It Wasn’t Me
Thanks so much to Dan, Danielle, and the Concurring Opinions crew for this invitation. This is all pretty new to me, but I am looking forward to a fun and interesting month.
In describing the job of law professor, Stuart Benjamin (http://www.law.duke.edu/fac/benjamin/) once told me that “We teach for free and grade for money.” I’m sure it is not his originally, but it’s particularly fitting for this time of year as we face exam and paper piles of various heights and teeters begging our attention. As someone who spent a few years in a PhD program, this feels to me a bit like being a pledge for life—to borrow a phrase from fraternity culture. I spent all those years grading blue books for others’ classes with the promise that some bright-eyed hopeful would someday clean up my messes only to enter law teaching, where we carry our own water. Hard to sigh too hard, of course, but the fact remains that few of us love grading.
It was while putting off grading that I read this interesting and timely article by Paul Bloom in The Atlantic Monthly, cum “The Atlantic,” on models of the self. Anyone with even a moderately complicated internal life is familiar with the subjective phenomenon of wars in our heads between competing goals and desires. Be it a battle between Dionysus and Apollo or André Soltner and Jenny Craig, we all experience the competing pulls of devils and angels, and so it is with grading. I should really grade ten more exams, but I want to see Virginia in the . . . no wait, Virginia wasn’t even Bowl eligible . . . but there are games on, and I’ll have plenty of time to grade once the dust settles from the holidays.
The Freudian account of these moments invites us to think of ourselves as more-or-less holistic beings with competing drives, goals, desires, and interests. I want to be a responsible professional and I also want to kick back with a beer and some leftovers from the New Year’s party. Most of us have been brought up to deal with the conflict by training our super egos to rank, order, and govern so we delay the gratification of our baser desires while nurturing and advancing our higher selves.
Bloom thinks this holistic view both unpersuasive and wanting for descriptive force. In his view, there is no single self, but, rather, a host of competing selves. Part of his account is temporal. There is my “now” self, which tends toward the Dionysian, and my future self, who is, frankly, a bit boring. Part of it is ethical. We all desire both achievement and pleasure. But what’s most interesting about Bloom’s account is his suggestion that there often is a real empathy gap among these various selves. I am happy to leave the grading to my tomorrow self because my today self will not suffer the consequences. And, of course, there are more than just two competitors. Bloom postulates a cacophonous meeting hall of different selves bouncing around and fighting for time on the dais and control of the pulpit, each of them ready to take what they want and leave others to suffer the consequences.
Most of us are fully aware that these many selves are mutually implicated and understand the consequences of choices made now on other valued selves, though varying degrees of dissociation are a given. Some of us have imaginary friends—here Bloom reminds us of a young girl whose imaginary friend, Charlie Ravioli, was “a hip New Yorker whose defining quality was that he was always too busy to play with her,” god I love that—and others talk about our weakness for chocolate cake in the metaphor of a demon, but for the most part the self at the fore feels a sense of duty to and responsibility for other selves as a function of psychic and physical continuity. Thus blame and shame. But we also recognize that this continuity has its limits as metaphor. The concept of reform, after all, entails the idea of a new and different self. Similarly, most of us at some point shed the feelings of guilt for youthful indiscretions.
Ironically, it’s a huge indulgence to start thinking this way. To start, it leads to a host of fun reveries that are ever more engaging that grading. But it also suggests to us that the line between those who suffer multiple personality disorder and the rest of us who are only moderately dysfunctional is blurry at best, and mostly defined by how sympathetic we are with our other and future selves. Our current President was elected on a narrative of having been reborn, thereby leaving behind the youthful indiscretions of his teens, twenties, thirties, and early forties. He can’t be accountable for that conduct . . . it was someone else who got that DUI. Our current Vice-President suggested a similar entitlement to dissociate when asked about justifications for the War in Iraq after the 2004 election. You can’t blame us for that decision . . . it was made by other people whose existence was made moot by the intervening election and subsequent birth of a new administration. The more dissociation and lack of sympathy among selves we are willing to accept, the less responsibility that carries over between the selves that appear and wane at different points in our days and lives.
I’ll have more to say on these themes in later posts, but for now will simply leave those struggling for a reason to reach for the next blue book with the promise that it feels good to do something for someone else. True, the you grading the papers will get no benefit, but as with all acts of charity there is a pleasure in altruism. At least, that is what I told myself as I finished grades over the weekend. Now, of course, the self at the podium can indulge himself with this blog and reading and writing for his current article. He is not without guilt, of course. After all, classes start next week and someone has to step in front of two new classes. Luckily, it’s not me.