My father told me a story once. Many years ago, he was a university professor. He taught history at St. Thomas More College at the University of Saskatchewan. He would drive his car to work, park it, and go teach his classes. But when it came time to go home, he would often find himself unable to remember where he had parked. University of Saskatchewan being one of those universities with vast parking lots extending out in all directions, he would be forced to wander through the lots looking for his car.
Life as a professor turned out to be much less than he had hoped it would be, on top of which he found himself embroiled in all sorts of acrimonious conflict with his colleagues. It got so bad that one day he just quit. He turned in his resignation, went out to the parking lot, searched around until he found his car, and drove home, never to return. Here’s the funny part of the story though. He swears that this was the last time, in his entire life, that he ever forgot where he had parked his car.
In other words, “being absent-minded” was somehow tied to “being a university professor.” It had nothing to do with his brain, it was a consequence of his social role. The day that he quit being a university professor, he also stopped being absent-minded – not intentionally, mind you, it was only decades later that he realized that he had stopped forgetting things.
I mention this because I work with a lot of very stereotypical absent-minded professors. One (former) colleague, in particular, has built an entire career playing the lovable fuddy-duddy absent-minded professor. He called me up once, on a Friday evening, wondering why I was not yet at his house. His wife had given him the task of inviting the guests to their dinner party, which he had promptly forgotten to do, and then forgotten that he had forgotten to do it. Luckily I wasn’t busy, so I hurried over.
It wasn’t always so funny though. When I was first hired, I didn’t have a driver’s license, and some of my classes were at a remote suburban campus. The fuddy-duddy professor, with whom I shared an office downtown, generously offered to give me a ride, since he drove there on the same days. One morning he was late. I sat around, getting increasingly anxious, worried about being late for my lecture. It got later and later, until eventually I had no hope of making it. Finally I went around asking if anyone knew where he was. “Oh,” I was told, “fuddy-duddy’s out of town at a conference. Didn’t he mention that to you?”
That was the end of our little car-pooling arrangement.
Now, promising someone that you will drive them to work, and then just not showing up, is conventionally known as a “dickhead move.” It shows total indifference to other people’s needs and feelings. And yet when a professor does it, it’s treated as though it were cute, and possibly a sign of genius. My colleague was so busy thinking important philosophical thoughts that of course he didn’t have time to think about tiny, insignificant things, like how his actions affected other people.
All of this has persuaded me that absent-mindedness should be viewed in much the same way that Talcott Parsons viewed illness. At its root, it is a form of social deviance. Basically, everyone would love to be absent-minded, because it allows you to skip out on all sorts of social obligations. (Again, I have colleagues who miss meetings all the time, or show up hours late saying “I could have sworn we agreed to meet at 5pm…” No one ever shows up early because they forgot what time the meeting was at.) More generally, remembering things involves a certain amount of effort, it’s obviously much easier just to be lazy and forget things. The major reason that we don’t all act this way is that most people get sanctioned for it by others. Absent-mindedness, after all, is just another form of stupidity, and when ordinary people do things like forget where they parked their cars, they get punished for it. People say things to them like, “what are you, stupid?” It’s in order to avoid being seen as stupid or incompetent by others that they feel motivated to make the effort to do things like remember where they parked their car.
Becoming a university professor, however, is a pretty good way of exempting oneself from suspicion of outright or base stupidity. When university professors do stupid things, people don’t say to them “oh my god, you’re so stupid,” or “stop being such an idiot,” instead they start making excuses, like “there he goes with his head in the clouds again,” or “he must have more important things on his mind.” In other words, they give you a free pass. Not only can you get away with being stupid, you wind up with social license to become even more stupid.
If there’s one thing that Freud taught us, it was to be suspicious of all these “involuntary” or “unconscious” mental acts. Motivated forgetting was one of his prime examples. Here is what he wrote in the Psychopathology of Everyday Life, regarding the forgetting of intentions and promises:
There are some who are noted as generally forgetful, and we excuse their lapses in the same manner as we excuse those who are short-sighted when they do not greet us in the street. Such persons forget all small promises which they have made; they leave unexecuted all orders which they have received; they prove themselves unreliable in little things; and at the same time demand that we shall not take these slight offences amiss – that is, they do not want us to attribute these failings to personal characteristics but to refer them to an organic peculiarity. I am not one of these people myself, and have had no opportunity to analyse the actions of such a person in order to discover from the selection of forgetting the motive underlying the same. I cannot forego, however, the conjecture per analogiam, that here the motive is an unusually large amount of unavowed disregard for others which exploits the constitutional factor for its purpose.
With this in mind, I thought back over all the instances I can recall of the professors I work with being absent-minded in ways that have affected me. And I asked myself, how many times did their oversight work in my favour, versus how many times did it serve to advance their own interests? For instance, how many times have colleagues who owed me money forgotten that fact, versus how many times have they forgotten when I owed them money? I am tempted to say “always” and “never,” although that would be a slight exaggeration, and in any case, I learned very quickly never to spot any money to a university professor – you’ll never see it again. In general, if you start to keep tabs, you’ll find that professors sometimes inconvenience themselves by being absent-minded, but far more often it is others who are being inconvenienced, or in some cases, are being hung out to dry.
One other thing. Men are far, far worse than women. Social deviance theory explains that quite well – women simply have a harder time getting away with it than men do, the same way they have a harder time getting students to shut up in their classrooms. They are more likely to get, or are more afraid of getting, the “what are you, stupid?” response, and so they are less bold in their effrontery.
Pierre Bourdieu used to complain about what he called the “ideology of natural taste” in the domain of aesthetics. People treat their own “taste” as thought it were merely a given, a fact about them, or something dictated by the world. And yet this taste just happens to coincide – miraculously! – with their precise class position and status ambitions. The same is true with respect to absent-mindedness. People treat it as a feature of their brains, that they are powerless to control, and yet those who exhibit the trait just happen to find themselves – miraculously! – in the privileged social position where they suffer no adverse consequences from these lapses of memory.
The more plausible explanation, in both cases, is that people are making “moves” in a game, one that involves status competition and dominance. Their understanding of this game is often implicit, and so there is often no explicit calculation underlying these moves. Nevertheless, a simple cui bono analysis is sufficient to lay bare what is going on. Thanks to this analysis, I have come to see absent-mindedness as essentially a form of male dominance behavior, and I respond to it as such. It really has given me a better grasp of the social dynamics at my workplace.