The Intemperance Movement

Peter Wood

The Chronicle’s “Ticker” reported a brief AP story about a University of Iowa anthropology professor—oh, why bother summarizing? Here is the story in toto:

U. of Iowa Professor Sparks Outrage by Using Obscenity in E-Mail to College Republicans

April 20, 2011, 2:48 pm

Ellen Lewin, a professor in the anthropology department at the University of Iowa, is facing a backlash after sending an e-mail featuring the F-word from her university mailbox to the College Republicans group on the campus. Ms. Lewin, who studies same-sex relationships and has apologized for her language, was responding to what she considered to be an offensive e-mail from the Republican group touting “Conservative Coming Out Week,” the Associated Press reports.

As of this writing, the Chronicle‘s comment tail on the story is long and growing; and that thoroughly unscientific poll includes a fair number who contrive to defend the good professor.

I followed the links and read the reports behind the reports, but can’t much improve on the Chronicle’s synopsis. The College Republicans, a student group, sent an email, approved in advance by university officials that invited all members of the university community to participate in “Conservative Coming Out Week.” The full text of the original email is here. It lightly satirizes the campus left by appropriating rhetoric typically associated with leftist causes.  In addition to “coming out,” the email mentions an “Animal Rights BBQ,” and offers fake doctors’ excuses for missing class “just like the Wisconsin public employees during the union protests.”

How any of this justified a “F—YOU REPUBLICANS” response via university email is hard to say. I take it as an example of what I have called “New Anger,”  i.e. anger that congratulates itself and is performed as much as it felt. All anger probably has a component of self-righteousness. New Anger foregrounds this component.  It offers the performer a sense of authenticity and often has a gratuitous flamboyance.  It is a “look at me” style of anger. And telling a bunch of undergraduate students who were, at most mildly annoying, “F— YOU,” is a pretty apt illustration.

Professor Lewin nicely fills in the picture in a subsequent email to the College Republicans written after the group complained. In it she offers a conditional and sarcastic non-apology:

This is a time when political passions are inflamed, and when I received your unsolicited email, I had just finished reading some newspaper accounts of fresh outrages committed by Republicans in government. I admit the language was inappropriate, and apologize for any affront to anyone’s delicate sensibilities. I would really appreciate your not sending blanket emails to everyone on campus, especially in these difficult times.

“Fresh outrages”?  “Difficult times”? Had Republicans been caught once again burning and pillaging villages? Executing political opponents Robert Mugabe-style? “Difficult times” as in Syria? Or on the northern Japanese coast?

No, I guess Professor Lewin is referring to votes in Congress that she would have preferred go the other way, or to outcomes in state elections. Actually, she sent yet another follow-up email that reduces the need for guessing:

I should note that several things in the original message were extremely offensive, nearly rising to the level of obscenity. Despite the Republicans’ general disdain for LGBT rights you called your upcoming event “conservative coming out day,” appropriating the language of the LGBT right movement.  Your reference to the Wisconsin protests suggested that they were frivolous attempts to avoid work. And the “Animal Rights BBQ” is extremely insensitive to those who consider animal rights an important cause. Then, in the email that Ms. Ginty sent complaining about my language, she referred to me as Ellen, not Professor Lewin, which is the correct way for a student to address a faculty member, or indeed, for anyone to refer to an adult with whom they are not acquainted. I do apologize for my intemperate language, but the message you all sent out was extremely disturbing and offensive.

New Anger seems exactly the right rubric here:  the magnifying of trivial offenses or the invention of imaginary ones in an effort to summon the muse of outrage is the procedure of someone who has no interest in composing a temperate response.

We live in an age of New Anger not because anger itself is anything new. It is part and parcel of human nature. But emotional patterns are shaped by culture, and contemporary American culture has largely replaced its older ethic of self-control with a new ethic of expressivity.  We have learned to enjoy lashing out, and rather than treat those who can’t or won’t control their tempers as weak and rather pathetic, we now tend to excuse and even to celebrate them.

In online media, you don’t have to look very hard to find examples of people who seem to thrive on their own indignation. New Anger is almost the whole of their character. If not raging over something, they would seem in danger of collapsing into inner emptiness.

Whether Professor Lewin faces this particular peril I have no idea, but her three emails exemplify New Anger’s outward characteristics.

New Anger isn’t to be found exclusively on the left or the right. It is a cultural formation that extends across the political spectrum. It serves up exemplars such as Bill Maher on one side and Glenn Beck on the other. Nonetheless New Anger is politically inflected. It affects the left and right differently.  The left is in tune more with New Anger’s invitation to sneering derision. The right prefers the tones of anguish and resentment.  Because New Anger came about mainly through the dismantling of older restraints and taboos, the left is much closer to the roots of the phenomenon and takes to its excoriating glee a lot more readily. But the right long ago caught on and its own purchase on the art of self-pleasing ridicule. The right’s New Anger, however, has about it a perpetual me-too quality. Conservatives seemingly would prefer the older forms of self-control, but those seem increasingly inaccessible.

I don’t think it is mere coincidence that Professor Lewin has an appointment in Women’s & Sexuality Studies in the Department of Gender, Women’s & Sexuality Studies.  She is, by professional commitment, an apostle of the movement to dismantle social inhibitions. New Anger is a hefty part of the rationale for Women’s Studies in the first place. These are programs that aim at turning young women who are fretful and discontented into women empowered by righteous anger at the supposed injustices that society has visited on them. Little wonder that Professor Lewin modeled exactly that kind of response when the College Republicans sent an unwelcome invitation.

But if Women’s Studies has a built-in case of New Anger, it is certainly not out of step with the contemporary university as whole. Our universities seem at times to revel in their estrangement from and contempt for mainstream American society. It is not an especially good marketing position for an institution in deep need of public support, and I’d be ready to add this rancorous attitude to the list of reasons why our current system of higher education is poised for a sharp decline as the public begins to weigh its options.

Professor Lewin’s three-word response to the College Republicans is one of those very short stories that point to a much larger one.

This article was originally published on April 21, 2011 on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

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