January 12, 2015

The Value of Sharing Experiences

In my previous post I state how from now on I won't name people when writing of my experiences. Of course, this issue would be moot if I didn't write about my experiences at all. One might say, "Why talk about your experiences? What is the point? Do philosophy. Talk about the ideas. Be strong, and move beyond your particular experiences." I think this is implausible both personally and philosophically.

Personally, sharing experiences is a way of building community, highlighting commonalities, engaging in practices of cathartic release, and often shining light on aspects which might otherwise remain hidden and buried. To share experiences is to articulate them, and to articulate them is to gain power over them, rather than to feel stuck in having the experience passively.

Philosophically, I think if people don't share their experiences and feel that that they are being heard, then that affects how intellectual discussion itself happen. One way to make progress is to start with sharing experiences, and then working towards broader intellectual issues in the course of trying to understand and engage with each other. If one doesn't in a vulnerable way share one's pain, that pain doesn't magically disappear. It gets articulated into whatever modes of communication are available, and if the only modes of available communication are intellectual debate (such as colloquia or seminar discussions), then the pain will get channeled into the way those debate happens. 

I believe this is why often academic philosophy debates can seem harsh, pointed. It is not because there is something warrior like about rational conversation. It is because academic philosophy doesn't have many institutional structures for sharing the various kinds of pain one might have in academic contexts, and so they get channeled into the way one asks questions, responds to objections or puts down opposing views, etc. In this way, pain that hasn't had a chance to be processed or expressed in other contexts contorts the ways in which intellectual conversations themselves take place. Human interactions are human interactions. Whether they take place in conferences, offices or living rooms. If family members doesn't have a way to express and process their pains, they will take it out at the dinner table or on family trips. If colleagues don't have a way to express and process their pains, they will take it out, in subtle and not so subtle ways, in classrooms, faculty meetings and blog exchanges.

As I see it, this is one reason why institutional structures like What is it like to be a woman in philosophy? are so necessary. Expressing pain is natural and healthy. And structures which enable people to share their pain are inspiring because they show that we can survive the pain, and that our institutions can become better the more we listen to each other's pains. Physical structures in departments are needed to facilitate similar processing. I am starting to understand that perhaps much has happened on this front in the last five to ten years, much of which I might not have been mindful of given my own situation. And that's really great.

I think the lack of structures for expressing pain also explains the anonymous blogs where discourse can break down so easily and there is a lot of venting. For it is not only women who have pain in the profession. And not only minorities. Or those who are disabled. And so on. Everyone has pain. And everyone, irrespective of the identities they have, can have pain in different ways. No two women's pain might be the same, nor two minorties' pain. If the only structures for expressing pain are those defined along identity lines (spaces where a minority group can seek comfort against a majority group's insensitivity), I think even as those structures help, there will be more and more forms of repressed pain, and so more forms of aggression. A white, male at a top school can have pain in his interactions in the profession: perhaps his papers keep getting rejected, he thinks he is not good enough, he feels guilt for the privileges he does have, he worries that he is himself part of the problem, as if he personally, with his privileges, is holding others back, and so on. To say this is not to justify the status quo structures, as if everyone's pain is the same. But it is to say that as long as there aren't structures for expressing pain which are open to everyone, there will be patterns of repression and aggression.

One reason I didn't express my pain and reach out to others better when I was in academia was because I didn't see any structures where I could talk about what it was like to be an Indian-American in a mainly white profession. But it was not the only reason. 

Another reason was that I didn't know if really I qualified as someone whose pain could be justified, and so worth expressing or being listened to. Yes, I was Indian-American. But I was also male, straight, at top schools, came from a middle class family, and so on. What I was not sure of was how I could express my pain, or reach out to people, given this mix of identities I had. A part of me would want to express some pain, and another part of me would tell me to get my act together and not be such a baby, and to realize how many people had it so much worse than me. I didn't know if I really belonged to a minority or to a majority. Was I the oppressed or the oppressor? Or was I both? And what would that mean? I didn't know. Like trapped animals growling at each other, the different voices in my head snapped at each other, sometimes this voice cowering in the corner, and sometimes that voice, sometimes these two voices ganging up against that weak, lonely voice, sometimes those these two voices standing up to that group of voices and so on. Over time I got used to this interminable, internal fighting, until it seemed like nothing more than the natural state of affairs, and a kind of numbness became my standard state.

Ultimately, it was as a way to get beyond the numbness that I left academia. For over time the numbness spread to parts of my life beyond my professional identity. It affected me as a husband, a son, a friend, a neighbor, and so on. The more outwardly things seemed fine, even wonderful, as if there was no reason for me to have a care in the world, the more the numbness took hold of me and started to suffocate my sense of self and my creativity. I wanted out just to feel alive again. To go into fresh air where I wouldn't have to be defined either by the normal Eurocentric philosopher identity, or a contrasting Indian-American philosopher identity, as if I had to pick just one of those two, as if as a philosopher I had to choose one of these two uniforms and pick which side of the battle I would be on. I didn't want to choose. I hated having to choose. And I hated the battle. I was tired of it, constantly fighting as I was that battle within myself.

As the numbness wore off little by little over the past few years, one of the first emotions to rise up was anger. While I was numb, the anger had become buried. But now it was suddenly freed, and I started to remember painful memory after painful memory. I had never quite forgotten the memories, but when I was in academia I had experienced them with a general sense of passiveness which was my normal mode. Now, however, the memories were the same, but I was experiencing them in a new light, as if they had gone from black and white to color. Mainly, I remembered them with a new sense of agency, as if something could be done about them, that they didn't have to be experienced passively. It was invigorating, exciting. It felt like though I had long assumed I was mute, it turned out I had the ability to talk all along.

Nonetheless I didn't want to be defined by that anger. So in writing this blog I have tried to be motivated by the anger without quite channeling it. I am now understanding that this is a process, and that I have channeled that anger in some of the ways I have written. I want to be mindful of this, and to not keep doing it. For I feel that what is ultimately cathartic is sharing the experiences, and the best way to build long term habits of sharing experiences is to do it in a peaceful way. 


  1. I too left academia after many years of academic training, and founded a blog 25 years later to reflect on that experience and to renew contact with philosophy while talking from outside: http://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2014/12/26/pluralist-greetings/. Thanks for your thoughts, and for your example;

  2. I’m glad that you have decided to continue blogging, albeit without naming specific individuals to the extent possible. Perhaps some people view this as “preening” or self-indulgence. But issues having to do with marginalization, whether with regard to women, Euro-centrism, etc., did not rise in the collective consciousness because people spontaneously gave seminar talks about them, but because more and more individuals talked about their personal experiences in other venues, and discovered commonalities. Further, as you have written before, the blog is a way for you to think through what aspects of academic culture that you found troubling are in fact symptoms of more general problems in the academy; you have never claimed that the issues you will/might identify are of equal or greater importance than the current problems of sexual harassment, etc.

    Some people* might consider blogs like yours to be the result of excessive “moral sensitivity.” Others may think that people who hold this view are privileged, unreflective, and insensitive to important problems plaguing the academy, but that, of course, would be a gross generalization.

    *I’m not referring to the commenters on your previous posts, all of whom I believe engaged with you constructively and out of good will.

  3. In some ways it would be easier to name people, because it would capture so much information and specificity that it makes it some of the issues at stake jump out. But, in another sense, naming people is a form of coercion, and as I see this point now, I don't want to do it anymore. I would like to contribute to conversations in which anyone can participate, and do so freely of their own choice, because they feel it is beneficial to them and they feeling inclined to. But if I name people, then they might feel that they have to engage with me in order to defend themselves, or because they feel bad, and that affects the kind of conversations that are possible. I think if I or anyone else genuinely thinks through their own thoughts in an honest, searching way, and without hurting others, that can be enough to foster a positive space for conversation.

  4. You do realise that people come here partly because of the quasi-gossip about famous philosophers? Such is our prestige-mongering. If you want to be read, keep naming names.

    1. You make a realistic point and thank you for articulating it. I wondered about this myself. Ultimately, this is another reason to not name names. Because I am then depending on having associated with some well known people in order to be read. If I am going to be read, I hope it is for something positive about the future and about what moves people. If there are fewer readers, no problem.

  5. Dear Bharath,

    I find your blog fascinating since my own experience is very different and yet similar in some respects to yours : I'm a european white male mathematician who left academia.

    Some of your remarks on the sociology of academic philosophy also apply to mathematicians:

    - the community is highly hierarchical
    - there is a high pressure to work within the parameter of a given research program
    - there is an underlying current of fear when an average mathematician speaks to a famous mathematician
    - there is an in crowd which can feel exclusionary

    That being said, I feel there are some differences:

    - asians are represented at the highest level
    - a much greater tolerance for non-native speakers
    - the superstars are objectively incredibly brilliant (some seem almost inhuman) which give them much greater legitimacy.

    1. Thanks for your perspective. As I see it, there are three layers here:

      - Academic philosophy
      - Academia more generally
      - Society at large

      When in academic philosophy one might feel that it somehow stands apart from the society at large, since it is a space of rational discourse, while most of society supposedly isn't. But as through commercialization academia itself becomes more a part of society, neither academia nor academic philosophy stand apart from society as such anymore.

      One consequence of this is that the pitfalls and disagreements in academic philosophy themselves are microcosms of the pitfalls and disagreements in academia more generally, and even more society itself. That is one hope I have in this blog. If the limits and problems within academic philosophy can be better understood, I think they can shed light on the situation in society in general, and perhaps illuminate how the situation in society can be improved.