A bowed head won't be cut by the sword
In which I muse about what kind of equality/hierarchy is accepted in ex-Eastern Bloc Romania vs Western UK and how this might be relevant to some heated and very online debates
“It’s always me and the boy parents who get singled out by the class teacher”, my mom used to complain to me. In Romania, the class teacher would hold monthly meetings with the parents, to discuss various issues. After the general meeting, she would identify certain parents for additional discussions. These parents, aware that the conversation would likely involve negative news about their children, would form a line, a sort of "queue of shame," with their eyes downcast in anticipation of the impending conversation. The parents who got singled out were overwhelmingly those of boys. That’s because boys usually broke things or fought with each other or did all sorts of stuff like that. And then, there was me. I have never been violent or particularly naughty in the classical sense. But I did something else… I annoyed teachers by contradicting them & skipping classes; I was bored by most of the things I studied in school (I still got good grades in tests, kek). When I did not skip classes, I either read under the desk or “corrupted” whoever happened to be my deskmate into talking about random stuff.
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The most notable such incident was in 9th grade when I really, really annoyed my Computer Science teacher (who at the time was also my class teacher). This became a school-wide scandal. One day, he begun his class by telling us all there is “a problem in our midst”. Then he proceeded to talk about all the ways in which our class had been corrupted into disobedience by a nefarious element, “a seed of all evil”, as he called it. About 30 mins in his tirade, he revealed who this seed of all evil was: Ruxandra! I asked him: “Can I defend myself?”. Reply: “No, you can go outside and talk to the wall”. “I am going to go outside and talk to the wall then”, I said, got up and exited the classroom. In that moment it seemed incomprehensible to me that I could have done anything but that. What was expected of me? Sit there and be shamed with no possibility of retort? But of course everyone else thought otherwise; the sin of confronting him in that way was one I was gonna pay for. He quickly spread the word about what I did among all the other teachers, careful to add some exaggerations to the story. In no time, I became a legend": “Ruxandra got up and started screaming randomly at the teacher” the story went. Other teachers started using me as a cautionary example, telling their students not to emulate my behavior. For about a year, I felt like an outcast at school, embarrassed to walk through the corridors under everyone's watchful gaze. Interestingly, there were other students at my school who committed objectively worse acts, like physical fights and property damage. You might question why my act of verbal defiance was deemed more serious. The reason is simple: in Romania, there's a deeply ingrained hierarchy regarding who is allowed to challenge whom. Directly contradicting someone of higher status is a significant breach of this social order. Those who caused physical damage, on the other hand, adhered to a key social norm in their responses – they would humbly apologize, with their heads bowed and eyes downcast. “A bowed head won't be cut by the sword" as the famous Romanian proverb says.
Fast forward more than a decade after, I am in the UK. And I constantly (politely) contradict people with decades of experience and with tens of thousands of citations, mostly on scientific matters. Me, a nobody. The difference between this intellectual environment and the one I grew up in couldn’t be more stark. There’s a sort of presumption of baseline equality here that is being enforced culturally. Deirdre McCloskey, in discussing "bourgeois equality," focuses on the idea that the respect for and equal treatment of all people, particularly in economic, social spheres and intellectual spheres, has been pivotal in driving economic growth and societal improvements. She argues that when individuals, regardless of their class or background, are given equal respect and opportunities, particularly in entrepreneurial and innovative endeavours, it leads to widespread economic and social benefits. According to her, this has been key to the success of the West.
Somewhat ironically, while accepting hierarchy, Romanians are much more intolerant of other forms of inequality. It’s a country plagued by “tall poppy syndrome”, where very competent people are constantly dragged down and subverted, while the mediocre and the incompetent cling to their titles in rotting and highly hierarchical bureaucracies. Might there be a “Law of Conservation of Total Inequality” at play? Can society only cope with certain amounts of inequality and what matters is how this gets distributed?
These musings were triggered by a response to one of my tweets where I opine on the latest twitter drama1:
This is the reply that made me think about all this:
Is the denial of their elitism by Harvard Professors just part of the centuries old Anglo tradition that led to the prosperity we see today? Has it somehow been perverted?These are all things to ponder…
Basically a couple of Harvard grads are arguing over whether Harvard Extension School is actually “real Harvard”, revealing themselves very elitist in the process