MAKING TROUBLE

I don't like posting about Work. Sure, I love telling the occasional classroom anecdote, carefully stripped of any potentially revealing or identifying characteristics but with its core intact, or talking about academia as a field but the "My boss is a pain in the ass" stuff has never been my style and for obvious reasons isn't a good idea for me or anyone else. Fortunately my father and I have jobs that are similar in one crucial respect even though they are quite different, so let's talk in completely anonymous terms about his field instead.

My dad is a local judge. One of the best, if not THE best, parts of being a judge is that the position is essentially held for life as long as you continue to show up to work and do at least the bare minimum amount of work required to claim that you are doing your job. True, state and county judges do not properly hold lifetime appointments in the same way that a Federal judge does in the United States, but let's just say the obstacles to keeping the job once you have it are not formidable in most states. In that sense, judges are very much like professors with tenure. You can do a really half-assed job if you so choose, but short of not showing up to do the job or violating one's contract (punching a student, disappearing for a month, not grading student work, etc) they can't fire you. Similarly, I imagine that judges vary in their activity levels from the bulk of them trying earnestly to do their job well (either to advance professionally or just because of their personality) and some doing as little as possible. That is any and every workplace. One of the leading frustrations people have regardless of profession is the sense, or reality, that not everyone is doing their fair share. Such is life.

What amazes me when my dad tells stories about issues or conflicts at work (not about actual courtroom things, but interactions among coworkers) is how similar the stories sound to ones I hear from academic friends. Of course part of the explanation is that every workplace is the same on some level; people gripe, have petty feuds, gossip, and so on. From the White House to White Castle, that is just the nature of the proverbial office water cooler. But in my line of work and Elder Ed's, the fact that coworkers engage in pitched battles with one another makes even less sense than it usually does. Nobody can get fired. Why in the name of god do people feel the need to quarrel and cause problems when it is explicit that all anyone – everyone – has to do is to continue showing up and if that high standard is met, everyone gets a paycheck pretty much indefinitely?

The other amazing thing is that both of these professions fall under the "Challenging, not hard" category. In one sense we both have what amounts to the easiest job in the world; we sit on our asses all day and spend a varying amount of time talking. We have to write things. Mentally the jobs can be difficult and stressful, but as I like to say, being a professor ain't exactly coal mining. Intellectually it is trying. Physically it's the closest you can get to being paid to lie on a couch.

Despite every word of what I just said being true, people in jobs like this still feel the need – for reasons I have the most difficult time fathoming – to fuck with their coworkers. My best guess is that it boils down to insecure people with fragile egos that require constant stroking and the perception of "insults" where a normal person would either not see one or see it and think, "Yeah but who gives a shit?" If one judge tells another "You are a moron and you don't know anything about the law," why would anyone bother responding with anything beyond "Oh, OK."? And why would anyone care enough to say that to a colleague in the first place? We can't get fired. We have life by the balls. Why, under such conditions, would anyone care about their colleagues' opinions or feel compelled to offer their own unsolicited? If I think you suck at your job it profits me nothing to say so. You will continue to get a paycheck and so will I. It does not matter what you think of me nor I of you. So really, what's the point?

People just need to make drama and conflict, perhaps. Even when none exists and nothing can be gained by creating it. Maybe it's the same impulse that led cavemen to paint on rocks, except in this example we replace the urge for creative expression with the urge to be a dick and start fights every time our fee-fees get hurt or we're bored.

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34 Responses to “MAKING TROUBLE”

  1. CassiusStarbuckle Says:

    "If every desire were satisfied as soon as it arose how would men occupy their lives, how would they pass the time? Imagine this race transported to a Utopia where everything grows of its own accord and turkeys fly around ready-roasted, where lovers find one another without any delay and keep one another without any difficulty; in such a place some men would die of boredom or hang themselves, some would fight and kill one another, and thus they would create for themselves more suffering than nature inflicts on them as it is."

    Art Schopenhauer

  2. HoosierPoli Says:

    Schopenhauer had it right here, as he did so often.

    I'd just like to add Adam Smith to the fray, when he pointed out that in all our striving for material attainment, what we REALLY want is the respect of others. Material comfort is no comfort at all if you're not esteemed, and since all human perception is relative, knocking a rival down a peg is at least as satisfying as doing something that elevates you.

  3. Xynzee Says:

    Try working in local government.
    Talk about blame shifting and silos.
    The type of politics I see for no other reason than either bloody mindedness or I'm just to freaking lazy to be asked is staggering.
    It's also where you can see some of the more negative aspects of unions rear up. Instead of telling staff that being seen by rate payers with a shovel sticking out their arse really isn't a good look, instead encourages shovels in the arse behaviour.

  4. Wim Says:

    No matter where you go, there are assholes. And assholes, like everyone else, are the stars of their own dramas. If you really do have absolute job safety and only as much work as you need to do, then there's just that much more time and scope for enjoying spite and temper. Or to put it another way, nobody ever really gets over high school.

  5. jon Says:

    I work in local government, and I am amazed at the lengths some people go through to disagree with each other over matters that don't matter. Librarians have meetings to discuss important issues relevant to the job of the library: how the website works, which branch needs more staff, what hours are best, which bestsellers to get and in what amounts, how many computers are really needed, and so forth. But they'll also have weeks-long negotiations with entrenched partisans undermining the authority of anyone who wants to change the children's picture book labeling colors to reflect any new holiday or thematic element.

    It's as if the people who have the authority to hold meetings are determined to make sure their authority and position and judgment are never questioned. Instead, let's work on branding or some other linguistic thing. Let's worry about whether library customers are customers or patrons or users or something else. That's an opportunity for some diverse groups to all say the same thing in twelve different ways before the hierarchy steps up and says "Oops, we're out of time."

    I LOVE MY JOB! I have only a decade or so before I can bail and enjoy my pension. If I last longer, the pension grows bigger!

  6. Katydid Says:

    What Xynzee and Wim both said. Also what Ed said–some people just love the drama and will manufacture their own.

  7. Greg Says:

    Oh for Christ's sake! Only morons who are lazy and less successful than me would use the "word" fee-fees!

  8. mm Says:

    Scott Lemieux of Lawyers, Guns and Money tweeted the other day (12/11/15):

    "So, being fired from a tenured faculty position without cause as part of "program prioritization" is what happened to me today."

    He is (was) an Assistant Law Professor at Hunter College in NYC.

    I hope this isn't a trend. The republicans would love to get rid of all tenured faculty and run all education like a business.

  9. sluggo Says:

    @mm

    Republicans always conveniently forget that a large percent of businesses fail.

  10. verbal Says:

    My family has always quoted Sayre's Law: "In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake. That is why academic politics are so bitter."

  11. John D Says:

    In my six years in academia (before they bent, greased and fucked me, then fired me. By e-mail) I have never, ever, seen putative adults behave in such a petty, childish manner, and this after 40 years in the music business. It really is Lord of the Flies for nerds.

  12. Anubis Bard Says:

    Surely they must have made you read some Hobbes at some point. According to this father of PolySci the three-legged stool of human motivation underlying politics – including the petty – was greed, fear and glory (alt. reputation or regard of others).

    So, yes, insecurity about the regard of others is something people kill and die over – or make passive aggressive comments over.

  13. Skipper Says:

    You hit a nail on the head with drama. Some people just need drama in their lives. It's what makes their life exciting. If it doesn't exist, they will create it. I have one friend like that. He can't let sleeping dogs lie. For example, if he knows someone is right wing, apropos of nothing, he will go up to them and start pushing all their buttons to get them to react and argue with him. There are a lot of people like that.

    But also don't rule out psychopaths. Not all psychopaths are running around with butcher knives trying to kill people. Many appear to be normal people, but spend their time fucking with neighbors, co-workers, employees, etc. They have no conscience about it and no remorse.

    There is a great documentary on Youtube called The Psychopath Next Door. It's from CBC and features Dr. Robert Hare. Very chilling.

  14. J. Dryden Says:

    Freud (rightly) comes in for a lot of dismissive wanking these days (semi-pun semi-intended), but he has a point when he argues that our minds are the result of the biological structure of our brains, and our brains are the result of countless millennia of evolutionary development, most of which was spent in a state of nature in which nearly everything that wasn't Me was Prey, Competition, or Something That Would Kill Me.

    We've been organically human for a lot, lot, LOT longer than we've been forcing ourselves to live within walls, both literal and legal/social–our brains haven't caught up yet. We're made to use our intelligence and aggression on threats to our existence–lack of food, lack of shelter, rivals, etc.–and denied those things thanks to the bounties/restrictions of civilization, we start to go a little nuts, because the impulses driving us to be aggressive haven't gone away. At all.

    Watch chimps in any kind of communal captivity and there's your answer–intelligent and denied the ability to apply that intelligence, they get frustrated and bored and start shit with each other Just Because.

    We're chimps.

  15. quixote Says:

    PG Wodehouse has a line in one of his books about farmers deep in the country who have nothing to do during the long winter months but "brood on what a tick their neighbor is."

    Farmers who own their land can't get fired either.

    Just sayin.

  16. c u n d gulag Says:

    Some people are so miserable, that they detest people who aren't always as miserable as they are.
    So, they go about doing what they can to undermine other's few moments of peace, happiness, and /or joy.

    The only time these people are "happy," is when other people are as – or more! – miserable as they are.
    Then, they look for someone else to take down a few notches.

    We know (most of) these people, as conservatives.

    Liberals prefer to spread joy and happiness.
    Conservatives live to spread misery.
    (Maybe this is overly simplistic, but I'll stick to it!).

  17. mojrim Says:

    Conversely, in jobs that are especially trying, especially physically, there is little interpersonal conflict. I suspect that two things are at work here:

    1. We do indeed need some degree of conflict in our lives. If the work does not present that opportunity we will find it elsewhere, either with family or co-workers.

    2. The environment removes any consequences from being shitty, unlike other places. Manual labor jobs, no matter how skilled, are full of people and places that permit violence. Try taking shit to a longshoreman if you doubt me.

  18. mothra Says:

    Well, everyone has pretty much covered it, except they left out one thing: judges were lawyers once and many, if not most lawyers have big, gigantic egos. Particularly those who are litigation attorneys, and those are the ones who usually go on to be judges. So it is an ego thing-and, I would argue a hangover from law school where picking on your fellow students was a sport nearly everyone engaged in.

    What I don't get is that if you are a judge, you can force people to massage your ego on a daily basis by being a jerk to the litigators who appear before you. So why do you need to be a jerk to your fellow members of the judiciary? It's not like you can climb further up the ladder by pushing them down.

    But really, the best explanation is that hell is other people.

  19. Mo Says:

    Dryden – watch out with the evo-devo and we're-just-chimps stuff, it gets displayed all the time like dirty underwear to "prove" something ignominious.

    Yes, there's a chickens-in-a-pecking order aspect to primate social organizatons. I prefer reading about baboons, myself, especially in Robert Sapolsky's articles. Baboon Metaphysics was also fascinating, if more of a slog.

    And the chocolate chip that the chest-thumpers always fail to find in the cookie is the concept of altruism and how it contributes to group solidarity and survival. Even nasty, bad-tempered, muscular and fanged goblins like baboons can be kind, courageous, and assist the weak.

    And I think it's our ability to amplify the beneficial aspects of altruism and courage that trump the fear, greed, and glory crowd. We're smart enough to cooperate and not act like chickens. Literally and metaphorically.

    As to what makes a perpetually resentful, sniping churl in an organization,
    those who have been studying the amygdala, brain chemistry and developmental neural organization may be onto fruitful lines of research.

  20. Brutus Says:

    Chalk it up to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Once physiological and safety needs are satisfied, one is free to pursue esteem and self-actualization needs. The mechanisms of obtaining higher needs may be irrational, but the needs themselves account for why people bother to strain and struggle beyond a paycheck.

  21. Ms. Ann Thrope Says:

    As a retired member of a profession that required both physical and mental work (natural resources), I observed this aggression in a sightly different form. We were mostly loners (trees, streams, soil don't talk back) required to work together in teams. In every group I worked in there was always one person who was ganged up on, complained about, could do nothing right, etc. Often it was a professional from a regulatory agency who had to approve our project, but not always: we also had inhouse scapegoats. Our disdain for this one person would unify our team of misfits and loners so that we could all work together to complete a project. Sad but true.

  22. Jado Says:

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2084970/quotes?item=qt2341395

  23. Khaled Says:

    People tend to bitch about small shit because they can, and they can't bitch about the big stuff. Much in the same way people bitch about the process when they can't complain about the results, i.e., "it's not what they said, it's how they said it", when, yes, it's about what they said but the person can't bitch about that.

    My mom for years as volunteered at multiple churches where my parents have been members to help with the "altar guild". Something similar exists, I would assume, for most Protestant denominations, but in this case my parents are Lutheran. The altar guild is responsible for making sure that enough communion cups are filled for each service, that there is enough wafers/bread available, and the various trappings (there is a real word for it, but I forget) on the altar, hanging, etc. That's it. Very simple, and if something is amiss, it is really, really not the end of the world. My mom has said some of the biggest fights and disagreements she has ever seen occur in these groups, mainly staffed by retired women in their 60s and 70s. A new pastor suggesting that they like a different way of doing communion, even in the slightest, will result in complaining that will go on for months.

    People find stuff to bitch about if there is really nothing to actually bitch about. In fact, if people have no control over the big things in their lives, they will bitch more and more about small shit.

  24. Ruviana Says:

    @MM, Scott Lemieux's at College of St. Rose. They're terminating a bunch of people. Story here:

    http://blog.timesunion.com/schools/saint-rose-faculty-informed-of-cuts-friday/3454/

  25. Xynzee Says:

    @Ruviana: Unless I missed something,I noticed the article said nothing about culling (senior) administration staff. Only cuts to the teaching—the ones whole actually do the important work—staff.

    Funny that.

    Of course this will have no effect whatsoever upon the quality of the education students receive.

  26. Ulla Umlaut Says:

    Cross posted to Facebook: My local community council is melting down. People are threatening to sue other VOLUNTEER board members and insinuating that the director and/or staff are embezzling or… something. This is after that same director and staff have been continually harassed and called foul names for nearly a year.
    VOLUNTEER COMMUNITY COUNCIL BOARD.

  27. CassiusStarbuckle Says:

    If we get Trump in the white house, all these petty problems will go away. "It" will be tremendous and great and elegant. We will have the best. America will win again. Amelioration of all suffering. It will be great. And, tremendous. And, elegant.

  28. wetcasements Says:

    If you told me before I took my current gig that I'd be sharing a small office with a devout Evangelical Christian I'd have had second thoughts.

    Turns out, we get along just fine.

    As much as I'm a political junkie, it's always been crystal clear to me that when at work, you don't talk about politics or religion. Work is for money, not gossip or opinion.

    Honestly, pace Thoreau, lots of folks live a life of quiet desperation, even if they do have a modicum of financial security. But at the end of the day, they're boring and not really capable of complex thought. So the vacuum must get filled and turns out, bitching about your co-workers and wondering out loud about their sex life is pretty much all they're good for.

  29. Katydid Says:

    @wetcasements: glad you have had no problems sharing an office with a devout evangelical. My experience has always been that they open with the sally that you don't attend their church, which then goes into their daily attempts to explain to you why you're going right to hell. Then come the pamphlets on the desk (which then get ripped up and tossed in the trash), the flyers and candy boxes and demands for cash to raise funds for various missions to Catholic places to "convert the heathens", the demands for money to support the "Christian school" attached to the church, the Christian kitsch strewn about everywhere, the Christian (or Fox News) radio streamed from the computer at full-blast every day…and the incessant whining that Christians are persecuted for their faith and the Muslim in the White House has made it illegal to say "Merry Christmas".

  30. xulon Says:

    Being in a Union job, I am also shocked by the pettiness and gossip which some people major in. More than once, I have had to tell people "There is exactly and only one person here I have to be concerned about." It doesn't stop them, of course, but at least they move on to tell someone else. One time, after a shift of particularly abundant interaction with these people, I wrote on FaceBook "Apparently, I'm the only one at my work who is not the only one who does anything."

  31. J. Dryden Says:

    @Mo: That's a good point; one can focus too much on the continuity between us and our evolutionary ancestors. Those who overemphasize what we share ignore the obvious–that we HAVE evolved and therefore must differ in important ways. And tribal altruism matters a lot.

    On the other hand, one shouldn't entirely ignore continuity. The difference matters, and so does the similarity. I'd agree that our better instincts are in part the result of a natural order in which a cooperative tribe survives/thrives much better and longer than one that doesn't. (Plus being nice often feels good.) But that may be part of the problem–as soon as we collectively stop facing threats from the world outside the tribe, we get frustrated and those altruistic impulses start to be part of the irritation, rather than something that relieves it.

    But then this is a discussion that inevitably yields a series of "Yes but it's more complicated than that" statements–all of which are valid. People swerve into unnecessary assholery for reasons both common and individual, and a diagnosis will always amount to a best guess.

    (But I still think one shouldn't overlook the toxic influence of boredom as a root cause.)

  32. Khaled Says:

    @JDryden-

    Here's one for you about "boredom". I walk my dog past the park down my street about two to three times a day. People park like assholes in front of the park. They leave waaaaay too much room between cars, preventing others from parking. Between two driveways across the street, the city has literally painted a line in the street to show the two "spots". People deliberately park right over the white line so that no one can park next to them. All of this fills me with insane, foaming-at-the-mouth rage. I've had to literally stop myself from keying some of the worst offenders. And the kicker? It doesn't affect me at all. Not in the least. I have a driveway, and my house is too far away from the park for even the spillover to reach in front of my house, and it doesn't even bother me when people park in front. I guess being a stay-at-home-dad makes me search for something to be angry about.

  33. Robert Says:

    The monks responsible for maintaining the Church of the Holy Sepulcher come from different Christian denominations. Each is responsible for certain areas. When someone crosses the line – e.g., an Orthodox monk washes a section of wall that the Catholic monk is supposed to wash – they get irate and occasionally have fistfights in the church. This has been going on for years.

    When I worked at the VA hospital, I would occasionally be asked to change a procedure or practice for various reasons, mostly due to policy changes made by people thousands of miles away who had a vague understanding of what we did. This usually had the same effect on my colleagues as throwing an enraged stoat into a psychiatric ward. My stock response was "I have no emotional connection to how we were doing it before; since that was essentially random, I don't mind a new random." This is probably how I lasted for twenty four years.

  34. Alyson Says:

    I am a high school English teacher and my job is definitely affected by my colleagues who don't do their jobs. I teach seniors and I can tell exactly what teacher they had in previous years for English based on how good or horrible their writing is for me.