of their upbringing)?

Basically, is there room for trying to help others out, as opposed to the poison that is criticizing to make myself feel superior?

Charles said...


What an excellent post. I don't really have anything to add. Just, damn, that's a good one.


I don't think that's so difficult. Give advice when asked for it. Recognize that regarding helping others out, advice (even when asked for) generally doesn't; and that there are plenty of other ways to help, but most of them are more difficult than giving advice.

Anonymous said...

"If tastes are subjective and people are allowed to make whatever choices they want in the media they consume, people can't use those tastes to justify their self-conception as arty or hip or whatever. So what you get is a lot of people heaping derision on those who make different aesthetic choices."

Thanks for making me think, yet again. BUT wouldn't this be better attributed to the freedom faceless internet posting gives you to say things that you would normally suppress in face-to-face conversation? The internet is an outlet for repressed thoughts.


PrajK said...

I know this post wasn't about grad school per se. But since you write about it often, and you did raise the issue here, allow me to rant for a bit. I agree Trunk was ridiculous. And I completely agree that grad school is a perfectly good choice for many.

But, but, but...you're ignoring an important element of her argument. The life of the mind is wonderful, and there's a big part of me that would be happy if I stayed in that path. But in the end, we all need to put food on the table. And so it's not unfair to ask how a graduate degree will prepare you for getting a job. Especially since career prospects are at least part of the reason why some people get a graduate degree in the first place.

Yes, I know you can trot out statistics showing that PhDs have the lowest unemployment rate among all demographics. But those stats don't capture the insecurity, the pain, the self-doubt, the "how can it be so hard to get a job when I'm so smart and have a PhD" feeling that so many of us go through. I can't count the number of people who wished they dropped out after their masters (or earlier) precisely because of feelings like these. And the people I'm thinking of are scientists and engineers. I suspect it might even be worse for those in the humanities.

Just as we shouldn't ignore the fact that grad school is a fantastic decision for some people, we shouldn't ignore the fact that it was a terrible choice for others. It's not at all obvious to everyone that 6 years deeply exploring an intellectual topic is worth the lost income, the miserable job search, and the very late start to a career they could have had when they were 22. The worst part is that many don't realize that grad school was the wrong choice until they've spent six years doing it!

For all her flaws (and there are many), I suspect Trunk resonates with this group. If she could do so with more grace and nuance, why not highlight that at the end of this long--often wonderful, but sometimes miserable--journey, the real world still awaits? And in the real world, not everyone will value narrow expertise. Grad students are not always aware of this going in. And even if they are, they can still be reminded from time to time.

Even as far back as 1990, it was widely acknowledged that PhD students get very bad career advice. However poorly she may be doing it (and I agree she is doing a terrible job), Trunk is at least trying to solve a very real problem.

I get your indignation, and understand why you attack people like Trunk. Like you, and despite the fact that I've left, I feel very strongly that academics and grad students are "my people." But that's why it's even more important for us to recognize the kernel of wisdom in her piece. Unfortunately, your writing on this topic (not just this post) often reminds me why some of the most vicious anti-academia screeds are written by former academics.

It can be frightening to apply for a real job for the first time when you're almost 30 years old with few marketable skills. Career academics rarely respond to that emotion
and--even worse--sometimes belittle those who possess it. I wish that you would spend a bit more time working on that rather than just attacking the Penelope Trunks out there. They'll always be there, and will need to be put in their place from time to time. But I feel you can do so much more.

Freddie said...

Well, I have written a bit about the PhD job market before. One point to make is that Trunk harps on opportunity cost, the idea that even funded graduate students are giving up their time. But number one, that is the fundamental problem I'm talking about: that she thinks she's in a better position to determine what people's priorities should be. Number two, opportunity cost implies opportunity. For many people, the job they'd be getting instead of going to grad school does not exist.

But in the end, we all need to put food on the table. And so it's not unfair to ask how a graduate degree will prepare you for getting a job.

This would be a far more compelling argument coming from someone who doesn't homeschool her kids, which is absolutely a privilege of the affluent and directly cuts against the need to put food on the table, or someone who doesn't constantly brag about dropping out of life to live on a pig farm. If she actually had those priorities, she'd still be wrong. But she doesn't; she wants to have it both ways.

Anonymous said...

Freddie - I agree with you about Trunk's flaws - her pretty frequent abuses of logic and statistics, and her lack of self-awareness - but at the same time, she penetrates through to truths that are obscured by more even-handed writers. Her piece on divorce from earlier this year was powerful and actually validated by the often tendentious counterarguments in her responses section.

She would also vehemently disagree with your statement that no opportunity costs exist ("the job they'd be getting instead of going to grad school does not exist"). I am an academic refugee of almost twenty years and, you know what, I agree with Trunk on this matter.


Freddie said...

What business of it is yours telling people what their opportunities are? What the logical choices are for their own lives?

Anonymous said...

Not sure I understand your point. Trunk is providing advice. Even if it is strongly-worded advice, it doesn't compell anyone to follow it.

Individual decisions don't occur in some sort of self-directed vacuum. They are influenced by both general advice (such as Trunk's) or tailored advice from a personal contact. Both types of advice can be good or bad and both contain generalizations that aren't always applicable.


Paul Sherrard said...

It's best to just read Cracked.com instead of the AV Club, and not do so ironically. And so forth.