The Reason Behind Intrigue

Let’s proceed from the assumption that most human beings are rational creatures guided by a healthy self-interest.

If that is so, then what makes people invest inordinate amounts of time and energy into petty squabbles that could be resolved within minutes through the medium of a frank discussion? There has to be something they get from crating a quagmire of meaningless little intrigues that poison their lives for decades.

Obviously, one part of it must be a profound need for a high level of stress. Still, they choose this specific way of maintaining a stressful environment so there must be some sort of a pay-off in it for them.

True story. There are these two academics who have been engaged in a vendetta for over 20 years. The number of nasty things they have done to each other (and each other’s friends, and each other’s graduate students) is staggering. The initial reason for the animosity between them was that when they were newly hired Assistant Profs, the Chair of the department invited one of them to a party at his house but failed to invite another one.

Instead of getting together for a beer and sharing a kindly joke about the older academic getting all dotty and trying to play favorites, the young professors conceived a profound mutual hatred and have been persecuting each other ever since. The rift-causing Chair has been dead for over a decade, yet the drama does not abate. It is sad to think of all the articles these very talented scholars could have published, all of the students they could have mentored, and all of the parties they could have organized as friends had they not been so dedicated to wasting their lives on this idiotic squabble.

I see one person after another get bogged down in the muddle of their own making. Good, intelligent people they all are. Yet the need to get into a huff over something completely trivial and blow it out of all proportion seems overpowering. This mystifies me because of how useless and un-productive this is. For me, the best-case scenario is: I come to work, do my job, like everybody, everybody likes me, peace, love, bubble gum.

Only too often, however, I discover that many people can’t tolerate a peaceful environment and need to taint it with petty intrigues. If you have any insights why people do that, please share.

P.S. I would like to keep this discussion intelligent, which means that silly suggestions that this is somehow more ubiquitous in academia than anywhere else are not welcome. I’ve had enough of dealing with people’s immaturity this month to last me until May. And if you insist, I will regale you with a story from the world of business which is even worse than the one you just read about.

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25 comments on “The Reason Behind Intrigue

  1. My theory is that it is because people will do anything they can to re-enact their childhood traumas. Probably the person in question had a sibling who has favored by their father, and the event triggered the memory. The sheer force of emotions that is normally locked up in such intrigues and dramas makes clear that it must be an emotion coming from an early age that comes to the surface.
    I think it is an attempt to control an uncontrollable event from childhood. Maybe the person was not allowed to feel hate towards the sibling, and now has a chance to show this feeling to everyone, which is a relief in some way?

    • “My theory is that it is because people will do anything they can to re-enact their childhood traumas. Probably the person in question had a sibling who has favored by their father, and the event triggered the memory. The sheer force of emotions that is normally locked up in such intrigues and dramas makes clear that it must be an emotion coming from an early age that comes to the surface.”

      - Very interesting. Yes, this might very well be. Interesting observation.

  2. I would say you’re close with the “desire for stress” comment—it’s a desire for drama, which may or may not have to do with childhood traumas; it can just be temperament. Some of us “keep the drama on the page” (or try to), reading, writing, listening to opera, getting our drama vicariously or creating it on the page, not in our lives. Others need to live the opera, and so they act out in real life. The real problem with that is the way this necessitates pressing innocent bystanders into service as characters in a drama whose plot they don’t know or don’t care about.

    • “The real problem with that is the way this necessitates pressing innocent bystanders into service as characters in a drama whose plot they don’t know or don’t care about.”

      - Exactly! This is not the kind of issue that the warring sides can keep to themselves and enjoy to their heart’s content. They have to involve everybody else, get people to take sides. The conflict becomes contagious, it spreads throughout campus. . .

  3. I don’t think there’s a single answer, but lots of strands and most of them are due to that thing I like to call human nature and I think they have a lot of do with human prehistory/evolution

    - part of human nature is drawing a circle around oneself (and a few others) and then looking for ways to establish and reinforce differences, for most of human existence group allegiance has been really important and people are always on the lookout for signs of allegiance/antagonism.

    - part of human nature is reliving trauma (physical and emotional) partly it’s a way of working through emotions and partly to figure out what went wrong to avoid the same pitfall again

    In the modern urban/technological environment a lot of our biological heritage that was once useful can easily turn dysfunctional in lots of ways.

  4. I would love to ask my parents a straight simple question but I do not dare because of the stress it is likely to cause them each individually, and to them as a couple, and to me as scapegoat for having raised the subject of death. I want to know whether or not any third person has medical power of attorney in case they are both incapacitated at once or one incapacitated and the other, too overwhelmed to make a decision. I am afraid to ask since last I asked they did not understand the term and I know they are afraid we want to get control of their money and steal it, or force them to do things they do not want to do, so raising any question like this is very threatening.

    Therefore I spent 15 hours in the past 3 days, when I could have been living my own life, composing the right letters to MD and lawyer to ask these questions. My secondary motive is to let these people know who I am and that I am concerned, and to let them have some info on my parents´ current state, from my perspective, so they will be prepared for the deterioration that is on its way.

    I hate doing this, hate not being able to speak directly, don’t believe in confidentiality, etc. or in games of telephone or whispering, but in some situations frankness, openness, etc. just fails and the person who loses is you and whatever it is you are trying to preserve and protect.

    • I know very well what you mean. Strong, domineering parents find the idea that they will now depend on their children in old age to be very threatening. The idea that they will have to be grateful instead of a turning into a recipient of gratitude is intolerable. So they begin to sabotage in order to make the adult child feel guilty and incompetent. This is the main weapon of controlling small children – guilt and feelings of incompetence. They put the adult child in the position of a small kid, the position that s/he remembers only too well. That disorients the adult child and gives them back their control over her.

      Very familiar.

    • You are right that this is a simple question, and that raising it would cause so many problems is a sign of the disfunction in your family of origin. I don’t have any suggestions as to how you could possibly handle the matter in a way that would cost you less in time and stress, given the situation, but I sympathize, and hope that it may help to have someone else say “it is simple, and it’s not you, it’s them.” The fear of stealing, taking over, etc., is very common among the elderly, as of course you know.

      • Gracias y’all — it is also a delicate question since it raises the fear of death and all these trust issues, I am told …

      • The only suggestion I have is to remember that you can never be a parent to your parent, no matter how old they become. I’m saying this to myself, more than to anybody else.

  5. And re your colleagues — I have 2 junior ones who won’t speak to me. It must be something about that office. Both wanted me to put them as my top friend in department and I just couldn’t do it, it wouldn’t be good for us as a group. Both wanted me to be their agent, get done the things they wanted. I do not have the power. So both decided to hate me. Plus, one I told not to call me at home at night to talk about sex, and so I got accused of Puritanism. It is said that this is my fault, that I cannot tolerate “competition,” but this is their first job out of graduate school, not mine, and I have had all kinds of colleagues that I have worked well with and they have not, so I say it’s them and their infantile demands.

    • Yeah, I especially like it when people who can’t lick my boot professionally try to elevate their self-esteem by suggesting that I’m competing with them.

      “Don’t worry, I don’t compete with you,” I told one of them very publicly. “You are too beneath me for me to notice you.”

      Of course, he immediately started trying to spread nasty rumors about me. I, however, just forgot about his existence because I will never waste my life on these intrigues. I say what I want to say, loudly and clearly and move on.

  6. And — think of court politics. Paranoia and intrigue are in my experience major intrigues of professors from Spain and France residing in US. Away from home and unsure how to make friends outside the department, they strangle each other.

    Universities are medieval institutions and resemble being at court, so the general atmosphere brings out any tendency to palace intrigues people may have.

    In language departments, Europeans tend to want to rule because they are the authentic native speakers of the purest form of the languages, according to them.
    Other people don’t expect to get to be the colonizer like that but many Europeans do and they can behave very childishly at times.

    I love the Spaniards and the French in their countries but I wish they would get out of US FL departments, or at least mature to the age of 18 or older, or if they cannot do that, learn some manners.

    Sorry to sound so prejudiced but they have taught me this with 20 years of poor behavior.

    • “In language departments, Europeans tend to want to rule because they are the authentic native speakers of the purest form of the languages, according to them.”

      - Very true. There are also mafias. Alongside the Spanish mafia, there is the Cuban mafia (strong in the US) and the Argentinean mafia (strong in Canada). I’m still not sure which one I dislike the most. :-)

    • ““Marriage should be limited to unions of a man and a woman because they alone can “produce unplanned and unintended offspring,” opponents of gay marriage have told the Supreme Court.””

      - This is the best. :-) :-) The mystery remains why unplanned and unintended offspring (like, say, me) is better than planned and intended offspring (like, say, my sister). I will now totally use this to brag. “I was a total accident. And you. . . were a wanted baby. Hah!”

      I’m laughing hysterically now.

    • Classic example of moving the goal posts. Having had all of their other arguments defeated, they have now moved on to defining marriage as literally the only thing that a heterosexual couple can do but a homosexual couple can not.

      Of course, this isn’t even true, since I’m a lesbian and I would still be quite capable of creating an unplanned and unintended offspring with another a woman.

  7. I’d much rather the intrigue had intellectual content. Psychological content by itself, without anything intellectual to back it up, shows deficiency in academics.

    • No, there is exactly zero intellectual content here. Less than zero. It’s an issue of wounded vanities, and absolutely nothing else. The intellectual content of this drama I’m witnessing right now is lesser than that of intrigues among kindergarteners.

      • It would be really cool to be able to tell a story about two academics whose mortal animosity started because of their competing readings of Galdos.

        I don’t know any such stories, though. People handle differences in ideas a lot better than they do conflicts about who gets an office with a bigger window.

        Somebody, please shoot me the day my life becomes so useless and empty that I care about the size of my office window relative to other people’s office windows.

      • I don’t like the sound of that at all. My training, via Nietzsche and Bataille, is to
        1. maximise any advantage for personal knowledge one might gain from having one’s vanity wounded (Nietzsche)
        2. embrace the nature of destruction (of oneself and other things) as part of life’s content, and move on. (Bataille).

  8. “Somebody, please shoot me the day my life becomes so useless and empty that I care about the size of my office window relative to other people’s office windows.”

    But… I am more productive with a bigger window!

    Also, my colleague has three windows in hir office and I only have one. Thank god my office is bigger that hir!

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